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Introduction to Traditional Lithuanian Songs
Musical folklore of the Belorussian Polessye
The Carpathians, traditional music and contemporary youth



Introduction to Traditional Lithuanian Songs
Rytis Ambrazevieius
Translated by Elena Bradunas Aglinskas

If you were to ask a Lithuanian about his country's traditional culture, you would most likely hear about Lithuanian songs and love of singing. Only a few decades ago, most women of Dzukija (Southern Lithuania) still knew a hundred songs; the most accomplished singers remembered as many as four hundred. There is a saying that people sang more than they spoke. Songs were handed down from generation to generation, exchanged among villages and changed or augmented during these processes. As a result, many songs possess numerous textual and melodic variants. The largest archive of Lithuanian folklore contains over 400,000 collected songs.

Lithuanians, generally not known for outwardly expressive natures, would say that their folk songs reflect a broad spectrum of moods, but usually stop short of extreme joy or deep sorrow. However, visitors to the country notice these songs' lyricism and intimate nature. J.W.Goethe said of them, "Grave sorrow blankets these songs". Lithuanian songs depict the more dignified aspects of family and community relationships as well as contacts with nature.

From ancient times, the guardians and creators of Lithuanian songs have been women, therefore it is not surprising that they often reflect female points of view. The texts are lyrical (but seldom epic) narratives in which monologues and dialogues intertwine. They are full of metaphor and mythological symbolism. Abundant diminutive word forms lend the songs gentleness and intimacy. The characters that inhabit Lithuanian folk songs are simple and few in number: mother, girl, ploughman, reapers and so forth. The time and location of the action is usually ambiguous, for example "in father's manor" or "beyond deep seas, green forests and high mountains". Several types of parallels are universally present in song texts. Many examples contain especially poetic textual branches in which people are represented by nature: mother by the sun or linden tree, father by the moon or oak tree and so forth.

Even today, if you were to ask a village woman to sing a rye harvesting song in the winter she would be quite astonished. Many songs were connected to specific moments or actions. This accounts for the diversity of Lithuanian song genres including work, calendar cycle, wedding, christening, children's, feasting, war-historical and others. Other songs did not have any ritualistic or tradition-specific function, i.e. they were sung anytime. Those songs are thematically classified into songs of youth, songs of love, and songs of family life.

Once you could hear one singer improvise a recited lullaby (which she wouldn't even call a song) and the next moment perform a refined melody which dominated the text, even changing its stresses. At gatherings, everyone usually sang together, often in unison or in two voices. In newer, more popular double-voiced songs, the second voice follows the lead melody which is sung by one person or a group. The second voice is usually a third, or sometimes a fifth or fourth below the main melody. In other words, it follows the melody with these main supporting tones.

Some song genres are widespread throughout all of Lithuania.

Wedding songs are the most popular type throughout the country; several of them have as many as 1000 recorded variants. Popular all over Lithuania are children's songs, feast songs, and songs dealing with themes of youth, love and family. But in general song genres and singing techniques varied among the various song types and ethnic regions. Dzukija (Southern Lithuania) boasts the richest wealth of songs in Lithuania, representing many genres and variations of melody types. With little exception, the only surviving calendar cycle songs are found in Dzukija. Southern Dzkija is exceptional in the number of Advent and Christmas songs that can still be found there. Many Shrovetide, St. George's day and swinging songs arose from the small area of eastern Dzukija. Archaic antiphonic songs performed by two alternating groups of singers were also native to this area.

Single-voiced (or heterophonic) and solo songs are common throughout Dzukija. Solo singing is characterized by its individuality. One flexible melody can have many variants which acquire new meandering elements from one singer and time to the next. Wedding and burial laments are sorrowful, drawn out improvisations. Double voiced songs of later origin are also characteristic of Dzukija.

Today, songs from a wide variety of modes only exist in Dzukija; in addition to the widely known major and minor, these include the phrygian and other ancient (so-called Greek) modes.

Two types of multiple-voiced songs, centuries apart in age, are characteristic of Aukotaitija (Eastern Lithuania). Ancient sutartines, unique to northeastern Aukotaitija still survived at the beginning of the twentieth century. In contrast, newer two-voiced songs with simple rhythms, meters and major modes are still popular in Aukotaitija today. Although the songs of Aukotaitija cannot compare in variety to those of Dzukija, many types common throughout Lithuania as well as some unique genres exist in this region. These include valiavimai (hay harvesting songs performed by men), flax-working and resounding feasting songs. They were especially common in northwest Aukotaitija which is also famous for its delicious home-brewed beer.

Double and triple voiced singing, similar to that of Aukotaitija is popular in Suvalkija, the smallest ethnic region (Southwestern Lithuania). However, some ancient single-voiced songs similar to those of Dzukija and eastern Prussia still survive.

Firmness and slowness of ?emaieiai people (Western Lithuania) is also reflected in the region's songs. Though they are in major modes and double-voiced similarly to those of Aukotaitija, many of their rhythms are more complicated, unstructured and uneven, much like the speech of ?emaitija's inhabitants. The melodies are drawn out, with grace notes and are sometimes chromatic. It is almost impossible to convey the true character of these songs in musical notation. Songs from ?emaitija cover only a narrow spectrum of genres and their melodic styles are most characteristically monolithic. Although Lithuania is divided into four major ethnic regions (Aukstaitija, Zemaitija, Dzukija and Suvalkija), one particularly distinct subregion - called Lithuania Minor - deserves special mention.

For many centuries, Lutheran Lietuvininkai lived separately from Catholic Lithuania in this small portion of ?emaitija (around Klaipeda) and in former Prussian territory conquered by Germany. Religion and dependence on the sea formed the chilly characters and ascetic way of life of Lithuania Minor's inhabitants.

The presence of words such as fisherman, boat and sea in song texts and sorrowful single-voiced melodies reflect the hardships of life by the sea. Unfortunately, these songs mostly disappeared long ago, and can only be reconstructed through the collections of the 19th century. Their melodies are astonishingly subtle, calm and freely flowing with unexpected modal shifts, chromatism and ambiguous modes. Often the variety of modes in this region's songs eclipses those of Dzukija. In style the melodies somewhat resemble those of Dzukija, Suvalkija and ?emaitija. It appears that such forms had once been much more widespread in these regions. Lithuania Minor's songs also reflect much German influence.

When describing this rich collection of Lithuanian folk songs we are primarily speaking of songs which were recorded in the past and songs which were sung in a natural context of everyday life up to about the middle of the 20th century. The repertoire has survived quite well in the memory of older people throughout rural Lithuania. The songs continue to be sung on special occasions, and are recorded and documented during ethnographic expeditions. Rural folklore ensembles avidly incorporate them into their repertoire, and folksong enthusiasts in urban centers learn them just as eagerly. In this way the songs are revived and given a new life at festivals and celebrations.

Rytis Ambrazevieius
Translated by Elena Bradunas Aglinskas

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