Musical characteristics

May 19, 2020, 10:34 AM · Hello,
This is something I've been thinking about for a little while.
What makes certain music come from certain countries? As in what makes French music French, Polish music Polish etc.?
I find it really intriguing. How would you bring out these features while playing?


Replies (26)

Edited: May 19, 2020, 10:40 AM · Nationality of composers and influence from styles of music that are specific to that region. (Like folk from that country and etc)

Edit: another example would be the gavotte, which is a French dance

Edited: May 19, 2020, 11:10 AM · Look into the rise of nationalism and music. Folk elements were always there but it became a 'thing' later in the 19th century.

edit: maybe you're asking ' Can white man sing the blues?' I'd say probably not.

May 19, 2020, 12:41 PM · It has a lot to do with harmonic patterns and ornamentation. Playing style can have something to do with it, although that aspect doesn’t necessarily translate onto the written page.

Familiarity with the style of a certain region is much more of a determining factor than place of birth. This is why it’s possible for composers to adopt different styles through study and travel.

May 19, 2020, 12:51 PM · Hi,
often, it refers to the way the music is played. Sometimes, I am not sure whether these characteristics are true or just prejudices that most musicians agree on.

So, sometimes, conductors tell us to play more "French", and what they mean is basically to use more bow speed to get that kind of airy light sound quality. And not to be too exact.
Or, not to play "too German". Which means not to play in a stupid metronomic kind of way, clumsily stressing every beat. One should be able to laugh at oneself, but still, I find it somewhat annoying, being member of a German orchestra, consisting of players of dozens of countries, to hear this advice from a foreign guest conductor. But it works, as everybody knows what he means. :-) Maybe, this is used to trigger the orchestra's self critique mechanisms - to play "German" is always used in a negative sense, in Germany, but maybe the American orchestras are told not to play "too American", whatever that might mean, and the Japanese or French orchestras not to play "too Japanese, or French", repsectively, and so on.

Some of it is also a matter of marketing: When we play a Spanish program with a Spanish guest conductor, he is assumed to be an expert in how the music is to be played.

Which, of course, might be true for good conductors, but then, a good conductor (or player) should be able to make a good interpretation, no matter where he is from. A very good English conductor can lead a far better performance of a Spanish piece than a mediocre Spanish conductor.

What is true, though, is that, as a result of the different languages and folk tunes, different regions of the world have developed a different kind of agogics, and this is not always easy to copy when you don't have that background. I had an Austrian teacher, and the way he interpreted Kreisler, was phenomenal. It was interesting to learn from him how to handle the tempo variations.

And I myself have a partly Hungarian background, not speaking the language, but grown up with Hungarian children's songs, and LOTS of Bartok. It sometimes surprises me how much others struggle to find a good way of shaping melodies by Kodaly, for example, which to me seem self explanatory.

But this is also true to different types of music, folk music, or jazz. I can learn an Irish fiddle piece including the slurs and slides, if I have to, but it would probably sound as if I had a foreign accent. It would feel like speaking a foreign language, to me, too. To adapt well takes a very long time.

May 19, 2020, 3:55 PM · Emily what you said makes complete sense.^_^
Edited: May 19, 2020, 10:31 PM · I'm partial to the idea that the interpretation of nationalistic music can benefit by taking into account the characteristics of the language, like Emily mentions with Hungarian, and the stress almost always being placed on the first syllable, which can often sound really contrary to what someone coming from a different language might expect, and if the stresses aren't notated in the music, you can end up with VERY different results (even sometimes when they are notated).

One of my pet peeves is the playing of Chopin's Mazurkas by almost all non-Polish players. Polish players tend to get the particular nuances of placing stresses on the second beat, but irregularly, whereas a more "international" style of pianism tends to maybe place the characteristic accent too regularly, or they tend to wash out that stress entirely, and it almost comes out like a waltz - To my ears, it sounds positively insipid. I quite like Michelangeli, but I don't think he gets the mazurkas, and it's not even a guarantee among Polish pianists. For example, I don't care for Rubenstein's interpretations (I'm not a big fan of Rubenstein's Chopin in general), but I tend to hear more idiomatic playing from Polish players, although I think exposure to the mazur, kujawiak and oberek dances, from which the mazurka is stylized may be more of the key than any particular trait of the Polish language.

Some people might say that there are valid different ways to play them, and that it's legitimate to stress Chopin's Frenchness, even in the mazurkas, but I just don't buy it. It's like some kind of weird pianistic "Mid-Atlantic" accent - Fine for Katherine Hepburn and telephone operators. I can't fathom what people who play them that way even see in the pieces, which are my favorite part of the Chopin repertoire.

One non-Polish pianist who does seem to get it, interestingly enough, is Fou Ts'ong. He stretches and contracts with exquisite sensitivity, and just nails the "accent". My favorite player of the mazurkas is Witold Malcuzynski, who is pretty unheard of in the US.

May 19, 2020, 10:54 PM · Thats an interesting viewpoint there Christian
May 19, 2020, 11:37 PM · I just listened to a recording on utube of Witold M, being familiar with the first Mazurka and yes the “accent” is quite different to the way I remember my mother playing it.
May 20, 2020, 5:39 AM · Some curious comments, especially about mazurkas and Chopin's music, and various interpretations. Isn't music supposed to be an interpretive art? Aren't we allowed to play the music as we feel it sounds best to our artistic sensibilities? So if a person playing a mazurka has no first-hand knowledge of Polish language, are they not allowed to play it? Some people have described the Boston Symphony as having a "French" orchestra sound, as opposed to a "German" orchestra sound. Does that mean they shouldn't play any Germanic music, even though they might use a more delicate French approach?
Diversity in interpretation is part of what makes music such a great art -- we like an individual's interpretation or we don't like it. I don't feel our like/dislike should be based on how authentic the music feels to its national origin. I think how we judge music should be based on how it makes us *feel* and whether we enjoy that feeling or not.
If a piece entitled 'Mazurka' were played by a person who knows nothing about Polish language or musical tradition, would some of you not like it because the interpretation didn't follow the national patterns of Poland? How about if instead of calling it 'Mazurka' it were entitled 'Evening on the Vistula' would you like the same interpretation better?
The title, in my opinion, shouldn't shape our like/dislike of a performance. It should only be how the music moves us as we listen to it.
May 20, 2020, 6:01 AM · There is such a thing as a local culture (although it is no longer politically correct in some circles), and, to answer the original question, you probably can only really know it if you grew up within it as a child, or if you at least really lived in it for an extended period. Local cultures are slowly but surely diluting as globalisation progresses. In the case of music interpretation as discussed here, it will then indeed become just a way of interpreting that can be passed over by teachers, fellow musicians, etc.
May 20, 2020, 6:35 AM · Interpretation counts for much. Listen to recordings of Dvorak's "New World" symphony by orchestras from Prague and Boston to hear what local culture does to music.
Edited: May 20, 2020, 9:01 AM · Music becomes "Russian music" (just an example) if there is a critical mass of Russian composers who studied together and influenced one another such that there are stylistic commonalities among them. Here, of course, I am thinking of "The Five". Of course they were contemporaries of Tchaikovsky and were influenced by him (and likely by Glinka too), but they were intentional in their promotion of a "Russian" style of music that was also anti-elitist.

Much the same thing happened in French impressionism. When the composers (or painters) live together, talk to one another, show their work at the same exhibits, and so on, there is a great deal of cross-pollination because the best among them are also the most intellectually curious and sensitively perceptive and can easily pick up a trick or two from colleagues while simultaneously pushing the frontier in their own individual way.

Later Russian composers -- Prokofiev and Shostakovitch, for example -- might be connected to the earlier "Russian" style if one can ascribe stylistic influences of Russian predecessors. To the extent that these connections are made securely, the style becomes both better defined and broader at the same time. It's very hard to be objective about the influence of "The Five" on Shostakovitch, however, once one already has learned that they are all Russians. That's when you start finding things that aren't really there.

Music is often called "distinctly American" if it is clearly influenced by American jazz. Certainly that is true of Gershwin and Copeland. And their influence, in turn, on John Williams seems obvious. Or is it? It's very hard to exclude bias!

To call Chopin "Polish" music is a big stretch. His Mazurkas are, and good points about those were made earlier in this thread, although I don't buy the idea that only Poles can play them properly (or that only Viennese can play waltzes). What were Chopin's Polish influences? And didn't Chopin himself aspire to be musically Parisian? Were Moszkowski and Paderewski influenced more by Chopin or by the Russians?

Sometimes people say that the music of Beethoven is "Germanic." But it starts to lose its meaning once one pulls back the curtain on relatively sophomoric stereotypes of German people being rigid disciplinarians who eat dense bread.

In the end we find the circular definitions the most compelling: It's Turkish music if it's similar to other Turkish music.

May 20, 2020, 9:06 AM · So what do you guys think: Is Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole more French or more Spanish? How about Iberia, Carmen, and Bolero-- French or Spanish? How does identity politics play into which answer you choose (if it does at all)? Discuss and debate. :)
May 20, 2020, 9:21 AM · Jocelyn I find Symphonie Espagnol and Sarsate to be extremely Spanish. Bolero I find French. I don't know the other
Edited: May 21, 2020, 6:30 AM · Local modes, cadences and harmonic progressions, local dance rhythms, local instruments.
A guitar/oud can shift the left hand one fret in a way that music theory can't describe. You can ape it with an orchestra, but originally it was just a natural thing to do on a guitar in the right mode. (I don't mean barring, I mean play an A chord or an E chord, then shift the three fingers up a fret)
There seem to be lots of semitonal progressions in French café music too. Is it a feature of the push-button squeeze-box?
A lot of exoticism is just aping, therefore indeterminate. There was aping of Turkish stuff in the 18th century (not just Mozart's Rondo a la Turca), wasn't there? Some of these apings become fusions. Some of Europe was in the Ottoman empire.
As to cadences, Bartok's music can end on a dominant.
There aren't just Mazurkas, there are Mazolkas. There are other triple-time things I can't remember the names of.
I don't pretend to understand the question. Just spewing it out in case it's relevant, lol!
Edited: May 20, 2020, 6:29 PM · David, if people like hearing Chopin with a mid-Atlantic accent, then more power to them. If they've been hearing watered-down interpretations their whole life, then they may not like the real deal. Of course, the response to that is, "who is to say what the real deal is?". A piece can support a variety of valid interpretations, and some music can support more variety of interpretation, I would argue that Bach is abstract and universal in that it travels between instruments pretty well, and I'm not aware of the influence of folk traditions in the writing. Chopin has written some more international music, but the mazurkas are the most rooted in folk tradition. They derive from Polish national dances, so while Chopin was a cosmopolitan composer, and you wouldn't see peasants dancing to his mazurkas, someone may come to try and play them in good faith by not addressing that aspect, but they are missing a great deal of context that will serve to enrich their interpretation - They are playing out of ignorance of knowledge which they could acquire. And you can hear it in their interpretations which add nothing of value, but do then do serve as interpretive models for further musicians and listeners, who might grasp some of the profundity of the pieces despite the flavorlessness of the interpretations, but not realize what the pieces can really say. And then those same people will hear them played in a way that would make sense to a Pole and think they sound bizarre.

I realize my point may be taken as snobbery, but I'm trying to make a point that "interpreters" who don't want to bother interrogating the nationalism in the mazurkas are likely to come up with something that would get them laughed out of the house in Poland, although I'm not sure the Polish audience would be all that sophisticated any more. I think Michelangeli makes a good faith effort to play the notes on the page according to his very musical and probing logic, and I think he fails in his execution, and does not really have the context for the pieces. Maybe it's really a question of a certain feel that some musicians resonate with certain pieces.

Paul, this is reflected in Chopin's own performance tradition. I think he can be both very French and very Polish, without one diminishing the other. I think there is a difference in the way that Chopin treats his mazurkas from how Liszt treats Hungarian music. You can see the resonance between Chopin's treatment and how later Polish composers' (Szymanowski) treat the form, whereas the Hungarian music of Bartok and Kodaly stands greatly in contrast to Liszt and Brahms's treatments of nationalism, because the folk influence is clear in Bartok and Kodaly, and Liszt and Brahms were working with Hungarian themes that were not so much coming from a folk tradition as more coming out of the popular music of the day.

"Chopin played his mazurkas with a rubato so free that some took it to be erratic timing. Meyerbeer called on Chopin one day while he was playing the Mazurka Op 63 No 3, took a seat and commented that Chopin was playing in 2/4. No, Chopin insisted, he was playing in 3/4. No, countered Meyerbeer calmly, beating time, it’s in 2/4. Chopin, who normally never raised his voice, is then reported to have screamed in rage at the suggestion he was playing in anything other than strict time. The two composers held their own and, sadly, parted on bad terms. On another occasion some years later, Karl Halle (better known subsequently as Sir Charles Hallé) made the same observation as Meyerbeer, suggesting that a particular mazurka appeared to be written in 4/4. He obviously caught Chopin in a better mood, for while Chopin initially denied that he was playing in 4/4, in the end had to admit that Halle was right, laughing that it was ‘the national character of the dance which created the oddity’." - From Hyperion's site for Garrick Ohlsson's recording of the mazurkas (who, as I listen to his interpretation, sounds like he reckoned with this puzzling aspect of the music, to his credit, and his interpretation sounds good to my ears)

Here is a thesis that gets at this issue, and mentions the Meyerbeer story and goes more in depth with Chopin's experiences as a teen spending summers in the regions where these folk dances come from and actually playing in folk ensembles. You can't deny what he is going for here - This isn't the cosplay version of nationalism that is Chabrier's Espana.

Here's my favorite Mazurka, played by Malcuzynski. In the B section, you can note the presence of the Lydian mode (raised 4th degee of the scale), which is common in Polish folk music.

And since I'm on a tear, here's a great version of a few of Szymanowski's mazurkas, which I will take over Hamelin's any day.

Edited: May 20, 2020, 1:37 PM · As from ~ Elisabeth Matesky / Carrier of the Heifetz-Milstein Legacy of Violin Playing & Teaching

Re: Musical Characteristics

After astonishingly reading all Replies thus far, Wednesday, May 20, '20, I'm shocked by comments re not liking Artur Rubinstein's interpretations of Chopin & especially Chopin Mazurka's!! Really!!?? Being of Polish Birthsoil, Rubinstein grew up on the Land of Poland, inherited 'Polish DNA' from his parents; & a 'tiny' little overlooked here thus far, TALENT in abundance for music & musical interpretation!! Near the end of his 95 years of life, Artur Rubinstein, in a rare Interview, said: "I'm an old fashioned sort of Pianist,
unlike the younger ones who play faster & more furiously! I love the Music & try not to interfere too much with the genius of Chopin, kissing the ivories of every note & phrase Chopin wrote but with Love. So I'm an old fashioned pianist not seeking fame." Is anyone here qualified to play Chopin, Brahms or Rachmaninoff or Mendelssohn Better than Artur Rubinstein & in Piano Trios w/my late Violin Mentor, Jascha Heifetz & Chamber Music Coach, Gregor Piatigorsky?? With the door wide open to the lovely garden outside of Piatigorsky's chamber music room, the Million Dollar Trio was rehearsing Mendelsdohn's Piano Trio 2nd & 3rd movements, with a stunned Japanese gardener & housekeeper + a few neighbour's silently listening to achingly beautiful strains of Mendelssohn, a German born composer, being brought to Life by a Polish Pianist & 2 Russian born String Icon's!!! Music making, dear people, is a sixth sense God given Talent of Ear, one's seamless not obvious techniques on chosen instrument & attitude minus Ego. Whether Brahms, born in the Heart of German Romantic Music tradition, & out of unrequited love from Clara Schumann, widow of Robert Schumann, who embraced Johannes Brahms as (Quote) "One of the 3 B's:Bach, Beethoven & Brahms" to then little known of younger Brahms by his own countrymen, later lifted up to Royal Composer Status w/Bach & Ludwig van Beethoven, composed deeply felt passionate composition oozing from the inner depths of his Soul, is the Question of Musical Charateristics germaine? Me Thinks ~ NO yet YES only in a traditional classical, romantic, early Contemporary & later flam flam air-head dusts of composition sense! Does Jascha Heifetz disqualify from playing the most glorious heart wrenching 'Havanaise' of a lover French born Composer, Camille Saint Saens?? Or Finnish born Jean Sibelius's Violin Concerto?! I fail to see any sense or imagination being brought in to the Discusision excepting an essay by Emily F, who tells us of Conductors, now, saying this or that orchestra is 'too French', i.e., Boston Symphony, maybe a 'touch' under Charles Munch! But What!? Whomever these newer to me Conductor's are, they or many of them, are over - under 'educated' to a point of immunization of pure human emotions and feelings ~ How Insane is this?? And I guess Sir Georg Solti (my former Boss) being
Hungarian born, could Not conduct Wagner's Ring because Solti wasn't brought up in pre - Hitler's German Reich?? Egads, People!!! Where is the pendulum swinging???

Go Feel what you "feel" minus apologies if a thoroughly cultured person & musician & rub out these seeking fame & fortune counterfeit Conductor's who are trying to Divide & Conquer Great Music and All Music's Emotions stir in us!! Good Grief: We, the People's of The World, need Greatness to cling to Minus Politik B. S. ~

Remember: "God is not the Author of Confusion" (Stay on Main Highway of Music & its Variations of Composition which Move Hearts of Humankind ~ )

Elisabeth Matesky *



May 20, 2020, 12:33 PM · I couldn't agree more, Elisabeth!
Edited: May 20, 2020, 1:55 PM · Having lost All I wrote re The Question of Jake, I'll just say after reading the 15 plus Replies here, as an artist-pupil of Jascha Heifetz's original Violin Master Classes at USC's Institute for Special Music Studies, which were subsequently filmed & now on YouTube, I am dumbfounded by some of the
comments & certainly by one who thinks Arthur Rubinstein's Chopin is not good preferring an Italian Master to that of authentically Polish born in the Soil of Chopin's birth,Rubinstein! What??!! I had the privilege of performing with Arthur Rubinstein at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, playing a glorious
Chopin Piano Concerto & afterward playing a Violin/Piano Sonata together ~ To break down musical Talent & Instints after Mastery of an Instrument seems heresy to me ~

Whomever the Conductor's who are lesser known or unknown in America, are telling musicians in a German Orchestra they sound 'too French' or in other orchestras 'they' may get to one-time stand over on the podium, 'too German' & one presumes playing Music of their birth-soil, has or have a (as we say in the UK) 'bloody cheek' & sound to me, (by now a veteran concert player/Carrier of the Heifetz-Milstein Legacy of Violin Playing & Teaching), Counterfeit Conductor's trying to attract the ire of accomplished orchestral musicians to gain P.R., which is the lowliest form of musicianship. Period.

As a few known to me Correspondents have commented, there are some very strange things being said here and it concerns me deeply about the possible lack of Humanity & Soul in Music now starting to infect Healthy Attitudes of those Great's in Composition; Violin, & String Cousin's + Piano;
and spreading like the Covid-19 Virus across the World of Healthy Music making & Music Teaching by newer generations knowing little about 'Truths we hold to be self evident' throughout Ages of Great Classical, Romantic, early Contemporary & specific later 20th Century Composition ... 'Airhead'
dusts of flam flam dots or notes on a piece of manuscript paper doesn't cut it with the Core Musical World - Yet!!!

In closing, I would advise Emily F, to Beware of On Podium w/Baton's who accuse of 'too French' or 'too German' & especially if a German Orchestra is playing Brahms, or French Orchestra is in the midst of the Saint Saens Organ Symphony, etc., etc., & Etc.! Listen for Quality rather than politickish
regions. If performing the Brahms Violin Concerto, know well the Hungarian influences in the 3rd Movement but also know Brahms dedicated his Violin Concerto to Joachim, who with Brahms loving permission, composed the Cadenza's & later on, Viennese Grand Violinist/Composer, Fritz Kreisler, composed his Cadenza's to the Brahms Violin Concerto in 'concert' with Brahmsian Style!!

@Christian Lesniak ~ Yes! Your posts are hard to discern!

That's All for now, dear Folks!!

Elisabeth Matesky **



Edited: May 20, 2020, 1:23 PM · Don't worry Elisabeth. My posts can be really hard to read.

I was saying I don't care for Rubenstein's mazurkas and I ALSO don't care for Michelangeli's, even though I quite like Michelangeli as a player in general, and I quite like Rubenstein's late output when he buckled down and started practicing - Any of his chamber music with Szeryng is just perfect.

I don't even like Rubenstein playing Szymanowski mazurkas that were dedicated to him. I think Szymanowski was a much more nuanced and sensitive player.

I appreciate the slam poetry though.

Edited: May 20, 2020, 11:46 PM · Elizabeth, I am with you. I adore Rubinstein. I inherited that from my dad. For me the most perfect Rubinstein is the No. 1 Ballade (the G Minor) -- an absolute masterpiece of power and elegance. Horowitz too -- from Scarlatti to Scriabin.

Scriabin! Chopin's influence on him is too obvious to ignore. And those chords! Surely Scriabin must have been French ...

By the way Elizabeth if you have not read Rubinstein's memoirs, I recommend them, they are very entertaining and funny sometimes! A bit long but these days we have time, don't we?

Christian if you like Anna Szalucka (and it's hard not to), she has a nice album called "A Century of Polish Piano Miniatures."

May 21, 2020, 2:22 AM · I love how cancerous this form is, reading this actually makes me feel a little better about myself:).
Edited: May 21, 2020, 6:53 AM · In the 70s Rubinstein's 1965 Chopin walzes and nocturnes on vinyl were indispensible (albeit perhaps because they were conveniently packaged and cheap too). I bought the nocturnes again on CD 5 years ago, but I've only listened to them once.
Edited: May 21, 2020, 1:15 PM · Look at Xuanyuan, strutting over there with his benign tumor!

I think reading Rubenstein's memoir really turned me off to him, although it doesn't stop me from liking his late stuff. He himself talks all the time about his lack of practice as a young man (which may be hyperbolic and part of his (annoying) self-presentation), but me thinking his early recordings are pretty sloppy doesn't take away from the fact that he was bringing stuff to the table.

Also not a big fan of Richter (he was a basher, Gilels was the better Neuhaus student, and Neuhaus was even better than the superlative Gilels (Lupu is no slouch either)), and I never really got into Horowitz. Neuhaus himself left a suicide note after hearing Rubenstein premier a Szymanowski sonata, convinced that he should just pack it up, so there must have been something to Rubenstein's playing. Maybe it just doesn't come through in his early recordings...

Paul, I think Scriabin was more of an interdimensional being.

I will check more Szalucka out!

The greatest legacy of Rubenstein, as we all know, is that the guy from Burn Notice is his grandson - I think we can all agree on that point!

May 21, 2020, 3:07 PM · Weston looks better clean-shaven. Much better.
May 22, 2020, 8:36 PM · The 2019 winner of both the Old Time fiddle category and the Best Overall performer at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention was a man from Oslo, Norway.

I find this particularly interesting for two reasons; for one, the most frequent criticism of the competition in Galax is that the winners tend to be from that area—when Mark O’Connor went to Galax to compete, he was refused entrance by the officials because they feared he would win and cause a riot in the town. The second is that this is an excellent example of the idea that familiarity with a style is more important than birthplace. If you look back through the results for several previous years, you can see that the 2019 winner made his way up the ladder. I think his win in the oldest fiddle competition is evidence of mastery of a style that was foreign to him.

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