01 December 2003

Romanian folk music

Although I know best the tradition of Greek folk music, I have long had an affinity for Romanian folk music as well. The Romanians live north of the Danube River and speak a Romance language derived from Latin. Given the linguistic origins of their language, Romanians see themselves as descendants of Roman settlers in the province of Dacia in the first centuries of the christian era. Throughout the Ottoman centuries the Danubian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia were ruled by nonhereditary Greek princes from Constantinople, known as Phanariotes, who governed as vassals of the Sultan. In the 19th century Romanians in those provinces largely succeeded in freeing themselves from Ottoman rule, while their ethnic compatriots in Transylvania continued to live under Habsburg rule until 1919. After the Great War a greatly enlarged Romania emerged, including territory annexed from Austria-Hungary and Russia. Although Romanians are proud of their linguistic connections with France, Spain and Italy, they are primarily Orthodox Christian by religion, with a minority belonging to a Byzantine-rite church in communion with Rome.


The country's folk music is sufficiently distinctive that it cannot simply be grouped with that of its neighbours. Most notable are the uses of the panflute and a stringed instrument called the cimbalom. Like other Balkan music, it sometimes employs irregular time signatures, such as 5/4 or 5/8 time, but unlike, say, Spanish or Greek music, it generally avoids the phrygian mode and tends to gravitate towards a composite lydian/mixolydian mode. This makes it sound less characteristically middle eastern in flavour. (See here for a description of the musical modes.)

A number of serious composers have drawn on the Romanian folk tradition in their own music, most notably Béla Bartók (1881-1945), Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), and George Enescu (1881-1955). Bartók and Kodály were Hungarian musicologists and composers who travelled throughout pre-Great War Hungary collecting the folk melodies of the peasants on gramophone records shortly after the beginning of the 20th century. Bartók's own compositions showed the influence of the central and east European folk traditions, although he never directly quoted actual folk tunes. His Romanian Folk Dances are simply written in the style of this music. By contrast, Enescu liberally quoted Romanian folk songs in his two Romanian Rhapsodies, the first of which is probably the better known.

Here is an example of a Romanian folk song: The Hora Martisorului. In the tradition of Bartók and Kodály, I myself have composed a piece in the Romanian folk idiom, which I have called Bucharest ( © 2000 by David T. Koyzis).

Today two countries consider Romanian their official language: Romania itself and the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

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