Rhythm and folk music

In this article from the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 June 1937, Huberman discusses the basis of musical expression.

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A Great Violinist

Bronislaw Huberman has established himself in Sydney as an artist of commanding force and stature. At each of his three Town Hall appearances, the audience has responded electrically to his surging interpretations of the classics. It is doubtful whether any earlier visiting violinist, even among the great ones, has attacked this music in such uncompromising and shattering fashion. Only the most superb mastery of tone, of rhythmic effects, and of swift transitions could have held Tuesday night’s reading of the Bach Chaconne within the bounds of a unified and organized intellectual scheme. Had a player of lesser attainments assailed the work with anything approaching this vehemence, it would have fallen apart into a struggling chaos.

In order to penetrate to the spring of this torrential energy, one has naturally to take into account the native temperament of the player. In the long run, Huberman enunciates Bach and Brahms with such colossal energy simply because he must. But great conceptions and great driving force are not sufficient in themselves. In the course of a lifetime’s study, every artist evolves for himself certain principles, according to which he regulates his work. These principles are generalizations from a mass of detail – discoveries which he has made in practice, or ideas which he has acquired from others, and found to apply well to his own case.

It is particularly interesting, therefore, when a player like Huberman talks frankly and freely about the ideas which guide and illumine his artistic progress. This the violinist did on Thursday morning before he began his rehearsal with the orchestra. On the platform at the Town Hall, Dr. Bainton was taking the players through the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven. In the artist’s room, with this majestic score as a background, Huberman revealed what he considers as the foundation of all his varied achievement.


He attributes his rhythmic vitality, his far-flung grasp of musical form and style, to an intensive study of folk song and folk dance. “Music began with the dance,” he said, “and no artist can really understand musical expression unless he investigates in detail the traditional dances which spring from the heart of a people. When I went to Russia as a young man, I attended the opera only once. But I went dozens of times to cafes where I could hear peasant musicians and enjoy the authentic national rhythms.

“Rhythm – there you have it. Rhythm is the soul of music, and the characteristic rhythms of each country are built on the physical movements of its dancers. The waltz and the mazurka – each has a three-beat measure. But how different they are! In the one-two-three of the waltz, the beats are not really equal, though they are marked so on the printed page. You see, the dancer has to take one long step, and then two short ones.” Mr. Huberman jumped to his feet, and began energetically demonstrating.

“You should hear a German orchestra trying to play a Strauss waltz,” he went on. “The beats are square and unvaried; the whole thing completely dead. It is not a waltz at all. But the humblest Viennese, who has grown up with the real waltz rhythm surrounding him on every side, reproduces it by instinct.

Importance Of Folk Melody

“So, wherever I go,” Mr. Huberman went on, “I dip into the folk-lore of that place. That is why I claim to understand the English composers – and few Continentals can say as much. Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams – all of them have the English folk idiom in their blood. Unless one has studied that idiom at its source, how is one to interpret their music with insight?

“The study of folk rhythms carries itself over into the region of classical music. An instance will show you what I mean. In New York some years ago, a young violinist told me he thought I played the last movement of the Tchaikowsky concerto too fast. I had a bet with him. ‘Come with me to a Russian restaurant which has an orchestra,’ I said. ‘If within two hours we do not hear the principal phrase of that last movement, or something very like it, I will pay you ten dollars.’

“He agreed. And it was I who received the ten dollars. For I was able to point out that the native players enunciated the theme at exactly the same speed as I had done, though it occurred in music of a completely different sort. The point is that Tchaikowsky had not borrowed the motive directly from folk music. It occurred in his concerto simply because he had steeped himself in the characteristic Russian national melodies. Because I, too, had acquired that melodic scheme as a background, I was able to give his musical thought exactly the shape and expression it required.”

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