More generally, how can a piece of music be made to sound, for want of a better word, foreign?

I was listening to some of Chopin's mazurkas and the one that struck me the most was Mazurka No. 34 in C Major, Op. 56, No. 2, simply through its opening chords, it sounded... Polish. As a Pole myself, this is something I could recognise but can’t understand, and it made me wonder how it can be written so. Probably the most famous example of this would be Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, and I’m sure most have never been there, yet would agree it somehow sounds eastern.

This then leads me to wonder how is it that nationality and heritage affect music? How could Chopin have gone about writing a mazurka? Given the piano as a starting point, which ultimately is a series of set pitches, I’d like to understand how arrangements of these pitches can be so different in the environment they invoke, namely how a piece can sound ‘foreign’ or even how does culturally different music evolve in the first place?

I think Mazurka No. 44 In G Major, Op. 67 No.1 and Mazurka No. 23 in D major, Op. 33 No. 2 are the most notable, but I don’t know how they could be analysed, if that would help.

  • 2
    Every time I listen to a mazurka, including any of Chopin's, it doesn't sound particularly Polish or Eastern European to me. Polonaises sound more distinctive, but like most tarantellas, they sound like they've lost their nationality to me.
    – Dekkadeci
    Apr 30 '20 at 13:53
  1. The incorporation of Hungarian Themes
  2. Influence of Gypsy and Roma tunes
  3. Rhythm and tempo change of Hungarian dances

s. Hungarian_Rhapsodies


The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 is built like a Csárdás: The "sad Andante" of the slow first part, a so-called "Lassan", is followed by the lively second part, a typical "Friska" that ends every Csárdás.

  • 3
    In fact, to make a piece sound like almost any culture is to work folk song themes or chord structures into the work. Apr 30 '20 at 14:30

Foreign is a relative term. It depends on where you are to know what is foreign to you. Depending on whether you are an insider or an outsider the experience will be different.

When Pat Boone sang rock it sounded foreign to me, because I am a rock native.

For a while in mid-20th century America exotic was the buzz word for "foreign" music. Add bongos and bird calls over the orchestra and American audiences back then thought it was wild and exotic. To a Polynesian the string orchestra and muted trumpets probably would have sounded American.

None of that is about classical music like Brahms, but I bring it up to introduce an important idea: authenticity.

Authentic art is direct from the cultural source. Art derived from the authentic is called stylized. Cultural borrowing with no real understanding is just plain fake. You can also get into the controversy of cultural appropriation, stealing from another culture.

The vast majority of "classical" music is art music and classical dance music is usually stylized. It was not written for actual dance accompaniment. (Some, like sets of minuets, landler, contradances, etc. were meant for actual social dance accompaniment, but those are often considered "minor" works, the well known concert works are usually the stylized variety.) Complete authenticity isn't the point of these works. Classical form is still the main point. The stylized elements are more like literary allusion hinting at styles to give a certain flavor.

Some ways to make a stylized dance:

  • use a characteristic rhythm of the dance, like Czardas (or Scotch snap) for Hungarian
  • use a characteristic scale or harmony, like the Freygish scale for Klezmer
  • incorporate an actual folk tune

That's pretty vague. It treats the proposition as added elements to some unspecified template. I think in most cases the template is assumed to be something like a piano style waltz or German dance in the vein of Schubert dances or Strauss waltzes. Some kind of ternary, da capo form will most likely be the way to make a large composition.

Authenticity will depend on the composer's intentions and how well they knows the style from which they borrow.

  • 1
    "rock native" :-) You are a funny guy! Apr 30 '20 at 18:11
  • You say this, "Authentic art is direct from the cultural source. Art derived from the authentic is called stylized. Cultural borrowing with no real understanding is just plain fake." That sounds rather subjective to me. Depending on how one defines "direct from the cultural source", this could lead to an "Pierre Menard"-esque situation where two identical songs were judged to be of unequal authenticity depending on the origin of their author. And all that without defining what, precisely, is the source: who (Pat Boone excepted) would be an inauthentic rocker?
    – Obie 2.0
    May 1 '20 at 1:21
  • It also seems like "understanding" as the determinant of "fakeness" is fraught with ambiguity. Who "understands" rock-and-roll: the proficient music theorist who can characterize the motifs of any rock song, but lacks practical talent or historical knowledge? The self-taught rocker who can riff and improvise like no one's business, but doesn't understand the theory of their discipline or its development? The historian who can trace the genre back to Big Joe Turner (or further) but whose practical and theoretical knowledge are lacking? If they all wrote a rock song, whose would be fake?
    – Obie 2.0
    May 1 '20 at 1:34
  • @Obie2.0 You wrote a lot... Is your question simply: who has the authority to judge authenticity? May 1 '20 at 1:50

Jonathan Bellman: "The Style Hongrois in the Music of Western Europe" has some information on Hungarian music. He discusses the style as used by Baroque composers, Liszt, Brahms, and popular bands along the Danube in the 1900s.

Balint Sárosi: "Gypsy Music" also has a chapter on the relationship between Hungarian and Gypsy music.

Both books are useful but any book on folk music seems to have some hint of politics.

I would guess that there are resources on the 'net under Hungarian or Magyar or Gypsy or Liszt or Brahms that could help.

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