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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 still knew a hundred songs; the most accomplished singers remembered as many as four hundred. Often, 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 (LLTI) alone 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. Most songs were connected to specific moments or actions. This accounts for the diversity of Lithuanian song genres including work, calendar cycle, wedding, christening, family life, children's, feasting, war-historical and others. Wedding songs are the most popular type throughout Lithuania; several of them have as many as 1000 recorded variants. Calendar cycle songs were performed during Advent, Christmas, Shrovetide, around Easter, Whitsunday ,St. John's day and other celebrations. Unique sound-words, pagan symbolism and archaic melodic elements specific to each occasion grace calendar songs. Ancient rye and hay harvesting and other field and house labor songs describe work poetically and laud industriousness. Understandably, war songs are especially sorrowful. Song texts dating from wars with the Crusaders usually contain the following sequence of events: sending brother off to battle, waiting for him to return, and finally his steed galloping home with the news of his death.

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 (TDS in functional harmony).

Singing techniques varied among the various song types and ethnic regions. For example, only the people of northeastern Aukstaitija could boast of their sutartines, ancient polyphonic songs that may seem dissonant to listeners with classical European music education.

next previous contents
Next: Musical Instruments Previous: The Art of the Word

"LITHUANIAN ROOTS", Edited by Rytis Ambrazevicius

Hosted by supporters of Lithuanian Heritage " The " 2006

Copyright ©, 1996 Lithuanian Folk Culture Centre.