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Topsy-Turvy World 
& Other Ballads from the Mountain Meadows of Slovakia
Jana Lewitová, Vladimír Merta

Sefardské písně 
F10109    [8595017410925]
TT- 67:13   released 5/2002

    1. First Landscape
    2. When You Go to the Danube
    3. In Front of Our Door
    4. Melodiarium (ASK C-107) 
    5. It’s a Topsy-Turvy World
    6. Melodiarium (ASK C-105)
    7. Oh, What Sort of Tree
    8. They Cut Down the Birch Tree 
    9. Melodiarium (ASK C-60)
    10. If I Had Wings
    11. When I Passed By
    12. Hushaby, Hushaby
    13. Melodiarium (ASK D-49)
    14. Merrily through the Briar
    15. Janko from Next Door Waters the Horses
    16. She Dug a Well
    17. Melodiarium (ASK C-106)
    18. The Moon Shines Bright on Our Back Yard
    19. If I Knew
    20. Listen Up, Servants
    21. Melodiarium (ASK D-72)
    22. O, My Songs 
    23. All the Water 
    24. Last Landscape

Jana Lewitová: vocal, viola
Vladimír Merta: vocal, guitars, lutes, theorbo, psalterium, folk flutes, duduk, harmonica, Pakistan harmonium, percussion
Inge Žádná: viola da gamba
Jaroslav Kořán: percussion
Vítězslav Janda: improvised instruments 

The world is round. And our wandering from place to place in it is but an illusion. The purpose of the globe is to imitate infinity. Some people go west in search of work; others, with a Kerouac-like backpack, travel to the plateaux, in search of Nikola Sohaj, the legendary robber, who plied his trade in the eastern parts of Czechoslovakia in the early twentieth-century. What the Californian west coast was for some people, the Slovak east was for me. If you were Czech, you couldn't go any farther in those days. 'There are bears out there!', the old women in the fields called out to me. Well, there were border guards in any event. I had flip-flops on my feet and a flute on my lips. In the region of Sumiac (a name which suggests 'murmuring'), I heard awe-inspiring silence; in the Detva region (whose name brings to mind 'child'), I heard the last snoring of a mountaineer who'd had a drop too much. In the village of Terchova, robbers were singing a south-Bohemian song over glasses of beer. I heard the yodelling of shepherdesses, which were right out of a film. In the regions of Uhorna, Bystrica and BoSaca, the land was quiet, solemn, overworked and cold. Once on a hike in the foothills of the Tatras I made a sketch of a modern gypsy settlement at Rakusy. For Czechs in those days, Slovakia was like America was for west Europeans, and we used to travel east with a feeling of adventure in our bones. We went there to lose ourselves - and gradually to find ourselves. With the singer Zuzka Homolova, musician friends from the 'Solstice Club', Naďka from the group Gymnik, the pianist-composer Marian Varga, and the violinist Milan Tedla, I had my first lessons in two-part Terchova counterpoint, hay-harvesting songs called 'travnice' from the Vah river region and shepherds' yodelling:

Listen up, servants, somebody's knocking at the door.
Go, woman, and see who's there:
If they're beggars, give them alms.
If they're gentlemen, I'll go out myself.

It's a strange dialect, recorded by collectors in the early 1950s. Is it still Czech or is it Slovak at this point? The attempt to bargain over one's fate with discreet Death, who's come for a chat rather than on official business, is known to us from our previous wanderings in search of the Moravian ballad. The song about the topsy-turvy nature of the world comes from the village of Moravska Lieskova, which is situated over the border and in musical terms mirrors Zalesi in Luhacov. The divide of the Bile Karpaty (the White Carpathians), a ridge of lovely mountain meadows, is today an artificial border; every time I cross it, from whatever side, I feel deeply ashamed.
     Free of cliches, Ingeborg Zadna and Jana Lewitova played early music in Renesex, a unique society of individualist Prague musicians. Inge didn't know the period dances - the hajduk, the moresca and the polonaise - from the collection of Countess Szirmay-Keczer, yet mentioned in passing that she was the woman's great-great-great-great granddaughter. The names of Slovak villages bear the clear traces of colonization: Dojc (suggesting German), Chorvatsky Grob (Croatian), Lozorno (Italian), Mojs (Jewish), Mojzesovo (again, Jewish), Ruska (Russian), Rakusy (Austrian), Gemer (Hungarian) and Ladomirov (something east-Slavic), as well as traces of things closer to home: the Czech-sounding Moravany (Moravians), Kopanice (a field on a slope), MniSek (a little monk). What conclusions can one come to about the first inhabitants of villages with names like Myto ('washed down'), Nedozery ('not yet gobbled up') and Necpaly ('not yet stuffed')? Can Czechs claim to see a bit of themselves in there?

The water took it all, took it all, leaving nothing but a pebble

On a Pakistani harmonium, a Hungarian psaltery, a bowl with a marble and a pair of chimes, Vitezslav and I painted an imaginary musical landscape, from which the echoes of chorales and archaic melodies gradually emerged. In doing that, did we cross the symbolic river of forgetting? 
     Ballads - mysterious, sublime. To this day one can hear them as part of the liturgy in Javornik. They exhibit the restraint and plain dignity of Protestant singing, the old-time quality of the hymnbook of the Unitas Fratrum - that Moravian offshoot of the followers of John Huss, who moved to territory which is today Slovakia, to escape oppression. It was there that the development of the Moravian ballad culminated, in a subtle softening and epic concision, containing the germ of its development into the ballad-chanson we know today.
     The Melodiarium Annae Szirmay-Keczer [The anthology of dances and songs of Anna Szirmay-Keczer], with Slovak incipits, served as a reminder of what to play and how and when to play it. The sequence of popular dances, whose accompaniment is meant to be improvised, includes 339 complete compositions, written by hand c.1730 for the needs of musicians at the great houses of the nobility. A copy of the original was discovered by a teacher-kapellmeister in a god-forsaken Protestant parish on the frontier of Moravia and Upper Hungary in 1867. Minuets and ländler, which have drawn from what was once the lively, semi-folk tradition of the Spis region (or, in German, Zips), alternate with Janissary motifs - evoking vivid memories of the Habsburgs' wars with the Ottomans.
     The incipits, which were intended to help the musicians to understand each other, are not written under the individual notes. The Melodiarium and the better-known Tabulatura Vietoris contain songs that are somehow familiar to us: 'Dobra noc mila' [Goodnight, my love], 'Chtycz aby spal' [Wanting him to sleep], 'O Gezyssy negsladssy' [O, where are you my sweetheart?]. Unlike the musical abstraction of the notation, the Tabulatura is the mechanical transfer of music into the motion of the fingers, touch. By means of its initially unclear structure, one can get to the point where the old music speaks 'through the fingers'. The Melodiarium relied on an intimate knowledge of themes, ornaments and improvisation. In their precision, our later sources are now but a mere record, the deadening of a once live process.
     The archives of the lute tablatures and collections from Levoca - the Codex Vietoris and the Lutheran Cithara sanctorum (1636), compiled by the Moravian priest Juraj Třanovsky in the Orava region - exhibit the influence of what was then German-speaking Galicia. The first master of the Protestant school, Leonard Cox, came from Krakow. He played the lute, an accessible, widespread instrument, which at the time was part of the equipment of every gentleman and scholar. In the late Renaissance, pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella and Monserrat also brought news and novelties with them. They were accompanied, at a distance, by gypsy musicians with their remarkable memory, virtuosity and ability to imitate foreign styles - that was the spiritus agens of the songs (for instance, 'Janicko susedov' [Janko from Next Door]), reminiscent of Sephardic melodies. After the battle of Mohacs (1526), the territory of what is today Slovakia fell to the Habsburgs. The languages spoken there were various dialects of Slovak, Hungarian, German and Czech. The liturgy was in Latin, though Prince Pribina of Nitra, a thousand years before, had introduced the liturgy in the vernacular of the early Slavs. The first Czecho-Slovak grammar (1745) by Dolezal has a Latin introduction - in praise of Slovak. The serious music of Baroque and Classical periods made its way into Czech folksongs. The serfs, apart from their usual duties, played in the orchestras of the manors of the nobility. Slovak and Moravian ballads were heard intact in their original milieu - that is to say, in the meadows and mountains and at flax-spinning and weddings.
     In the instrumentation used here, we have intuitively emulated an orchestra one would find in Levoca or Kremnica - lute, viola and gamba. Somehow I ended up with a Croatian brac, a Hungarian folk psaltery and a Turkish oboe. I realized one could even play these songs finger-style on an electric guitar, softly, without effects. Whisks make jugs, a zither and bowls ring out.
     We generally include Slovak ballads in our concert programmes, which otherwise consist of Sephardic and Moravian songs and the songs of the Elizabethan maestro John Dowland. We travel to the centre-point from where the power and expansive energy of the isolated human voice spring forth. The spiral, leading to the centre, leading the pilgrim enlightened by knowledge, is one of the symbols of the ancient cultures of our ancestors, missionaries and Medieval Hungarian minstrels known as the igric.
     We don't wish to impose any solution to the musical riddles of this labyrinth on the listener. In the development of the ballad, a century is but a breath between two tones.

Vladimír Merta

© 2HP Production, October 2017
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