“Folksong and Ethnic Cleansing in Central Europe”

The study of folksong in Czechoslovakia became increasingly enmeshed with research on race and ethnicity through the 20th century. Folk melodies appear alongside studies of phrenology and blood type as early as 1905. By the 1920s, the “purity” of folksong was understood to evidence the “purity” of a region’s people and, by extension, their political boundaries. In the 1930s, studies of “ethnogenesis” in folk music became so charged that they contributed to the deaths of musicologists Vladimír Helfert and Gustav Becking—Helfert, following his internment at the Nazi camp Terezín and Becking, during Czechoslovakia’s own post-war cleansing under the Košice program.

Members of the community can explore this topic more with a Cleveland Humanities Festival event Monday, April 5, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Kelly St. Pierre, Associate Professor of Musicology at Wichita State University, will present “Folksong and Ethnic Cleansing in Central Europe.” 

Her lecture will explore the increasing radicalization of Czech folk music research in the early 20th century as a means of illuminating the always-charged and sometimes life-threatening consequences of identity construction and—more problematically—prescription. More than establishing a repertoire, these music researchers sought to construct a Czech People in sound. Such 20th century folksong studies, then, might best be understood as a tool of the state; an instrument of ethnonationalism not merely descriptive, but delineative of who belonged and who did not.

This event is the 2021 Joseph and Violet Magyar Lecture in Hungarian Studies. Register to attend.