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The folk music of Krk Island

by Ivan Pavacic Jecalicev, melographer

The two-part music with narrow intervals of the islands of the northern Adriatic, the area around Rijeka and Istria is a unique tonal system in vernacular music, on a European scale. Studying Croatian musical history, musicologists have given plenty of space to research into this manner of making music. The most copious references about the system of narrow intervals, the Istrian scale, as it is called, come to us from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (writers such as Kuhac, Kuba, Matetic Ronjgov, Bonifacic, Karabajic, Širola, Žganec, Dobronic, Dugan, Kirigin, Zlatic and Gotovac). This two-part music is based on an untempered hexatonic system disposed in such a way that no other tone can be accommodated between the existing six tones.

In vocal performance the characteristic tone colour is achieved with a powerful forte singing, in Istria with nasality as well. It is sung with two male voices, two female voices or with a male and a female voice. A group can sing it too, but it is still two-part music. When a male and a female voice sing it, the ends are always in an octave. When two male or two female voices perform, the song ends in unison, and the melody unfolds with approximately diminished thirds. In the case of two men singing as male and female voices, then they are said to be singing thin and fat. Here there is movement of sections through motifs and phrases in the untempered sixths, with moments in an octave and the obligatory concluding octave cadence. A special way of folk singing is called tarankanje, which means the vocal imitation of the playing of the wind instrument called sopele. It is done in various ways. By the characteristic syllables (ta-na-na, ta-ra-ra), by the addition of a refrain with characteristic cheerful verses and by performance to traditional folk instruments (small sopele, bagpipe). It was to this kind of performance that they danced when no sopele players could be found.

The vernacular instrument that our islander, our northern coastal dweller and our Istrians most appreciate and love are the sopele, like an oboe, the roženicas, a larger sopele, the mih or bagpipe and the šurle, a double pipe with a single mouthpiece. Musicologists connect them with the Greek aulus and the Roman tibia, which also have a double reed and a cylindrical pipe. Others again think that their forebear is the shawm which developed at the end of the Middle Ages and disappeared from use in European musical art in around 1700, when it was replaced by the oboe. The old shawm has held its own in the Swiss Alps and in Abruzzo in Italy. I think that one should accept the statement which says the instrument sopele was inherited by our common folk from the peoples who lived in this area before. In this case, they have a very old history in this area indeed. Firmly positioned, with six holes on the big and six on the small sopela, the given sound settled down over the centuries in a special and unique untempered hexatonic system, just as in the folk singing. Sopele are played in untempered sixths, just as the first male and the second female voice sing, or like two male voices in thin and fat. In this untempered playing, in the naturalism and the spontaneity of this singing lies the great value of this ancient way of making music. This style, even today, in spite of the modernisation of society, is still hanging toughly on and has a live music tradition in the whole of the area.

Small and big sopela, the vernacular instruments from the island of Krk—the application of the tabulated markings and a caption with the scale of the narrow intervals and the visual substratum

For the notation, in all melographs, I have used the system of narrow intervals of the fourth Istrian scale of Ivan Matetic Ronjgov (1880–1960), which after many years of research (more than 20 years) he finally unriddled in the 1930s.

The four scales of Ronjgov:
First: e, f, g, a, b, c2 (Istria)
Second: e, f, g, a, b flat, c2 (Istria)
Third: e, f, g, a flat, b flat, c2 (Istria)
Fourth: e, f, g, a flat, b flat, c flat2 (Krk, northern coastline)

All four scales move within the framework of hexachords with a Phrygian cadence fa, mi (F, E). In the fourth the semitone is distinguished with two trichords and so we have: ½, 1, ½, 1, ½. In acoustic measurement, in which I took part personally, we arrived at very precise results for all the six tones of the Krk sopele and the Istrian roženica (measured in Hz).
For the easier teaching of children and the young in extra- curricular activities and culture associations, which I have been doing very vigorously over the last 20 years, I tabulated the notation, above and below the notes of both parts. I added to each tone a number of 0 to 5 (that is, for six tones, six numbers).

In fact, the tabulated markings of the scale of the narrow intervals of northern coastal and Istrian music created in the authors of this exhibition an emotional visual impression of the primordial forms of recording sounds. With the choice of fifteen secular and sacred songs and tunes for singing and playing on sopele from the melography of Lusmarine moj zeleni and Staroslavenska pucka misa—Dobrinj, these two young artists, with a great deal of willpower and love, have taken the primeval sound shapes of the island of Krk, their own home ground, into a new virtual world.

Since September 2009, this music has been protected and is to be found on the prestigious list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage of UNESCO, and that too is a powerful impulse and occasion for it to be presented in this unique way.