True Lithuania

Lithuanian folk songs, music and dances

Lithuania is famous for its archaic folk songs, a UNESCO world heritage and a center-point of many Lithuanian cultural festivals and events.

Archaic Lithuanian folk songs and musical instruments

Before the modern era swept through villages Lithuanians used to sing at most occasions. Work songs would lead them through daily tasks. With the exception of children songs, every song was reserved for some particular task or lifetime event (e.g. sowing, harvest, wedding, departing for war). The choice of traditional musical instruments also depended on the reason for singing.

The lyrics of old (pre-19th century) Lithuanian folk songs are full of diminutives. Some songs are multipart and known as sutartinės. Sung by two to four persons these have few counterparts in Europe, they are listed as UNESCO World Heritage.

Hereunder is an example of sutartinė, typically sung by four women in two pairs. "Doliya" is a kind of meaningless word used to create rhyme/rhythm in old Lithuanian folk songs (some think they may have had a meaning in the past which is now lost). As the English language lacks diminutives the word "Little" is used to replace them.

Žvingia žirgas
Folk (author unknown)

Žvingia žirgas, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
Až vartelių, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
Aisim sesyt, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
Vartų kelce, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
Žirgą laisce, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
-Tu žirgeli, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
Bėrukėli, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
Kur palikai, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
Mūsų brolalį, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
-Jūs brolalis, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
Gale lauko, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
Aukštininkas, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
Žvaigždes skaita, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
Vėjus gauda, dolija, (Dolijute, dolija.)
Dolijute, dolija.

The horse is neighing
English translation ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The horse is neighing, doliya (little doliya, doliya)
Beyond the little gate, doliya (little doliya, doliya)
Little sister we go, doliya (little doliya, doliya)
To open the gate, doliya (little doliya, doliya)
To let the horse in, doliya (little doliya, doliya)
"You little horse, doliya (little doliya, doliya)
Little bay horse, doliya (little doliya, doliya)
Where have you have left, doliya (little doliya, doliya)
Our little brother, doliya?" (little doliya, doliya)
"Your little brother, doliya (little doliya, doliya)
Is at the end of the field, doliya (little doliya, doliya)
On his back, doliya (little doliya, doliya)
Is counting the stars, doliya (little doliya, doliya)
Is catching the winds, doliya" (little doliya, doliya)
Little doliya, doliya.

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The most famous Lithuanian traditional musical instruments are skrabalai (percussion instrument), skudučiai (wind instrument) and kanklės (string instrument), with kanklės regarded to have a deeper spiritual importance. Traditionally only a single (or one type) instrument would be used to accompany a song, but "traditional instrument orchestras" have been established in the 20th century, modernizing the once-archaic Lithuanian instruments to expand their accuracy and possibilities.

In addition to the main Lithuanian instruments there used to be many reserved for special occasions or jobs which are now obsolete (e.g. džingulis is a large jingling rod for calling villagers into a wedding) .

Traditional Lithuanian instruments at the Kaunas folk instrument museum (left-to-right): skrabalai, skudučiai, kanklės, džingulis. Skudučiai are played by a band of people each taking some of the pipes; top skudučiai are amateur-made while the bottom ones are a modern professional version. 20th-century kanklės shown here are decorated in patriotic motifs as is now popular. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Many folk songs have been traditionally performed without instruments. Raudos (Weeps) are improvised a capella laments for either funeral or wedding as both transitions into new life were considered to be worth weeping for.

Hereunder is an example of a rauda sung during the funeral of a son. The body is typically addressed as if he would be alive.

Rauda
©Juozas Kazlauskas

Sūneli mano brangus,
Sūneli obuolėli
Tai kų tu sugalvojai,
Kų tu sumislinai
Sav jaunose dienelėse?
Sūneli kvietkeli,
Va cia stovi
Tavo tėveliai
Ir mažos dukrytės
Nori jos pa.. pakalbėti.
Sūneli brangusai, kelkis,
Pakalbėke meiliais žodeliais,
Sūneli kvietkeli.

Funerary lament for a dead son
English translation ©Augustinas ŽemaitisMy dear little son,
Little son - little apple,
What have you thought of,
What have you decided,
In your young days?
Little son - little flower,
Here are standing
Your parents
And small little daughters
They want to... to talk.
Dear little son, wake up,
Talk in lovely little words,
Little son - little flower.

Performing folk music in traditional circumstances died out in late 19th to mid 20th centuries (when modern technologies and urbanization altered the lifestyle) but it is still popular among various folk bands. However, the true meaning of the older folk songs may be hard to discern to a modern person.

19th-20th-century Lithuanian folk songs

Today even more popular than the archaic songs are 19th-20th-century rural-themed songs performed with accordions (rather than the traditional instruments). Some towns and villages have their own bands called Kaimo kapelija which perform such songs. Not all of them are literally folk songs as many have non-anonymous authors but they are still a local tradition.

Vėl gegužio žiedai
©Jungėnų kaimo kapela (Jungėnai village band)

Vėl gegužio žiedai
Išpuošė pievas ir klonius,
Ir laukus, ir miškus, ir sodybas senas...
Gimtas sodžiau, sakyki, kodėl aš tavęs taip ilgiuosi?
Ir kodėl aš tave taip myliu? (x2)Vien gal dėl to,
Kad čia mažas bėgiojau
Ir prie tyro šaltinio žaidžiau su draugais,
Kad savo pirmąją meilę kaip nuostabų rožės žiedelį
Gimto kaimo pirkelėj radau... (x2)

Čia prabėgo linksmai
Jaunystė kaip perlas manoji
Čia skambėjo daina tartum vyturio aidas laukuos
Prisiminus ankstyvą saulėtą pavasario rytą
Šios dainos aš kas dieną ilgiuos. (x2)

Ten palaukėj beržų
Virpa stygos smuikelio iš lėto,
Jo akordų giesmė – kaip senolių graudi aimana.
Gimto kaimo lyg draugo mana širdimi numylėto
Neužmiršiu aš jo niekada. (x2)

Again the blossoms of May
English translation ©Augustinas Žemaitis.Again the blossoms of May
Have decorated the meadows and valleys
And fields and forests and old farmsteads...
My native farm, tell me why I long for you so much?
And why I love you like this? (x2)Perhaps it's only because
I was bustling here when I was small
And at the pure stream, I played with my friends.
Because I found my first love like an adorable rosebud
In a small hut of the native village... (x2)

Here joyfully passed
My youth - as a pearl.
A song resounded as an echo of lark over fields
Whenever I remember the early sunny spring morning
I long for that song every day. (x2)

There near the birches
Violin strings slowly tremble
The hymn of its notes is like forefathers' lament.
Like a friend who I love with all my heart
I will never ever forget the native village. (x2)

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Refrain-free romances with sad lyrics on love, death and war also became popular in the 19th century, however, their prevalence never reached that their contemporaries enjoyed in Russia. A "romance evening" in Vilnius or Klaipėda, therefore, is likely to be an ethnic minority event of Russian romances rather than a Lithuanian one.

The mass expulsion of Lithuanians by Soviets in 1940s-1950s woven the final carpet of Lithuanian folk music. Dehumanized and anonymous expellees would join in creating songs on their tragedy. Meanwhile, in Lithuania itself, even more new anonymous songs were written by partisans who fought against the Soviet regime. They were defeated so these final types of folk music are permeated with sadness and doom and (at best) the glory of graceful death.

Jei ne auksinės vasaros
Partisan/expellee folk romance

Jei ne auksinės vasaros,
Ne mėlynos vosilkos,
Nebūtum mes atėję čia,
Kur slenka dienos pilkos.Taip tyliai slenka vasaros,
Pražydę gėlės vysta.
Mes tyliai šluostom ašaras,
Palaidoję jaunystę.

Paliksime tas kryžkeles
Ir viską, ką turėjom -
Jaunystę, juoką, ašaras
Ir tą, kurią mylėjom.

Išeisiu vieną vakarą
Ir jau daugiau negrįšiu.
Žydės vosilkos mėlynai,
Bet jų nebematysiu.

If not for the golden summers
English translation ©Augustinas Žemaitis

If not for the golden summers,
If not for the blue cornflowers
We wouldn't have ended up here
Where the days pass by in grey.So silently the summers crawl,
The blooming flowers wilt away.
Silently we wipe our tears
After burying our youth.

We will leave these crossroads
And everything we had -
The youth, the laughter, the tears
And the ones we loved.

I will depart one evening
And won't ever come back.
The cornflowers will blossom in blue
But I won't see them again.

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Where to hear Lithuanian folk music?

Today the most massive Lithuanian folk music events are UNESCO-inscribed Song Festivals (Dainų šventė) which take place in the Baltics regularly since the 19th century (approximately every four years in Lithuania). There are also smaller annual events such as the Skamba Skamba Kankliai every May in Vilnius, Atataria lamzdžiai in Kaunas while the Kaimo kapelijos style is represented in Ant Rubežiaus at Šiauliai (June).

A kaimo kapela (village band) performs for dancing crowd during Ant Rubežiaus festival in Šiauliai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Folk songs are considered an important representation of Lithuanian culture and, as such, they are performed in various international events. In Lithuanian communities abroad the Lithuanian folk song/dance tradition tends to outlive even the Lithuanian language. Folk songs are nearly always performed in folk costumes (which are otherwise no longer used in Lithuania).

In 2000s, it became fashionable to incorporate folk elements into new songs, merging them with rock, pop, metal or sung poetry. However, this neo-folk should not be taken for an authentic folk music. Mėnuo Juodaragis annual festival is somewhat dedicated to such neo-folk.

Lithuanian folk dances

Today folk dances usually go hand in hand with folk songs and are performed on stage. But originally they would include entire communities. Many dances have slower and faster parts and are danced in circles which transform into lines, "snakes" and other formations as the dance progresses, or may even temporarily "disintegrate" into pairs. The dancers' actions may be so elaborate that some Lithuanian dances are also known as "games".

Those folk dances that are always danced in pairs are mostly of foreign origin (e.g. Polish polka).

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. Is there any resource for sheet music of Lithuanian folk song, in Lithuanian and/or in English translation?

    • One online source for some sheet music is the website of Lithuanian Song Festival 2014 (click here). Don’t click on “English” but instead click on links on the left – those are song names that lead to sheet music. There are 35 in total many of them folk songs (word “liaudies” in description indicates “folk”) although arranged by composers.

      If you want to pursue Lithuanian folk songs more seriously, you can search for books “Lietuvių liaudies dainynas”, maybe they’ll be possible to buy online. There are 23 editions, each of them dedicated to some particular topic (e.g. “XV: Songs about nature”). They contain sheet music and Lithuanian lyrics.

      As for English translations, I don’t think there have been much. A few songs are available in this article (translated by me), there may be a translation here and there, but I don’t know places where there would be a large number of translations (if someone knows they’ll share perhaps).

      • I was excited to know Lithuanian folk song and its traditional tune and like to compare our country’s folk song of famous Fakir Lalon Sha and Tagor Rabindranath songs. Please let me know and send back me some potential addresses where I may can contact on the point of issue as a Bangladeshi.
        Thank you.
        Biswas Kartick Chandra
        Bangladesh.

  2. Is “Alaus Alaus” a sutartine Lithuanian folk song?
    Thanks.

    • To my knowledge, the original “Alaus Alaus” is not a Sutartinė, although it is a Lithuanian folk song.

      Sutartinės are a more archaic form of music, usually associated with various works and lifetime events common in the pre-industrial Lithuanian village. The full meanings of lyrics are now usually relatively difficult to understand.

      “Alaus Alaus” (“Beer Beer”) is likely a later folk song, its lyrics and concepts are well understandable to a modern Lithuanian person, which is common for the 19th-20th century folk songs.

      That said, “Alaus alaus” song has many versions, both folk ones and ones performed by popular modern Lithuanian musicians. Like any song, it can be arranged to be sung as Sutartinė (i.e. polyphonically), however, I don’t think it used to be originally (i.e. in the pre-modern times) sung that way.

    • Hello, friends.

      I saw that Augustinas give you wrong information. Traditional folk songs in Lithuania is not „Liaudies dainos“.
      These „Liaudies“ dainos is not authentic. These songs are changed and harmonized, they have author!! Is that FOLK ? NOT!!
      For reality I give to you one address to interactive CD which has a couple really authentic songs.
      https://www.pakartot.lt/album/lietuviu-tradicine-muzika-2-cd
      Also this is adres where old people singing traditional songs:
      https://www.pakartot.lt/album/vai-zydek-zydek

      And „Alaus Aulaus“ is NOT traditional song it is harmonized song…

      Best regards,
      Augustas.

      • The article is intended to present a wider array of Lithuanian traditional music, ranging from the early “sutartinės” to 19th century music to the songs of partisans and exciled Lithuanians.

        It is mentioned in article that “Not all of them are literally folk songs as many have non-anonymous authors but they are still a local tradition.”

        Arguably, “Lithuanian traditional music” would have been a better name for the article,.

  3. Anybody know where to find the tune for alaus, alaus — not sung as a round?

  4. Thank you for your astute history of lietuviu dainavymas. Mano seima stopped speaking lietuviskai after laisvybe- todel man zodziu trugsta. Atsiprasau. we go back and forth. Throw on an as or is, and its lithuanian, lol. Mano megstamiausia liaudies daina is “Stoviu as parimus”. Beautiful song.


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