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Appendix Two from Dawn Songs

Dawn Songs consists of three essays on music. A short one on Derek Bailey as heard in 1970; a moderate-size one on surviving west gallery choral pieces performed in pubs of the Sheffield Moorlands area at Christmas, called ‘Mass Lyric’; and ‘Dawn Songs’ itself, which concerns zorile, a lamentational genre of Transylvanian village music, and forms the bulk of the book.


THERE IS ANOTHER1 structure, which survives, or did, recently enough to be documented,2 among Romanians further south.3 In the village there will be a group of women, normally three, sometimes more, who are called upon to sing at funerals and during the period of lying-in before them. This function with its texts and its melodies, is passed on to younger women one at a time so that there will always be the same number. They are called Zorile, the vocative form of the Romanian for ‘dawn’ which is a plural noun; they are the singers to the dawn(s). They arrive at dawn on each of the three days normally appointed between death and burial and sing in the yard facing the rising sun, then enter the house and sing facing the open coffin, holding candles. On the fourth day they sing again at several points of the funeral procession, and finally at the graveside as the closed coffin is sunk, and the earth thrown noisily onto it.4 Their function is parallel to that of the priest, and they are paid on the same terms as he. The songs they sing are not personal and not improvised; neither are they laments or dirges. They are to be sung “cu glas fârâ durere” — in a voice without sorrow — and they must not be sung by close relatives of the deceased. They are ceremonial songs concerning observance and the meaning of death. Their texts are rich in active imagery and are said to be some of the most archaic European texts known. The music5 bears a harsh beauty, something beyond the ancestral, something as modernist as the dawn-song. This6 is one of the songs they sang at dawn in Dobrița, Oltenia:

Ieri alataieri
D’e-acas’ am plecat…

The day before yesterday
I left the house
And I met
When I looked up
A cock who roared.7
He shook my hand,8
He took my voice away
He stole my eyes.
You, loved woman,
Get up9 and ask
Strangers and neighbours
To do something for you
To leave aside a while
Their daily work
Their sleep at night,
Ask them to lead you
From one country to another,
From a country with pity
To a country without pity10
From a country with sorrow
To a country without sorrow.
The thread, the thread
Of the leaf of the rose-bush11
Why have you delayed?
Why haven’t you flowered?
I have delayed long enough
To detach myself
From my mother and my father
And the whole world
From brothers and sisters
From the flowery gardens
Of my neighbours.

This is in fact a kind of modern compendial version (by the village in question) of the Zorile form, which abbreviates and substitutes for a whole set of funeral songs with distinct content and function. There are Zorile din casă (in the house), Zorile din afară (outside), de fereastra (at the window), al luminarilor (of the candles) and several emphasising particular figures of the poems – of the fairies, of the road, of the departure, of the rose-bush… There are also, paradoxically, Zorile subtitled la amiazi at noon, and de seara in the evening.

The song sung at dawn with the candles is the first of these, and is basically a preludial address to the dawn personified as fairies or siblings (being plural), begging that daybreak should be delayed until dalbul de pribeag – the pale wanderer, the deceased – finishes a long journey he or she must undertake. This undoubtedly connects to the wedding candle-song, which delays the departure of the bride with a solemn dance round her by her female peers holding candles, while her hair is being bound up into the sign of maturity.

The next is “The Dead Person’s Song”, sung at the coffin, which dramatizes the dead person speaking of the experience of death as inanimation and invasion (the black crow etc.) and thus excusing the inability to thank and greet friends relatives and neighbours as they arrive.

The most important song, “The Song of the Journey”, originally sung during the funeral journey itself, is the one that urges and instructs the dead to set out on their journey and gives directions. I quote entire here Alexandru’s summary of such a song–-

The traveller is urged to set out, Cu roua-an picioate …/ With dew on his feet / With mist at his back / On that long road / Long, without shade… He must follow the road to the right Câtre mîna dreaptâ / Câ-i calea curatâ / For it is a clean road / Ploughed by white oxen / Sown with wheat… Not the road to the left Câ-i calea stîngâ / Ci bivoli aratâ / Cu spini semânatâ / which is a difficult way / Ploughed by buffalo / Sown with thorns… He is advised to make friends with the otter who knows the streams and the fords, with the wolf who knows the secret paths of the forest, and he will meet the Samodiva or Gia–Samogia who writes down the names of the living in red ink, and the names of the dead in black.

And there are others: at the grave, at the burial… which continue and extend this treatment of death as a new life. An entire theatre is constructed in these songs offering a post-mortem landscape combining the familiar, the mysterious, and the paradisal, relenting of nature (as long as you keep ‘to the right’ or ‘straight on’) and the grave itself is finally depicted as a house with little windows through which light and fruit will come. Such posthumous spirit-journey narratives could well lie behind all the inflated Transylvanian stuff about vampires and were-wolves.

This death journey takes us far from the dawn song, even if departure is one of the dawn song’s commonest narratives. And the music is very different from that of either the dawn song or the lament, except that a falling line is common in the latter.12 But in the appeal in many dawn songs to an obdurate “God” (and Mother) who sometimes seems more bonded to physical earthly necessity even than Zeus, some kind of faint echo might be felt of the address to the dawn on behalf of the dead, which begs the ever-new light to guide the victim of earth through the labyrinth. In that case, in the dawn-song’s modernity, the transport through Hades is reinstated on earth as a figure of necessity, the shadow of personal and social fate.13

Fortnightly ReviewsPeter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017), from which this short essay is taken. His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015, and a collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.


Alexandru, Tiberiu, Romanian Folk Music. Bucharest 1980
Brailoiu, Problems of Ethnomusicology. 1984
—–, La plainte funèbre du village de Dragus. n.p., n.d.
Cuisenier, Jean, Le feu vivant: La paranté et ses rituals dans les Carpates. Paris 1994.


  1.  There are several references in this appendix to the “dawn song”, which is the subject of the entire essay. This is a song sung solo with instrumental accompaniment as the final act of any kind of communal celebration, thus normally at dawn. It is musically slow-moving and the lyrics are deeply sad, but it was not meant for funerary use.
  2. A monumental collection of Zorile texts edited by Kahane and Georgescu-Stanculeanu, was published for the Bucharest Institute of Research into Ethnology and Dialectology in 1988. This megalithic compilation, typically of earlier East European ethnomusicology, involves a vast amount of musicological classificatory analysis, and almost nothing on the occasions on which the songs were sung, or even the significance of their texts. A short sequence of them is rendered into English as the last item in Brâiloiu 1984. My example is from Cuisenier, chapter 15.
  3. Basically southern and western Romania: sub-Carpathian Oltenia, the Banat, Hunedoara and southern parts of Transylvania. the example given is from the village of Dobrita, Oltenia, 1974. In Oltenia epic or ballad singing still took place at weddings in the 1980s and Zorile may possibly survive there still. Generally this practice had already ceased by the 1970s, though traces of its text sometimes remain in laments and ‘funeral songs’ sung by relatives during the wake.
  4. Those who have witnessed a ‘peasant’ funeral know that the whole thing, although entirely solemn, is far from an occasion of hushed propriety. The roar of the withdrawing of the ropes after the coffin has been lowered into the grave, thunder of clods of clay falling on it – these are the acoustic climax of a long process of mounting lamentation, formal or not, which is silenced only during the comparatively brief intervention of the church. See my “The Funeral” in The Dance at Mociu, 2003/2014.
  5. The quite long texts are sung to a short chant-line repeated many times, a more or less extended cadence with a vocabulary of 3 to 6 notes, or to a longer line which itself comprises the repetition of such a motif two or three times with variants. The cadence is always a falling one, normally onto a bass note of minor-third tonality, from the fourth above it. But sometimes the bass tonality is major, and sometimes an apparent major tonality gives way to a minor tonality at the last moment. The singing, as annotated, is comparatively lightly ornamented for this part of the world, with plenty of grace-notes, mordants, slides etc., but keeping the principal succession of notes clear. Sometimes the fourth degree is augmented, either consistently or in passing, sometimes by less than a semitone, as is normal in the songs of the areas in question. I have not managed to hear a recording, but the delivery is sometimes described as ‘shouted’. The north Transylvanian ‘long song’ (hora lunga, cântec lung etc.) is musically similar to the Zorile chant and is usually delivered fortissimo.
  6. My translation of Cuisenier’s French with dictionary reference to the original Romanian.
  7. Literally ‘belled’. Variant versions introduce a black crow at this point, who ‘pierced my eyes / darkened my face / glued my lips.’ (Brâiloiu 1984).
  8. This hand-shaking (sic) with a bird or other animal at the end of a fictive journey occurs in quite different contexts, even possibly as a joke, but anyway as a persistent if rare signification of a final condition where species identities dissolve. In this truncated version the function of the animal guide in the journey of the dead is omitted. To some there is a distinct ‘Egyptian’ feel about the Zorile imagery.

    Compare a Romanian song from Ieud, Maramureș, described as a ‘march’ and which could be used as a love song or a recruitment song –

    The road I’ve set out on is long_______Drumu-i lung, pa el ma duc, ma.
    I will never reach the end. long_______Capâtu nu i-l ajung mâ
    If I get there ach the end. l.ong_____ __De-as ajunge capâtu’, mâ
    I can shake hands with the cuckoo,____Dau-as mîna cu cucu. mâ
    But not with you, my dear. cuckoo,____Si cu tîne mîndrâ, ne, mâ
    I can shake hands with the thrush,_____Dau-as mîna cu mierla. mâ
    But not with you, my dear. cuckoo,____Si cu tîne mîndrâ, ba’, mâ.

  9.  This imperative to the relatives to get about preparing the funeral is compounded with an address to the dead (distinct in fuller versions) to get up and start the journey to the land of death.
  10. This is identical to the formula used in wedding songs as a term of the bride’s transition from her original home to a home among strangers, but the subsequent clause is not. Brâiloiu’s text has a third couplet ‘From a land with love / to a land without love’ prior to these two.
  11. ‘Rose-bush’ is Cuisenier’s interpretation of an unusual Romanian contraction. I think his ‘thread’ (firule) should be ‘bud’ (fire). The connection of this episode to the dawn song ‘Edesonyám roszafaja’ is obvious. Both dawns’ song and dawn-song refer the unbearable to custom and structure through the imagery of floral retension – we are the buds which never fully open into the possible world, and eventually detach themselves and fall into the unknown. Another funeral ritual song, from the Banat, begins –

    Fire, fire, trandafire, …………Bud, bud, rosebud
    Dar to ce te-ai zabovit____.__ Why did you wait so long
    Si n-ai înflorit?………..____.. Before you opened?

    These could be interventions of parts of lyrical songs into the Zorile text, but the theme, ‘If I had known (about life/ about death) I would not have grown and ripened’ is also present in texts of The Song of the Pine (Cintecul Bradului or just Bradul) . This is another funeral ceremony song sung (by the Zorile?– this is not clear) only at funerals of the young unwedded, when a small decorated but defoliated pine tree is set up at the head of the grave, as it was the custom to set up just such a tree at the gate of the new house when a couple got married, thus a “death-wedding” element. The song speaks in the voice of the pine tree, which laments the use to which it has been put – ‘If I had known / I’d never have risen / If I’d been aware / I would never have grown.’ (Brâiloiu – the quatrain occurs four times in his text, as a refrain.)

  12.  The very connection to dawn might be misleading, for it has been suggested that the term Zorile is corrupt, its contracted form Zori equivalent to Zêne, “fairies”, by which the Zorile may be identi­fied as “Fates” and their singing the “Song of the Fates”, which might bring us back to the dawn song.
  13. Additional note 2017.  Half a dozen field recordings from the 1930s and ’40s of zorile singing can be found on YouTube, as well as some of Bradul singing. Search on Youtube for “Zorile Fabris”.  I’m grateful to Denis Boyles of The Fortnightly Review for finding these. PR

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