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From Hungary to Algeria – the composer Béla Bartók collected more than 10,000 folk songs at the beginning of the 20th century.

The arrival of a bespectacled musicologist from the Hungarian capital in 1908 must have been quite an event for the farmers of the small village of Darázs, in what is today western Slovakia. With him, this figure carried an Edison phonograph, the world’s first device for recording and reproducing sound. Systematically, he asked singers and instrumentalists to stand in front of the horn so that he could record their music on the phonograph cylinder and transcribe it later on a musical score. Did that make the simple country folk feel a little uneasy? They do seem very sceptical of the whole endeavour on the souvenir photo (picture below) that was taken in Darázs at the time – apart from the two curious faces on the far left above the garden fence.

Béla Bartók’s original sound recordings

Béla Bartók im Dorf Darázs (1908)


This researcher was a certain Béla Bartók (1881–1945), one of the 20th century’s most multi-facetted and innovative composers. He wanted to prepare the ground for new possibilities in contemporary music – and he found the key for doing so in, of all places, the folk music of his native Hungary, which he methodically researched. Over a number of years, he travelled around Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Balkans, and later even as far afield as Turkey and Algeria, documenting more than 10,000 melodies on the way.

Gábor Káli & Budapest Festival Orchestra

On 25 and 26 March 2019, the Budapest Festival Orchestra is dedicating two concerts in the Elbphilharmonie to Bartók’s work. In addition to the powerful Concerto for Orchestra and the spine-tingling opera »Bluebeard’s Castle«, they are also performing folk songs and dances collected by Bartók on his travels.

About the concerts:

25.März 2019
26. März 2019

There were two motives behind Bartók’s incredibly laborious research. On the one hand it was a matter of national self-assurance, after all, Hungary was gradually liberating itself at that time from the Austro–Hungarian Empire and from the resulting dominance of German and Austrian culture. On the other hand, Bartók the composer was searching for sources of inspiration to overcome the entrenched aesthetic of late Romanticism, which was revolving around itself in increasingly artistic (or artificial, as Bartók would have put it) pirouettes.

Béla Bartók on a research trip in Transylvania
Béla Bartók on a research trip in Transylvania © István Kovács


In contrast, he loved the natural folk music precisely because of its directness:

The music of the peasants in this form exhibits the highest perfection and variety. Its enormous power of expression, which is completely free of sentimentality and superfluous ornamentation, is astonishing.

Béla Bartók

From their raw, archaic melodies, harmonies and rhythms he drew the artistic power to break away from the classical tradition and to invent his own music – one that was modern and elemental at the same time. Bartók called this his »bone-and-muscle style«.

Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances (recording with Béla Bartók on piano)

Fotografie um 1930


It is impossible to overstate the importance of Bartók’s field research for his later career as a composer. The influence of the »peasant music« is there to hear in all the musical parameters, for example in the often-idiosyncratic rhythm. While the ideal of an elegant, steady pulse otherwise dominates in classical music, Bartók sets a brash polka with earthy accents or a 5/8 or 7/8 beat, in which duple and triple units alternate. This results in restless rhythms with a very special groove.

Bartók: Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm

Béla Bartók, 1924

In terms of harmony, the pentatonic and the ancient ecclesiastical modes of Hungarian and Romanian folk music predominate. Bartók: »Studying all this folk music was crucially important for me because it allowed me to completely emancipate myself from the dictatorship of the previous major/minor system.«

Bartók: Konzert für Orchester Sz 116 (1943)


In addition to furthering his musical development, Bartók’s ethno-musical research brought with it another key realisation. The glorification of »true« national folk music could also, of course, have quickly taken on a darker hue, as was the case in Germany a few years later. But Bartók opposed this vehemently. As racial mania spread like wildfire in Europe, Bartók – now in exile in the US – wrote a text under the ironic title »Race Purity in Music«, in which he summarised the results of his research:

As a result of uninterrupted reciprocal influence upon the folk music of these peoples there is an immense variety and a wealth of melodies and melodic types. The ›racial impurity‹ finally attained is definitely beneficial.

Béla Bartók

He outlined his artistic credo once as follows: »My own idea is the brotherhood of peoples, brotherhood in spite of all wars and conflicts. I try – to the best of my ability – to serve this idea in my music. Therefore I do not reject any influence, be it Slovakian, Romanian, Arabic or from any other source.« In 1942 Béla Bartók was awarded an honorary doctorate by Columbia University as an »internationally recognised authority in the field of folk music and the creator of a musical style that represents one of the most important contributions to twentieth-century music«.

Clemens Matuschek

zuletzt aktualisiert: 20.03.2019

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