Béla Bartók’s Early Works and His Student Etelka Freund

The following is a guest post from Archives Processing Technician Dr. Rachel McNellis.

Red pencil markings on printed score page.

Béla Bartók. Annotated first edition publisher’s proof for Rhapsodie, 1910. Box 2, folder 6. Etelka Freund Collection on Béla Bartók, Music Division.

In his essay, “The Influence of Peasant Music on Modern Music,” published in 1931, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881–1945) describes the beauty of folk music and its significance to classical composers: “The right type of peasant music is most varied and perfect in its forms. Its expressive power is amazing, and at the same time it is devoid of all sentimentality and superfluous ornaments. It is simple, sometimes primitive, but never silly…. The effect of peasant music cannot be deep and permanent unless this music is studied in the country as part of a life shared with the peasants.”[1] These words echo the composer’s earliest encounters with Hungarian and Romanian folk song, which became a central aspect to many of his compositions.

In 1904, Bartók traveled to Gerlice Puszta, a resort in Northern Hungary, to finish composing his Burlesque. While there, he encountered Transylvanian folk song for the first time and was so intrigued by its distinctive sound that he transcribed a number of these songs. Thus would begin a life-long fascination with Hungarian and Romanian folk song, and a commitment to preserving it in writing. Three years later, he traveled to Csík in Transylvania, Hungary and recorded traditional folk music on two phonographs. He then transcribed and analyzed the pitch contour, rhythmic features, and motivic structure of each melody.


Red pencil markings annotated printed score.

Béla Bartók. Annotated first edition publisher’s proof for Gyermekeknek, 1911. Box 2, folder 12. Etelka Freund Collection on Béla Bartók, Music Division

Between 1908 and 1910, he composed a collection of 85 piano pieces for children titled Gyermekeknek (For Children), each of which set a melody that he transcribed while in Hungary. In all, he would make several trips to study folk music in Hungary and Romania.

The Etelka Freund Collection on Béla Bartók includes early publisher’s proofs for the 1911 first edition of several pieces from Gyermekeknek and for three of his other early compositions, Két elégia (Two Elegies), op.8b, Ket roman tánc (Two Romanian Dances), op.8a, and Rhapsodie pour 2 pianos à 4 mains (Rhapsody for 2 Pianos and Four Hands) published in 1910. These four proof copies are invaluable records of the changes that he made to his early works during the publication process, including alterations to titles, descriptive footnotes, pitches, and harmonies. At a glance, they also display the diverse characteristics of his early style. For instance, while Gyermekeknek exhibits the simplicity of the folk song on which each piece is based, Rhapsodie evokes the virtuosic techniques of Franz Liszt, whose influence is found in many of Bartók’s other piano works.[2]


Black and white photograph of Bartók, Freund, and her niece outdoors.

Unidentified photographer. Etelka Freund, her niece Irma, and Béla Bartók, 1908. Box 1, folder 7, Etelka Freund Collection on Béla Bartók, Music Division.

The correspondence in this collection is of equal significance and consists of nearly 70 holograph letters and postcards, written in Hungarian, between Bartók and his close friend pianist Etelka Freund (1879-1977). Although largely forgotten today, Freund was an internationally renowned concert virtuoso during the early twentieth century. Born in Budapest, Hungary, Freund began piano study at an early age with her brother, Robert Freund, at the Conservatory of Zürich. Her subsequent teachers included István Thomán, with whom Bartók also studied, Ignaz Brüll, Johannes Brahms, and Ferrucio Busoni. During the late 1890s, Brahms admitted her to the prestigious music society, Gesellshaft der Musikfreunde, in Vienna, which was an unprecedented honor for so young a woman.

In 1902, Freund attended a concert at which Bartók performed several of his recent compositions. So impressed was she with his technique and distinctive use of harmony that, after the concert she asked to study with him, and he agreed. In a letter to his mother dated February 23, 1903, Bartók wrote: “The piano virtuosa who will learn composition from me now is…Etelka Freund. Well, I was so surprised I could hardly speak when she said to me that she wants to study with me.” Her correspondence with Bartók offers a rare glimpse into both her largely undocumented career and lifelong friendship with the composer.

In addition to these scores and correspondence, the Etelka Freund Collection on Béla Bartók also includes a small number of programs, photographs, writings, newspaper clippings, and promotional materials related to Bartók’s career that Freund collected. The Music Division also houses the holograph manuscript for his popular Concerto for Orchestra as well as a first proof, with Bartók’s holograph annotations, of his Violin Concerto, no. 2.

[1] Béla Bartók, “The Influence of Peasant Music on Modern Music,” in Modernism and Music, ed. Daniel Albright (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 245.

[2] Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 103–104.

One Comment

  1. Scott A. Kleyla
    June 16, 2021 at 9:33 am

    I have been waiting to recieve theater again into my life. Thank you for this “burlesque” trevia blog.

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