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Hidden Gems of the NLS Collection: Béla Bartók’s “Allegro Barbaro”

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Anyone who has ever heard an authentic Hungarian folk tune, such as one of the many discovered by Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) at the start of the 20th Century, is familiar with the problem that notating such tunes is much like driving without a map. These ancient dialects and foreign languages had no alphabet or any other form of notation. Because of this, one has to become completely absorbed in the language in order to understand it. If any composer was ever capable of capturing the spirit of this ancient Hungarian dialect in the form of organized sounds, it was Bartók, particularly in one of his most famous works for piano, Allegro Barbaro.

The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was born in 1881 in a region that now forms part of Romania. His father, director of an agricultural college, was an amateur musician, however Bartók actually received his early piano lessons from his mother. After his father’s death in 1888, his family relocated several times, and his mother resumed work as a teacher. Offered the chance to study music in Vienna, Bartók instead chose Budapest, where he won a considerable reputation as a pianist, being appointed to the teaching staff of the Academy of Music in 1907. At the same time he developed a deep interest, along with his colleague Zoltán Kodály, in the folk-music of his own country and the surrounding region.

Béla Bartók, 1922. In 1931 Bartók was invited to join the League’s Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, partly in recognition of his international interests and openness to a wide range of musical styles from different ethnic groups. From the League of Nations Archives Collection.

Later, Bartók’s success both as a pianist and as a composer, coupled with dissatisfaction at the growing association between his nation’s government and National Socialist Germany, led him to emigrate to the United States of America in 1940. In his last years, after he briefly held teaching appointments at Columbia and Harvard, Bartók suffered from increasing ill-health, and passed away in 1945, leaving sketches for a new Viola Concerto and a nearly completed Third Piano Concerto. While his years in America brought him many challenges, they also yielded his most important compositions, including the Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, and a Sonata for Solo Violin, which he dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin.

Allegro Barbaro is underrepresented in many music history books. Perhaps this is because both Stravinsky’s The Right of Spring and Allegro Barbaro were written in 1911, and today both represent revolutionary breakthroughs. In this work, Bartók’s themes are based on the spirit and vitality of peasant folk songs. He uses repeated notes, several key centers simultaneously (also known as poly-tonality), and melodies that encompass a very narrow range.

Why would Bartók use the title Allegro Barbaro? Its ‘barbaric’ title arose as the composer’s reaction to being called a “barbarian” in the French press. The work became one of his most famous compositions, and the composer would often use it as a closer or an encore at his own recitals. It was considered an effective “ear-cleanser” after a program of Romantic-era piano music, and a gift resulting from the unrelenting criticism he received in France. The “barbarianism” did not stop there: progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer adapted the piece as “The Barbarian”, featured on their debut album in 1970.

One of the most notable things about Allegro Barbaro is that it contains all of the Bartók hallmarks in such a short piece. Using one scale or mode was not his style, so Bartók often combined them into “polymodes.” Because of this, he was able to move away from traditional harmonies and expand tonality. He also used irregular rhythms to emulate the languages and dialects of Eastern Europe. He wrote in 1931, “My own idea, however… Is the brotherhood of peoples…In spite of all wars and conflicts. I try… To serve this idea in my music: therefore I don’t reject any influences, be it Slovakian, Romanian, Arabic or [music] from any other source. The source must only be clean, fresh and healthy!”

Bartók’s work as an ethnomusicologist was vital to understanding his compositions. He thought folk music was the spontaneous expression of a country’s ideology. In Allegro Barbaro, Bartok uses the 8th century B.C. Magyar dialect as a basis for the rhythmic language of the piece. Magyars lived independently between the 8th and 5th centuries B.C. in a region between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains. The main melody in the work sounds like it starts at the beginning of the measure, but actually starts on beat 2. This technique is one of the many ways that Bartók represents the rhythmic irregularity of the Magyar language in Allegro Barbaro.

If you enjoyed learning about Béla Bartók’s Allegro Barbaro, then please peruse these works from the NLS Collection. You can download most of them from BARD. To borrow hard copy braille scores or music audio instruction materials on digital cartridge, please contact the NLS Music Section either by phone at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].


From Beethoven to Bartók. Koussevitzky leads a dress rehearsal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; Richard Burgin rehearses Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. (DBM00094)

Dangerfield, Marcia. Narrated Life History of Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, and Erik Satie. Brief surveys of the life and music of Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, and Erik Satie with music by the composers in the background. (DBM03408)

Takács-Nagy, Gábor. Gábor Takács-Nagy at the Verbier Festival Academy: Béla Bartók, String Quartet no. 5 (Fourth movement). Gábor Takács-Nagy was born in Budapest where he started learning the violin at the age of eight. He attended the Franz Liszt Academy, after which he studied with Nathan Milstein. From 1975 to 1992, he was founding member and first violin of the Takács Quartet which became world-renowned as one of the finest string quartets of its day. An inspiring and perceptive teacher, Gábor Takács-Nagy’s chamber music masterclasses are greatly in demand… In this masterclass he works on the fourth movement of Bartok’s 5th String Quartet. (DBM03665)

The World’s 50 Greatest Composers. Béla Bartók. (DBM01662)


Bartók, Béla. Allegro Barbaro. For piano in section by section format. (BRM21728)

____ Bagatelle: op. 6, no. 11. From Fourteen Bagatelles. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRT37651)

____ Mikrokosmos: Progressive Piano Pieces, Book 4. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM00056)

____ Piano Concerto no. 3. Arranged for two pianos, four hands by Mátyás Seiber. Bar over bar format. (BRT37719)

____ Winter Solstice Song. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRT37065)

Kodály, Zoltán. Tricinia: Choral Method. Twenty-nine progressive three-part songs singing exercises. Bar over bar format. Includes editor’s introduction in contracted braille. (BRM23982)

Large Print

Bartók, Béla. Violin Concerto no. 2. Violin part only. (LPM00208)

____ Sonatina for Piano. (LPM00532)

For further reading, please enjoy this blog on Béla Bartók and the Importance of Folk Music.

To learn more about the work of Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, you can read this recent blog post.

Comments (4)

  1. <3 Love this post 🙂

    • Thank you so much!

  2. I’m writing an essay about Bartok’s sojourn in Asheville during 1943 and ’44. This is a fine perspective about his interests and scholarship in folk music. Its reference to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is especially welcome, along with Bartok’s comment about the brotherhood of peoples. Many thanks.

    • Hi Michael–thank you so much for your kind words. Bartok’s time in Asheville sounds like a fascinating subject!

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