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Béla Bartók and the Importance of Folk Music

Béla Bartók was a seminal 20th-century composer and musicologist. Born in Hungary on March 25, 1881, he lived through World War I and experienced the beginnings of World War II, before immigrating with his second wife to the United States in 1940. He died in New York on September 26, 1945.

What makes Bartók‘s works special is his deep connection to Hungarian folk music. His great appreciation for folk tunes started in 1904 when he heard Magyar (native Hungarian) peasant music. There was something very substantial about it that Bartók greatly appreciated. To his first wife, he wrote: “Another completely different factor makes contemporary (20th-century) music realistic: that, half consciously, half intentionally, it searches for impressions from that great reality of folk art, which encompasses everything.”

Béla Bartók, Portrait 1927. Photographer unknown. No known restrictions on publication. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bart%C3%B3k_B%C3%A9la_1927.jpg

Béla Bartók, Portrait 1927. Photographer unknown. Source: Wikimedia.

Bartók first focused on folk tunes of Hungary, then expanded his explorations to Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Serbia, and to Turkish and Arabic countries. He asked people to perform songs for him, which he then wrote down. He shared this interest in folk music with his contemporary Zoltán Kodály, who advised Bartók with his project. Today, you can find Bartók’s manuscript musical notations at the Bartok archives in Budapest, Hungary and in various US institutions, including the archives of Columbia University and Princeton University. A few documents are held at The Library of Congress, where Bartok performed at the Coolidge Auditorium in 1940.

In addition to using the collected folk tunes in his compositions, Bartók also wrote about them as a musicologist in scholarly essays and books. Bartók is therefore recognized as a co-founder of ethnomusicology. His studies on folk tunes have been published since 1913.

In his autobiography, Bartók stated: “The outcome of these studies was of decisive influence upon my work, because it freed me from the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys. The greater part of the collected treasure, and the more valuable part, was in old ecclesiastical or old Greek modes, or based on more primitive (pentatonic) scales, and the melodies were full of most free and varied rhythmic phrases and changes of tempi, played both rubato and giusto.”

Bartók makes use of 42 Slovak and 43 Hungarian tunes in his educational piano collection entitled For Children (Gyermekeknek), which he composed between 1908 and 1910.

Among Bartók’s most popular works based on his folk tune collection are the Romanian Folk Dances (Román nepi táncok). Originally composed for piano in 1915, Bartók rewrote them for orchestra in 1917. As such they were first performed in Budapest in 1918. A few years later, violinist Zoltán Székely went back to Bartók’s original piano composition and arranged these beautiful pieces for violin and piano in 1925 and 1926.

The Romanian Folk Dances, or as the title of the first publication states in German: Rumänische Volkstänze, consist of a series of six short pieces. They are entitled: 1. Stick Dance (Jocul cu bata), 2. Sash Dance (Braul), 3. In One Place (Pe loc), 4. Horn Dance (Buciumeana), 5. Romanian Polka (Poarga Romaneasca), and 6. Fast Dance (Maruntel). What comes across in these tunes ranges from images of joyful and light spring peasant dances, feelings of weightlessness and distant longing, Gypsy passion, and heavy down-to-earth celebrations. To better represent these aspects in music, Bartók makes use of the so-called Hungarian Gypsy Scale, and he includes harmonics, double-stops, and a variety of light and heavy bow strokes in the violin part.

Detail from: Peasants dancing, Bosnia, Austro-Hungary. , ca. 1890. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, //www.loc.gov/item/2002710708/. No known restrictions on publication.

Detail from Peasants dancing, Bosnia, Austro-Hungary, ca. 1890. Source: Library of Congress.

Here is a selection of works you can borrow from NLS:

Bartók, Béla, 1881-1945.

  • Romanian Folk Dances (Román népi táncok). For violin and piano. Bar over bar format. (BRM11680)
  • Hungarian Peasant Songs (Magyar parasztdalok). For piano solo. Bar over bar format. (BRM36245)
  • For Children (Gyermekeknek). For piano solo, volume I, based on Hungarian folk tunes revised and arranged by the composer, January 1945. Bar over bar format. (BRM23838)
  • Three Hungarian Folk Songs. Selection from Magyar népdalok. English version and choral transcription by Benjamin Suchoff. For chorus (SATB). (BRM30136)
  • Hungarian Folk Songs (Magyar nepdalok) by Béla Bartók; Zoltan Kodály, and Raimo Tanskanen Jäljentäjä. For unspecified voice and piano. Section by section (voice) and bar over bar (piano) formats with lyrics in Hungarian and Finnish. (BRM27352)
  • Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs (Rögtönzések magyar parasztdalokra) for piano solo, opus 20. Bar over bar format. (BRM34902)
  • Mikrokosmos. For piano solo. Progressive piano pieces. (volume 1 BRM00053, volume 2 BRM00054, volume 3 BRM00055, volume 4 BRM00056, volume 5 BRM35983, volume 6 BRM05044, LPM00854),

Dangerfield, Marcia. The narrated life history of Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok and Erik Satie. (DBM03408)

Gillies, Malcolm. Bartók remembered. (DB 35784)

Fonseca, Isabel. Bury me standing: the Gypsies and their journey. Narrated by Ken Kliban. (DB 42444)

If you would like to find out more, or learn how to find and download materials from BARD, feel free to give us a call at 800-424-8567, extension 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]


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