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László Vikárius, Director of the Bartók Archives in Budapest and a professor at the Liszt Academy, writes about Bartók's relationship with folklore.Download as PDF

Bartók and Folklore by László Vikárius

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In 1928, when explaining the relation of "new Hungarian music" and folk song research, Béla Bartók equated Zoltán Kodály's compositions, rather than his own, with the Hungarian spirit in art music. He called them "a well-nigh devotional profession of faith in the Magyar soul." Bartók gave two reasons for his claim: "The external reason for this is the fact that [Kodály's] activity as a composer has been exclusively rooted in the soil of the Hungarian peasant music. The inner cause, however, is Kodály's immovably grounded confidence and belief in his people's constructive power and in their future."

Whereas Bartók sometimes used his close friend and colleague Kodály as a foil in describing some of his own endeavours, in this 1928 American lecture he drew a clear distinction between the ultimate expression of Hungarian-ness in Kodály's music and his own aims. These aims he only hinted at, stating: "I have collected Hungarian, as well as Slovak and Romanian folk music, and used it as models. And, before the world war, I even made a journey to North Africa in order to collect and study the Arab peasant music of the Sahara Desert."

Bartók emphasized the multi-ethnic origin of his own compositions. In a deleted passage of a 1931 lecture on the influence of peasant music upon modern composition, he gave his own Dance Suite (1923) – commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the union of Buda and Pest – as an example of how these compositional "models" were used.

The aim of the whole work was to put together a kind of idealized peasant music – you could say an invented peasant music – in such a way that the individual movements of the work should introduce particular types of music. Peasant music of several nationalities served as a model: Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, and even Arab. In fact, here and there is even a hybrid from these species. Thus, for example, the melody of the first subject of the first movement is reminiscent of primitive Arab folk music, whereas its rhythm is of East European folk music . . . The ritornello theme is such a faithful imitation of a certain kind of Hungarian folk melodies that its derivation might puzzle even the most knowledgeable musical folklorist . . .

By curious contrast, the composer's brief statement about the Dance Suite, published before its première in 1923, only mentioned that the five dances, as well as the recurring theme – a ritornello – all had "original, folk-like, but not [actual] folk themes". But Bartók did not even hint at the "nationality" of the individual musical ideas. Being fully aware of the hyper-sensitivity of the ethnic issue at this time, he chose to avoid any direct political associations.

The associations he might have wished to avoid become clear in the correspondence with his Viennese publisher over the publication of Zoltán Székely's violin–piano transcription of Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances. Seeing the original title "Rumänische Volkstänze aus Ungarn" [Romanian Folk Dances from Hungary] unchanged on the freshly printed music, Bartók warned Universal Edition in a letter of 9 August 1926 that while such an "irredentist title" would please Hungarians at home, Romanians would probably take great offence at this reference, "from Hungary".

Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances had been composed in 1915, during the First World War; the work was published in late 1918 just before the beginning of the Paris peace talks. Those talks would result in the break-up of the Dual Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, whose "Kingdom of Hungary" – the Hungary the composer had known from childhood – contained within its own territory large minority populations of Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs and other ethnicities, alongside the Hungarians. The Trianon Treaty of 1920, which created new "national states" (such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and an enlarged Romania), resulted in large minority populations, principally Hungarians, living outside Hungary's new frontiers.

Both of Kodály's symphonic dances – the Dances of Marosszék (1927/1930), based on folk melodies, and the Dances of Galánta (1933), based on a historical dance collection – drew upon Hungarian folklore in territories outside the new frontiers of 1920. Galánta was now in Slovakia and Marosszék in Transylvania (Romania) in a district around today's Târgu Mureş. Their exclusively Hungarian message was different from Bartók's Dance Suite based on multiethnic folklore imaginaire.

How "national" Bartók's music is, then, as much a question of perception as of musical philology. As regards perception, Bartók's music can roughly, but quite securely, be classified as one of the strongest representations of a national art even though, as we shall see, it was not always regarded as such.

A philological inquiry shows that this "national art" is based on a particular set of musical "sources", or "models", and a fairly individual manner of deriving compositions from them. Bartók himself was not only well aware of the arbitrariness of these principles but also expressed the view that this was necessarily so. Two texts are particularly revealing of his mindset: a draft proposal that he prepared for the first international congress on Arab music in 1932 in Cairo; and a draft entitled "Staat und Kunst" (State and Art) probably composed for a 1934 meeting in Venice of the International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, which Bartók had joined in 1931.

Bartók's Venice paper, discussing the possible relationship between the state and art in an increasingly unsettled political climate, based its argument on the assertion that "[g]enuine and valuable art, at least for the time being, can be conceived of only in the form of a national art." The paper further emphasized the importance of spontaneity in artistic creation without any "artificial interference of the authorities". He believed this was equally true of art in general and the "folk art of the villages" in particular. This premise of spontaneity implied that "the truly significant artist creates national art by the very fact that he gives his works a personal character."

His earlier Cairo paper considered it was vital to have musicians of creative genius if a Western type of musical culture was to be established in the Arab states. This draft was less concerned with politics and more detailed regarding technical musical aspects. Bartók spelled out some of the steps necessary to achieve what we might today call a successful "multicultural hybrid" in art music. His ideas admittedly reflected his experience in creating modern Hungarian art music, although as his prime example he referred to Stravinsky's Russian period. For Stravinsky "was able to create a style almost Asiatic, almost exotic despite his knowledge of European music."

Bartók suggested that large-scale research into Arab indigenous music should be established – more urgently into the lesser-known rural peasant music but also into urban music, if it had not already been investigated and recorded. Once indigenous music has been studied, a decisive step must be "establishing polyphonic music – an Arab polyphony." This is obviously what he himself faced when experimenting with the idea of creating a specifically Hungarian art music. He had first faced the question in 1903, drawing out of the stock of elements coming from the eighteenth/nineteenth-century verbunkos (recruiting dance) tradition, generally referred to as style hongrois. Later, from around 1907, he had drawn more adventurously out of the folk songs and instrumental dances that Kodály and he had collected, deriving unusual scales and modes, motifs and melody types, forms (like stanza form), and rhythms, including changing time and asymmetric rhythms. Further on in this Cairo paper, he called attention to the origin of European polyphony in monophony, and considered the use of ostinato patterns and the pedal as tools for progressing beyond monophony. He could even refer to rudimentary forms of these techniques in the ubiquitous drum accompaniments of the Algerian Arab peasant music that he recorded and studied in 1913. Again, one might add that his own compositions based on a uniquely large range of folk sources showed how useful these very means could be.

Not everything Bartók described in these papers represented new insight; some of his basic tenets can be traced back to his early polemical article, On Hungarian Music (1911), an advocacy for Kodály's and his own modernism. It was exactly this ‘national' aspect that was almost completely overlooked by critics who had previously supported Bartók during the first years of his career, when he could still end his earliest known curriculum vitae by stating that "ten days ago my orchestral Suite was acclaimed in Vienna for the fullness of its Hungarian character".

As a matter of fact, Bartók was not born to be a ‘nationalist' composer. It was only in 1903, during the final year of his studies, that the twenty-two-year-old Bartók suddenly became aware of the national cause. This was a period of heightened political tensions between the Hungarian Parliament and Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna over the use of insignia and the Hungarian language in the army. The first major result was the composition of his symphonic poem Kossuth (1903), which was closely modelled on Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. His adaptation, or rather revision, of Strauss's ideas included the replacement of the ‘artist' as hero with an outstanding personality of national history, Lajos Kossuth. Bartók also conspicuously employed melodic and rhythmic elements derived from style hongrois to shape the musical themes of the characters while, at the same time, also subjecting them to thematic transformation in Liszt's and Strauss's manner.

Despite the fact that Bartók withdrew Kossuth within a few years of its only two performances in 1904, this early work might – because of its concision and tragic world view – now seem more sincere and attractive than the more original two orchestral suites that followed it: the cyclically organized five-movement First Suite (1905); and the four-movement Second Suite (1905/07), a work whose heterogeneity is probably due to the new impact of serious studies of folklore.

Bartók started his folk song research in the spirit of nineteenth-century amateurism. His research engagement was gradual from 1904-05 and more systematically undertaken from 1906, after he had made the acquaintance of Kodály. Because of his studies at the University in Budapest Kodály was much better prepared for rigorous scholarly investigation. Their collaboration significantly changed the focus of research through their realization that a musical tradition had been preserved among the peasants. At the time that peasant tradition was largely unknown although it was clearly distinguishable from the repertory of more recent popular songs then more generally considered ‘folk songs.'

Bartók and Kodály looked for historically and socially deeper layers of musical traditions. These traditions were at the same time free from contemporary musical clichés, including the use of major/minor scales and melodic turns which imply conventional harmonic procedures. They were, accordingly, more suitable for creating musical novelty. Their decision to base their compositions upon a wholly different repertory from what was then generally considered ‘Hungarian' amounted to a change of paradigm. It was not before the successful Budapest première in 1917 of Bartók's ballet, The Wooden Prince, that his new style began to be acknowledged as ‘national' art. Even a year later, at the first performance of Bartók's opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1911), Kodály still had to emphasize in his review the Hungarian-ness of the music, a Hungarian-ness different from what Budapest's audiences would have been expecting.

Indeed, if popular songs and the instrumental verbunkos were behind the national style envisaged for his early Kossuth, in Duke Bluebeard's Castle, through realizing the potential of the rhythmically free parlando singing in peasant song, Bartók created a specifically Hungarian dramatic declamation for the stage. Béla Balázs's symbolist drama, told in eight-syllable verses echoing Transylvanian folk ballads, provided the ideal libretto. The pentatonic motto theme that returns at the end of the opera, suggesting its symbolic closure, drew on the basic melodic ideas of old Hungarian folk songs. It would make its appearance again and again in his later works. This four-phrase descending pentatonic line is not only the basis of the invented folkloristic violin theme of the ritornello in the Dance Suite (1923) but it can also be detected in the hidden structural tones of the first ciaccona subject of the Solo Violin Sonata (1944).

On one of his earliest collecting trips in the northern regions of Hungary Bartók came to realize the existence and importance of musical borrowing by one ethnic group from another. He called this "mutual influence." The first impulse to collect among Slovaks (from 1906) and later among Romanians (from 1908), and to learn both languages, was his growing interest in comparative research. Soon, however, he became captivated by the novelty – the musical novelty – of the material he found and so his Slovak and Romanian collections became equal in importance to his Hungarian one.

If Bartók's early Hungarian patriotism was the result of his opposition to political oppression, so was his sympathy for Hungary's peasant communities, whatever ethnic group they belonged to. In a letter to his wife of Christmas Day in 1916 he wrote: "Is it not better to assist the oppressed?! If I were, let's say, a Russian count in Finland, I would probably support the Finns against the Russians. This is the reason behind my sympathy towards the Slovaks and the Romanians…". It was due to this commitment to the cultural cause of the minorities that one of the reviewers of the 1913 Budapest première of his Two Pictures declared him to be a "musical Scotus Viator". This is a reference to the author of the influential Racial Problems in Hungary (1908), the British historian RW Seton-Watson, on account of the Romanian musical character in the second piece, "Village Dance", which the reviewer had correctly recognized. In an often quoted letter of 1931 – a true "profession of belief" written to Octavian Beu to advise him on a lecture devoted to his works inspired by Romanian folklore – Bartók himself recalled such attacks by Hungarian "chauvinists" which made him aware of his mission.

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 don't reject any influence, be it Slovak, Romanian, Arab or from any other source. Owing to my – let us say geographical – position it is the Hungarian source that is nearest to me, and therefore the Hungarian influence is the strongest.

When Bartók wrote this letter he had just completed Cantata Profana (1930), which he hoped would be part of a multi-ethnic trilogy. The cantata itself had been originally composed partly in Romanian and partly bilingually and relied on Bartók's own translation of its winter-solstice text. Composed in the most lofty genre of the period, the ‘oratorio', the work was probably intended to make explicit the message already hidden in the Dance Suite, namely Bartók's dedication to the idea of a Danube Confederation. This was an aim that Kossuth, the hero of his early symphonic poem, had indeed earlier envisaged.

Unlike most of his contemporaries Bartók never composed church music. This conspicuous avoidance of religious associations remained a life-long hallmark of his aesthetic even if the Adagio religioso middle movement of the Third Piano Concerto – a masterly and touching reference of the ailing composer to Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit in the A minor String Quartet, Op. 132 – might seem to contradict this observation. Adagio religioso was, however, clearly formulated to echo the titles of Bartók's two most emblematic works, Allegro Barbaro (1911) of his rebellious youth and Cantata Profana of his period sometimes labelled as ‘classical'.

Whereas Bartók's religious beliefs were to remain deeply hidden, one can sense the intensity of feeling in his own loyalty to folklore. This is reflected in his statement about Kodály's "devotional profession of faith in the Magyar soul," quoted at the start of this essay. Only, in Bartók's case, one should probably speak about a "devotional profession of faith in rural folklore". This was the source on which he had personally become reliant to give vitality and meaning to his highly original compositional work.

© László Vikárius 2010
László Vikárius is Director of the Bartók Archives in Budapest and a professor at the Liszt Academy. Among his many writings is Model and Inspiration in Bartók's Musical Thought (Jelenkor, 1999). László Vikárius can be seen in two of the online films of the Infernal Dance series ( discussing treasures of the Bartók Archives in Budapest.

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Bluebeard's Castle At the Crossroads Bartok at the Piano Bartok in NYC Salonen & Bronfman meet Muzsikas Muzsikas Bartok on Stage Bartok's Orbit Folk Inspiration Folk Music Concerto for Orchestra Introduction to Bartok


Infernal Bartok Bartok and Folklore Bartok at the Keyboard Bartok on the Stage

Programme Notes

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