Bartok and Folk Music Bela Bartok (1881-1945), one of the best-known Hungarian composers is also one of the most significant musicians of the twentieth century. He shared a strong passion for ethnomusicology, which is the scientific study of music, especially traditional music, as an aspect of culture. Bartok synthesized the Hungarian pattern of music and other folk music that he studied to make his own distinctive style. As composers continued to seek originality in the twentieth century, many new styles of music emerged.
The music of Bartok is no exception to this trend. Bartok’s music is saturated with qualities derived from folk music that Bartok was undoubtedly exposed to during his youth. His music was recognized for containing characteristics representing much of the folk music of Eastern Europe. These folk music qualities present in Bartok’s music give his compositions a unique quality separating him from other European composers of his time. In the years 1934-40, Bartok devoted himself full-time to work as an ethnomusicologist.
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He collaborated with Zoltan Kodaly and led a small team of folk-music researchers to collect various folk-music in countryside and arranged the folk music. Meanwhile he put them in practice and wrote many famous works. On these compositions, Bartok emphasized on exploring the melody and absorbing the material from the folk music. Among these famous compositions, Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta (1936) is one of Bartok’s most celebrated compositions, which was commissioned by the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher for the Basle Chamber Orchestra.
As the title suggests, the orchestration of this piece is double strings, harp, piano, xylophone, timpani, percussion and celesta. According to Bartok’s instructions for orchestra position, placing the piano, harp (piano is a percussion instrument in this case, and harp is part of the strings) xylophone, timpani, percussion and celesta in the center of the stage, and equally divide two groups’ strings on its two sides to build antiphonal effect.
In his book, Bela Bartok, Serge Moreux explains why this composition is a masterpiece, “because elements as disparate as twelve tone chromaticism, folk-music, diatonic harmonization, linear orchestration and impressionist colouring are co-ordinated into a homogeneous combination which exerts the utmost fascination on the hearer” and “the piece shows great originality at all levels of its construction and seamlessly integrates the broadest range of Bartok’s folk music and art-music sources. Bartok’s well-known use of folk music can be seen in Music for String instruments, Percussion and Celesta, and in this paper I will discuss how Bartok incorporates characteristics of folk music in a variety of ways in the fourth movement of this piece. The fourth movement is a fast movement marked Allegro molto in 2/2. Jozsef Ujfalussy called this movement a “Jubilant folk dance. ” The form of this movement is “extended rondo”: A-B-A1-C-A2-D-A2-A1, which resembles strophic structure of folk music.
This movement opens dramatically with two timpani strokes and followed by strummed pizzicato chords on strings, has the character of a lively folk dance. The use of strummed pizzicato (see example 1) for string instruments is not very common. Players need to pluck four strings at one time and then back and forward continually for 4 measures. Bartok tried to use the strings to imitate a traditional folk plucked instrument-Tambura. This piece is notated without any key signatures, but his tonal language continued to be colored by his work with folk music.
Through using folk modes Bartok established a clear tonal center on A for the fourth movement. The folk modes are easily found in Bartok’s music. Bartok used an original system of tonal organization which drew as much from the non-Western scales of folk music as it did from any traditional sense of tonality. The main theme is an extended version of the original fugue subject in the first movement, now adapted to the Lydian mode. The first theme of this movement is a syncopated Bulgarian melody, which is in A Lydian folk mode, A-B-C sharp-D Sharp-E-F sharp-G sharp. See example 2). One of characteristics of folk melodies is often start from and return to the tonal center, such as the first theme of this movement is rise from A and then returns back to A. Bartok invented a scale based on Hungarian folk tunes called “Bartok Scale” (see example 3). This scale resembles to C Mixolydian mode but with F sharp. The whole scale is C-D-E-F sharp-G-A- B flat-C. The use of this scale can be find from m. 204 to 214 of this movement (see example 4).
Another harmonic idea Bartok derived from Eastern European folk music was the important role of the interval of a tritone. In western music, the tritone or diminished fifth was called “the devil in music”. It was to be avoided in voice leading, harmonic progressions and counterpoint. It also was presumed to be a difficult interval to sing, and was banned from church music. However, Bartok as a pioneer ethnomusicologist, found the tritone in use in much of the modal folk music of Central and Eastern Europe, where it was sung with no difficulty whatsoever and was not associated with evil.
The melodies in this movement are highly chromatic, and they are a tritone away from one another(see example 5). From the example, we can find that the prevalent tritone of this passage is A-D sharp and C-F sharp. Bartok learned compound rhythms from folk music studies and used them freely in his own compositions. In this movement, Bartok used a variety of rhythmic approaches, which were influenced by different folk music models. The meters of Central and southeastern Europe folk tunes are usually irregular.
In his article, “Bela Bartok and Bulgarian Rhythm”, Timothy Rice gives us some knowledge about the meters of Bulgarian dance, which feature long and short beats, like the meter of the first theme is short, short; long, short; long, short, which is a 2+3+3 pattern (see example 2). Timothy Rice describes Bulgarian melody consists of “consistently repeated measures with two different durations in the relationship of 2 to 3. ” The adding together of the rhythmical values of two and three create what is commonly termed “additive rhythm. This is usually notated in meters of irregular groupings of eighth or sixteenth notes. The function of bar lines is to indicate phrasing, rather than rigorous metrical division. In this article, Timothy Rice also provides Bartok’s definition of Bulgarian rhythm, “Bartok always insisted that Bulgarian rhythm meant not just additive combinations of two-pulse and three-pulse beats but fast tempos as well, tempos where the underlying regular pulse moved at three to four hundred beats per minutes”. This also explains why Bartok used the Bulgarian rhythm in his last fast movement of this piece.
In F section (from m. 204 to m. 234), the meter changes is very frequently, average per one or two measures, such as 3/8-5/8(2+3)-6/8-7/8 (2+2+3)-8/8 (3+3+2)-9/8(3+3+3). The result is a pattern of phrasing which, in its freedom and flexibility, is closer to folk music. The changes of meter help the phrases fit in the pattern smoothly. (The example of meter changer also can refer to example 4. ) In many of these works he fuses simultaneous musical influences, such as modal and pentatonic scales, melodic turns, rhythmic ideas, and strophic structures.
Folk music brought a freedom to Bartok’s compositional thinking. In a famous quoted letter to Octavian Beu in 1931, Bartok explained the pan-nationalist aspects of this integration of musical cultures: My creative work, just because it arises from 3 sources (Hungarian, Romanian, Slovakian), might be understood as the embodiment of the very concept of integration so much emphasized in Hungary today…My own idea, however???of which I have been fully conscious as a composer???is a brotherhood of peoples 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 Slovakian, Romanian, Arabic or from any other source. The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta successfully shows Bartok’s interest in music from his culture and shows how he approached composition. Also demonstrates that Bartok is best known for his use of folk music to create a distinct individual style. Utilizing in varying degrees folk elements, atonality, and traditional techniques, Bartok achieved an original modern style, which has had a great influence on 20th-century music.
Bibliography Demeny, Janos (ed. ), Bela Bartok Letters, trans. Peter Balaban and Istvan Farkas, trans rev. Elizabeth West and Colin Mason (London: Faber and Faber, 1971. Gillies, Malcolm, “Bela Bartok” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, Vol. 2, (London: MacMillan Publishers Ltd, 2001). Karpati, Janos. Bartok’s Chamber Music. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1994. Laki, Peter. Bartok and His World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. Moreux, Serge. Bala Bartok. New York: Vienna House, 1974.
Rice, Timothy, “Bela Bartok and Bulgarian Rhythm” in Bartork perspectives: man, composer, and ethnomusicologist, pp. 196-210. / edited by Elliott Antokoletz, Victoria Fischer, Benjamin Suchoff. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Stevens, Halsey. The Life and Music of Bala Bartok. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953. Suchoff, Benjamin. Bala Bartok: Life and Work. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press Inc, 2001. Ujfalussy, Jozsef. Bala Bartok. Budapest: Corvina Press, 1971. Walsh, Stephen. Bartok Chamber Music. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1982.