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Bartok: A Symbol of Hungary

The music ofBéla Bartók (1881-1945) remains both incredibly beautiful and innovative, but in the end it was his work in ethnomusicology that would have a far bigger impact on future generations of composers.

By the turn of the 20th century political systems and entire countries were already beginning to splinter under the weight of ideologies such as communism and fascism, nationalism and self-determination. This upheaval was not confined to the political world, as warring factions with contradictory viewpoints were also debating the future and the very meaning of art itself. The second Viennese school, led byArnold Schoenbergbelieved that the future lay in twelve-tone serialism and that tonality itself was dead. Meanwhile, in rivalling France,Claude DebussyandMaurice Ravelwere forging their own musical link to the impressionistic art movement, composing in a style that was much less brutal than that of their Germanic counterparts.Edgard Varèse, a Frenchman who spent the majority of his life in the United States, challenged the very perception of music by coining the term “organized sound” to apply to his own approach, and created works that would be derided by critics as mere “noise.”

In the midst of all of this chaos, a few visionaries were quietly travelling to remote villages with field recorders and carefully transcribing the folk songs and dances that had been looked down upon by generations of classical composers. Although these musical nationalists (which is not to be confused with the political movement of Nationalism) were not as vocal as some of their radical peers, their contribution was no less significant. The fusion of folk music from around the world with the Western Classical music tradition has been, along with the amplification and electrification of instruments, one of the most important musical trends of the 20th century. This legitimization of folk music as a serious form of art unto itself has impacted nearly every genre from classical to jazz to rock and roll, and no figure was a greater exponent of this trend thanBéla Bartók.

Béla Bartók using a gramophone to record folk songs sung by peasants in what is now Slovakia

Born in Nagyszentmiklós, now part of Romania but then in the Hungarian region of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, Bartók quickly earned a reputation as one of his country’s most promising young composers. A fervent believer in Hungarian independence, Bartók was one of the first prominent Hungarians to decide against studying in Vienna, instead choosing to attend the Royal Hungarian Academy of Music in Budapest. This was inspired in part by the actions of his predecessor, the great composerErnö Dohnányi, but also by the desire to contribute to his own country’s musical tradition, rather than exporting his talents as so many had done before him. Although his compositions from this period were still heavily influenced by Germanic composers, particularlyRichard Strauss, Bartók was slowly beginning to insert Hungarian elements into his work. All he lacked was a systematic way of doing this. This process rapidly accelerated in 1905 when Bartók met fellow Hungarian composerZoltán Kodály.  

As early as 1904 Bartók had declared “Now I have a new plan: to collect the finest Hungarian folksongs and to raise them, adding the best possible piano accompaniments, to the level of art-song.” In Kodály, Bartók finally found a peer that shared both his artistic vision and passion, and complimented his compositional background with a wealth of knowledge about ethnomusicology. Together they resolved to delve much deeper than the urban Roma songs and works byFranz Lisztthat had previously formed the bulk of their Hungarian aesthetic. Instead, their studies took them deep into some of the most remote regions of Hungary where they meticulously transcribed folk songs that in many cases had never before been heard outside of those regions, with an ultimate goal of compiling “a complete collection of folksongs, gathered with scholarly exactitude.” Many of the transcriptions and field notes from this period are still useful to ethnomusicologists today.

Although the study and composition of music was Bartók’s main contribution to his country, his deep pride in and activism for Hungary extended far beyond the arts. Bartók was an advocate of Hungarian independence from Austria as early as 1903 when he wrote the symphonic poem “Kossuth,” dedicated to Ferenc Kossuth, the leader of the Hungarian Party of Independence. Later he was a fierce critic of the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy in the 1930s, which forbade any performances of his music either on the radio or in the concert hall in either country. Bartók fought back vehemently when the same ugly nationalist tendencies emerged in Hungary, but was no match for the tide of history. In the end he fled Hungary and joined the great migration of intellectuals and artists from Europe to America and settled in New York City in 1940, where he would continue to compose until his death five years later.

Béla Bartók

The music of Bartók remains both incredibly beautiful and innovative, but in the end it was his work in ethnomusicology that would have a far bigger impact on future generations of composers. It is because of the work that Bartók and Kodály did in the first decade of the 20th century that it became accepted practice to go out into the field recording music on wax cylinders. Without their work, countless composers ranging fromJean SibeliustoRalph Vaughan WilliamstoAaron Coplandwould have had little foundation to build on in creating their own nationalist music. Bartók was not a natural teacher and deliberately avoided creating his own dogmatic “school” as Stravinsky and Schoenberg had done. However this did not stop a movement from rising of its own accord, albeit one that was extremely decentralized and ideologically diverse.

The legacy of Bartók’s work can still be felt in every remote corner of the world, where composers continue to journey with tape recorders, hoping to discover sounds never been heard before.

Matt Adomeit