How Béla Bartók Redefined Classical Music

Under the guise of complex art music, composer and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók brought Hungarian peasant culture into the concert halls of Europe.

By Greg Cahill

Under the guise of complex art music, composer and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók brought Hungarian peasant culture into the concert halls of Europe.

“There is not much genuine interest anywhere in the world towards this branch of musical science,” Bartók wrote in 1921 as he reflected despondently on his extensive studies of Eastern European folk music. “Who knows, perhaps it is not even as important as its fanatics believe!”

Bartók may not have been widely appreciated in his lifetime (1881–1945), but nearly a century after he wrote that lament the world has caught up to the mild-mannered Hungarian composer and pioneering ethnomusicologist. His compositions, including the six string quartets he composed between 1909 and 1939, are rife with innovations inspired by the rustic folk music he collected in the Eastern European countryside with his close friend and colleague, the composer and pedagogue Zoltán Kodály.

Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály were composers, ethnomusicologists and friends. Photo circa 1905 (PD-1923)
Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály recorded and transcribed more than 10,000 folk songs.

While Brahms had used stylized folk motifs in his “Hungarian Dances,” the prolific Bartók exploited the techniques he learned from authentic folk songs to inform his music. That innovative approach reached its zenith in his string quartets, which stand as a monument of the 20th-century classical canon. Those significant chamber works continue to call—and to challenge—string players.

“Beyond the sheer technical challenge of performing the fiendishly difficult score, the major interpretative issues have to do with finding a workable balance between extremes: complexity and clarity, polyphonic austerity and folk-inflected high spirits,” music critic Philip Kennicott wrote in a 2014 National Republic review of the Takács String Quartet’s performance of what the reviewer called the “anxious, hypnotic, intellectually exhausting” Bartók quartet cycle. “In a small, intimate way, they remind the listener of one of the most thrilling moments in all of 20th-century music, the ‘fifth’ door of Bluebeard’s Castle, Bartók’s sole opera.”

The Field Work

As the child of a piano-teaching mother and a cello-playing father, Bartók—born in the town of Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary—was well-versed in the music of Bach, Brahms, Dohnányi, and others when he started to compose at age eight. But a decade later, influenced by a surge in national pride, he decided to forego the conservatory in Austria, the bastion of classical music, in favor of the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. He also started to concentrate on his piano studies and moved away from Brahms to focus on the works of Liszt, Wagner, and Strauss. The 1902 Budapest premiere of Strauss’ epic “Also Sprach Zarathustra” inspired Bartók to start composing again.


Composer and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey)
Béla Bartók in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Photo courtesy of the Bartók Archives

Liszt’s landmark “Hungarian Rhapsodies,” based on folk music themes, also had a profound impact on Bartók and prompted him to take a more discerning view of the art songs that had formed the basis of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances.” While still at the Academy, Bartók began working with Kodály, who in 1906 would write a seminal thesis on folk music, Strophic Construction in Hungarian Folksong. For more than a decade, until wars and civil unrest deterred their efforts, Bartók and Kodály, clad in heavy woolen overcoats and fedoras, scoured the countryside in a rickety horse-drawn cart, using a then-state-of-the-art Edison phonograph to capture folk songs on wax cylinders. They would later transcribe and catalog the music, thus laying the groundwork for the field of ethnomusicology. Eventually, Bartók and Kodály would amass more than 10,000 folk songs in this manner.

“I [had] discovered that the Hungarian songs mistakenly regarded as folk songs—that are in reality more or less trivial, merely popular art songs—do not provide much of interest,” Bartók wrote in his 1921 journal. “Consequently, I commenced the search in 1905 toward the study of peasant music, that was until then virtually unknown… The study of all this peasant music was of decisive meaning to me, because it opened the door to the liberation from the former tyranny of the major and minor systems. Because the bulk, and also most valuable portion, of the collected melodic treasure is based on the old religious scales, that is, on ancient Greek, and even more primitive (specifically pentatonic) scales, while also containing the greatest variety of the most liberated rhythmic patterns and meter changes, in both a kind of rubato, as well as tempo giusto performances.

“Thus, it became proven that the old scales that are no longer used in our art music have not lost their vitality. Their renewed application made possible a new kind of harmonic combination. The employment of the diatonic scale in this manner led to a liberation from the petrified major and minor systems with the end result that today every step of the chromatic 12-tone system can be freely utilized on its own.”

Béla Bartók and composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey)
Béla Bartók and composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Photo courtesy of the Bartók Archives

An Evolutionary Approach

His use of folk influences in his own compositions evolved over the decades. Bartók’s fastidious, highly detailed transcriptions of not only Eastern European, but also Turkish and Algerian folk music, provided a wealth of inspiration throughout his career and right up until his death in New York in 1945.

In 1942, Bartók told an audience at Harvard University that he’d had an epiphany about the compression of diatonic melodies into chromatic melodies, a realization that composition is more about evolution than revolution. “When I first used the device of extending chromatic melodies into diatonic form, or vice-versa, I thought I invented something absolutely new, which never yet existed,” he said. “And now I see that an absolutely identical principle exists in Dalmatia [in modern-day Croatia] since heaven knows how long a time, maybe for many centuries.”

You can hear the folk influences in Bartók’s liberal use of semiquavers, in what he called “freely changing metrical and rhythmic patterns,” in his brilliant harmonization, and even the sometimes somber mood of his music. János Kárpáti, head librarian and professor of musicology at the Budapest Academy of Music, wrote in his 1975 book Bartók’s Chamber Music that the peasant-music influence is quite noticeable in Bartók’s use of “art-music lamentos, naturalistic sobbing, other sorrowful sound effects, and the lonely monologue tone. We encounter this kind of doleful, plaintive outburst at the end of the first movement of the First Quartet (five bars before the end of the movement).


The study of all this peasant music… opened the door to liberation from the former tyranny of the major and minor systems.

—Béla Bartók

“But whereas there the musical idiom of late Romanticism was the means of expression, in the Second Quartet, the mournful, resigned tone is pervaded by the melodies of folk music and the folk lament. Similar reference, if in a different sense, is made to the folk lament by the cello monologue in the slow movement of the Fourth Quartet…”

Another characteristic of Bartók’s style is his use of the aksak rhythm, with its “limping” 2:3 pattern. “Even the Fourth Quartet—Bartók at his most modern—owes the shape of its rhythmic architecture to more traditional models, such as the hora lunga of Maramures [Romania], in the third movement,” Roe Cowan wrote in the liner notes of the Belcea String Quartet’s 2008 recording of the Bartók cycle.

Bartók’s classical influences also evolved during his career. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bartók did not wall off his artistry from musical developments in the outside world—the influence of such composers as Stravinsky, Debussy, and Berg can be heard in the shifting style of his quartets. “At a time when most composers aligned themselves with one school or another, Bartók possessed a genius for synthesis that contemporaries mistook for a compliant eclecticism,” David Schiff wrote in a 1998 New York Times review of the Juilliard String Quartet’s recording of the Bartók cycle. “His susceptibility to influences seemed like a weakness, a lack of self-definition, at a time when people praised Stravinsky’s music, for example, because every note sounded Stravinskian.”

Composer and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók using a gramophone to record folk songs sung by Slovak peasants in 1908. Photo courtesy of the Bartók Archives
Béla Bartók using an Edison phonograph to record folk songs sung by Slovak peasants in 1908. Photo courtesy of the Bartók Archives

Always the ethnomusicologist, Bartók heard folk music influences everywhere, even in the “classical” music of Debussy and Stravinsky. “In 1907, at Kodály’s urging, I became acquainted with and started to study Debussy’s compositions; I was amazed to find some pentatonic turns, corresponding to those in our folk music, also playing a great role,” he wrote. “We must attribute these, with doubtless certainty, to the influence of some Eastern European—probably Russian—folk music. Similar efforts can be found in the works of Igor Stravinsky. It appears therefore that our age demonstrates the same movement even in geographic locations most distant from each other: refreshment of art music with elements of peasant music that were left untouched in the creations of the latest centuries.”


Playing the Quartets

String players preparing to perform or record the Bartók string quartets face fundamental questions of how to read the composer’s meticulous markings, says Ori Kam, violist of Jerusalem String Quartet, which recorded the Bartók quartets Nos. 2, 4, and 6 in 2016. What does Bartók mean by a sforzando as opposed to an accent or fp? What does a forte marking mean? Many of the answers can be derived from exploring the folk music that was the inspiration and sometimes the source material for much of Bartók’s music.

Kam suggests that string players start by studying the Hungarian language, which influenced the phrasing of the music. “Getting a feel for the Hungarian language is essential in developing a deeper understanding of Bartók’s music,” he says. “Starting notes with softer attacks mimics the softer consonants used in the Hungarian language: Z, S, L, Zh. Likewise, sustained notes emulate the long vowels and no diphthongs [compound vowels]. The contrast between accented and non-accented syllables is another feature of the language. Often the first syllable of the word is accented. In addition, there is a greater contrast between short and long vowels that creates a unique and identifiable rhythm to the language.”

In addition some ensembles, including the Takács String Quartet, which has collaborated with the Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikás, has spent considerable time studying Eastern European folk music, though few contemporary bands represent the broad spectrum of folk music documented by Bartók. “I have had several opportunities to hear folk bands play in night clubs in Budapest,” Kam says. “They are mostly made up of Gypsy musicians, and represent a narrow part of the vast and varied types of folk music Bartók recorded and studied. Nonetheless, these experiences have been a big influence on my approach to Bartók’s music. The thing that struck me the most is the effortlessness of how these musicians play. Even in the fastest and loudest parts they don’t ever break a sweat. Their music always maintains a kind of groove. This comes from an inner rubato that never fails to meet the accompaniment at the next turn-point in the music.”

Ultimately, given that folk music is the lifeblood of the Bartók String quartets, always bear in mind what the composer himself wrote on the topic: “The right type of peasant music is most varied and perfect in its forms. Its expressive power is amazing, and at the same time it is void of all sentimentality and superfluous ornaments. It is simple, sometimes primitive… and a composer in search of new ways cannot be led by a better master.” 

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This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Strings magazine.