Introduction Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3
Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Conclusion Bibliography

Chapter 2

The Discovery of Folk Music

The intention of this chapter is to illustrate how the dual activities of folk music collection and analysis occupied a major part of Bartók’s life.  The discovery of rural folk music was an event that completely changed Bartók’s concept of Hungarian folk music tradition.  In December 1904, while on holiday in the northern resort town of Gerlicepuszta (now Ratkó in Slovakia), Bartók heard the singing of Lidi Dósa, an eighteen-year-old nursemaid originally from the Székely province of Transylvania. She gave a rendition of the following folksong: [1]


Ex. 2.1: Hungarian Folk song.

This song transforms the harmonic minor scale into an alternation of the Dorian and Aeolian folk modes (Ex. 2.2).  As the pitches A and E are not placed on strongly accented beats, it can be shown that the melody has a pentatonic (G-Bb-C-D-F) substructure,

Ex. 2. 2: Hungarian Folk Music Scales

G-Dorian Folk Mode

G-Aeolian Folk Mode

Pentatonic Scale

Benjamin Suchoff draws our attention to the unusual structure of the melody, which deviates from the common four-line da capo (AABA) form, into a more unorthodox three-line (ABC) design.[2]  This modification of form and tonality was a revelation to Bartók.  Halsey Stevens describes how: “this chance discovery brought to the young composer the realization that there was a autochthonous Magyar music of which he, like most of his compatriots, was entirely unaware.”[3]  In the words of Sándor Kovács: “it led to a change in his entire artistic outlook.”[4] 

In the same year he wrote with enthusiasm to his sister Elza about a new project that was taking shape in his mind:

I have a plan now, to collect the finest examples of Hungarian folksong and to raise them to the level of works of art with the best possible piano accompaniment. Such a collection would serve the purpose of acquainting the outside world with Hungarian folk music. Our own good Hungarians…are much more satisfied with the usual gipsy slop.[5]


In his essay “Autobiography” (1921), Bartók described the project of collecting and classifying folk melodies, which led to a realization that the ideal musical expression was to be found in the peasant village, rather than the pseudo-folk tradition of the urban cultural centre:

 In my studies of folk music I discovered that what we had known as Hungarian folk songs till then were more or less trivial songs by popular composers and did not contain much that was valuable. I felt an urge to go deeper into this question and set out in 1905 to collect and study peasant music unknown until then. [6]


Bartók’s earliest impressions of folk music had consisted of the performance of songs by gypsy musicians.  Kovács describes how: “the composer Bartók found the [urban] melodies less than inspiring while the patriot Bartók found himself obliged to cherish them.”[7]  In his essays Bartók continually stressed the fact that the melodies of popular song were not part of a homogenous folk tradition, but were the creations of individual composers from the urban middle classes.  Bartók drew a very strong distinction between the “collective art” of the peasant and the contrived art of the urban culture: 

The latter are composed mainly by dilettante musicians who have a certain musical culture generally imported from the city; therefore in the melodies of their invention, they blend certain Western commonplaces with certain exotic particularities of their own folk music. Consequently, even if these melodies preserve some faint exotic traces, they are too vulgar to have any intrinsic value. In contrast we find in the folk melodies properly so called, generally, a truly perfect purity of style. [8]


         In rejecting popular art-music, Bartók blamed Liszt for propagating a number of misconceptions about folk music.  In his study Dés Bohémiens et de leur Musique en Hongrie, published in Paris in 1859, Liszt credited the gipsies with originating Hungarian music. He characterised the rural folk music tradition as being a perversion of Gipsy music.  Bartók pointed out that this popular art-music was not the creation of the gipsies, nor was it part of a genuine Hungarian musical tradition.[9]

In his essay “What is Folk Music?” (1931) Bartók presented the following definition of peasant music:

The term peasant music, broadly speaking, connotes all the melodies which endure within the peasant class of any nation, in a more or less wide area and for a more or less long period, and which constitute a spontaneous expression of musical feeling of that class. [10]


He made the observation that: “…folk music is not an individual art, that essentially it is a collective manifestation.”[11]  A style that “…connotes the totality of the peasant tunes exemplifying one or several more or less homogeneous styles.”[12]  In another essay “Hungarian Peasant Music” (1933) he made a further definition of this concept:

Peasant music, using the term comprehensively, is the complex of melodies which, in the peasant class – that is, in a class more or less removed from the culture of the town – now exist, or at any other period have existed, in whatever region or length of time, as a spontaneous gratification of the musical instinct or impulse. Or in a narrower sense, the complex of melodies so existing among the peasants and exhibiting a certain uniformity of style. [13]


Bartok described how unfamiliar elements could penetrate the music of the peasant class, but they “… are transformed to the extent that they finally appear to be homogenous in musical structure and other features, and they are very divergent from the infiltrated original.”[14] 

It is obvious, indeed, that no essential alteration of a musical element can come from one individual peasant.  And there can be no doubt that with peasants who people one geographical unit, living close to one another and speaking the same language, this tendency to alter, in consequence of the affinities between mental disposition of individuals, works in one way, in the same general direction.  It is thus that the birth of a homogeneous musical style becomes possible. [15]


Stevens points out that Bartók discovered two opposite tendencies in peasant music: “the first to preserve their old traditions and customs without change and the second to imitate at least the external signs of upper-class culture.”[16]  If the imitative tendency becomes greater than a conservative instinct the music is varied and transformed.  Bartók claims that this aspect was not so much a result of the invention of peasants, but “…the outcome of changes wrought by a natural force whose operation is unconscious in men who are not influenced by urban culture.”[17]

 Bence Szalbolcsi illustrates this association between peasant music and the forces of nature with a quote from Bartók’s writings of 1931:

We profess ourselves to be scientists who have chosen as the subject of their study a certain product of nature, peasant music.[18]


Bartók considered folk culture as being an equal to the organic natural life of the countryside, and like many other aspects of the natural landscape, it could be subject to careful research and analysis.




In 1905 Bartók secured a grant to collect folksongs in the remote villages of Transylvania.  His priority was to collect in areas near the periphery of the country where he felt society was less influenced by urban culture and in this way discover more evidence of an ancient musical culture. 

The following year Bartók was introduced to a composition student, Zoltán Kodály, also a student at the Academy of Music, Budapest.  They had not attended the same classes and were previously unknown to each other, but they quickly became friends.  At the time of their meeting Kodály was in the process of finishing a doctoral dissertation on the stanziac structure of Hungarian folksong (A Magyar népdal strófaszerkezete, 1905).  Their contact was to prove extremely productive to Bartók’s interest in folk music research.  Kodály introduced him to one of the most important ethnographic techniques, the Edison phonograph.  Béla Vikár pioneered the use of this recording technique as a means of preserving folksong, and during the years 1896-1910 he recorded 1500 examples of Hungarian peasant music.  The phonograph method, used by both Bartók and Kodály, was a very important method of collecting material in the field.  By recording melodies on wax cylinders, Bartok was able to capture every nuance of performance, which he could study later at his own convenience.  Stevens points out that Bartók’s work sheets of this period, demonstrate the meticulous accuracy with which he applied himself to the process of transcription:

The original notation is in black ink with numerous corrections and variants overwritten in green, modifications in pitch and every fluctuation in rhythm of ornamentation painstakingly indicated.[19]


The initial contact with Kodály led to a collaborative project in 1906 that set out primarily to raise the awareness of the Hungarian public to their true folk music heritage.  Together they worked as a team and divided the fieldwork, with Kodály going north to Nyitra county and Bartók going south to Békés.  The result was the publication of Magyar népdalok (Hungarian Folksongs) in 1906 (twenty folksongs arranged for voice and piano by Bartók and Kodály).  In the preface to this volume they outlined a dual function of the collection to create “a comprehensive dictionary of folksongs,” and to introduce folk music in “a form that is more palatable to the taste of the public.”[20] Magyar népdalok was the first of many volumes that Bartok produced, which incorporated folksongs with his own individual musical expression. 

In the summer of 1907 Bartok was finally able to use his grant to travel to the Székely country of Transylvania, visiting the districts of Csík, Gyergyó and Kolozs  (See map in Ex. 2.3[21]). 


Ex. 2.3:  Counties of Hungary before 1919 and dialect areas


Bartók faced many difficulties during field trips remote areas, as they were often far away from modes of transport like the railway and were often difficult to even access even by road.[22]  In a letter to his mother, he described some of the primitive conditions he witnessed in a village in the Kolozs county: “in the streets of Bánffy-Hunyad the filth and litter is quite Moroccan without any of the amenities imported there for the sake of the Europeans.”[23] 

Getting the locals to sing was a feat of persuasion.  Bartók illustrated this in his essay “The Folk Songs of Hungary (1928):[24]

It would probably be difficult for you to imagine the great amount of toil and labour connected with our work of collection.  In order to secure musical material uninfluenced by urban culture, we had to travel to villages as far as possible removed from urban centres and lines of communication.  There were many villages as that time in Hungary. In order to obtain older songs – songs perhaps centuries old – we had to turn to old people, old women in particular, whom, quite naturally, it was difficult to get to sing.  They are ashamed to sing before a strange gentleman; they were afraid of being laughed at and mocked by the villagers; and they were also afraid of the phonograph (with which we did most of our work), as they had never in their life seen such a ‘monster’.  We had to live in the most wretched villages, under the most primitive conditions, as it were and to make friends of the peasants and win their confidence.  And this last, in particular, was not always easy, for in previous times the peasant class had been too thoroughly exploited by the gentry, and, in consequence, was full of suspicion where those who appeared to belong to this class were concerned.  Yet despite all this, I must admit that our arduous labour in this field gave us greater pleasure than any other.  Those days which I spent in villages among the peasants were the happiest days of my life.


The discovery of a surviving repertoire of pentatonic tunes was the most significant finding of the 1907 field trip.  He referred to them in a letter to his pupil Etelka Freund:

I have made a rather strange discovery while collecting folksongs. I have found examples of Székely tunes which I had believed lost.[25]


Kodály described Bartók’s return from his 1907 field trip:

He came back with such a pile of pentatonic melodies that, in conjunction with my own simultaneous findings in the north, the fundamental importance of this hitherto unnoticed scale suddenly became obvious.[26]


Stephen Erdely points out that this was “Bartok’s first proofs of the survival of an ancient musical tradition.”[27]  It was the in the Székely country in the far east of old Hungary, now beyond the boundaries of Hungary set by the Treaty of Trianon, 1920, that the best-preserved examples of this ancient tradition were to be found.  Bartók attributed this fact to the geographical isolation from the rest of Hungary and the inadequate means of communication with other Hungarian speaking areas.[28] 


Bartók stressed the importance of an ethnographic approach to the music of neighbouring peoples. Benjamin Suchoff describes Bartók’s interested in the mutual musical influences of minorities in the pre-Trianon Hungary: 

He not only unearthed ancient pentatonic melodies still in vogue but also discovered completely different genres as well as Hungarian influences in the music of neighbouring villages inhabited by Romanians. He therefore decided that he would further extend his research to the folk music of the Transylvanian Romanians, in order to determine the nature and extent of reciprocity between Hungarian peasant music and minorities of people living in greater Hungary.[29] 


In subsequent field trips, in addition to collecting his native Hungarian folksong, Bartók collected material from both the Rumanian and Slovak minorities (See Ex. 2.4[30] for details of Bartók’s field work from 1909-1918). 

After his 1907 appointment as Professor of Piano at the Academy of Music in Budapest, Bartók mainly confined his fieldwork to holidays and summer months.  He visited Slovakian villages every year from 1906 and engaged in a comparative study of the music of the Hungarian and Slovak peoples.  In 1912 he collected Ruthenian melodies, and in the same year, collecting in the Bánát area yielded Serbian and Bulgarian material. 

Ex. 2.4:  List of counties Bartók visited in different regions, with dates.



In the summer of 1909 and in subsequent years Bartók collected folksongs from the Romanian minorities in Transylvania.  He describes isolated villages with illiterate inhabitants: “when one comes into such a region, one has the feeling of a return to the middle ages.”[31] 


Bartók’s fieldwork in Romania was concentrated in the provinces: Maramures (north), Bihor (mid west) and Hunedoara (Ex. 2.5[32]). 


Ex. 2.5:  Hungarian territorial boundaries in 1914 (pre-war outlined with double dashed lines) and 1920 (post-war: Treaty of Trianon). Bartok’s areas of fieldwork in Transylvania are indicated by: 1. Maramures (north), 2 Bihor (mid-west) and 3 Hunedoara and Alba (south-central).



These activities continued until his research was disrupted by the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the subsequent division of Hungarian territory set out in the Trianon treaty.  Bartók was especially attracted to the Transylvanian region because of its ethnic diversity (Ex. 2.6), but as a result of partition, the specific territory that Bartók was most interested in was ceded to Romania and the resulting political situation prevented him from entering these areas again.

Ex. 2.6:  Ethnographical Map of Hungary (1910)


Bartók was concerned with finding the ancient origins of Hungarian music, which was a task that also required the examination of other folk music cultures.  This led him to consider the influence of Persian-Arab music on the folk music of Eastern Europe.  In 1912 Bartók visited the Maramures region and discovered an unusual style of vocal elaboration called the hora lunga (see Ex. 5.9).  The following year he travelled to Biskra in Algeria, where he found a very similar type of vocal rendition.[33]  This prompted him to adopt a pan-national, comparative approach to his continuing ethnomusicological work.  In 1931 he wrote:

One could and should disclose the ancient cultural connections of peoples who are now far from each other; one could clarify problems of settlement, history; one could point to the form of contact, to the relationship or contrast of spiritual complexion of neighbouring nations. [34]


            Stephen Erdely states that by the end of World War I, both Bartók and Kodály had together accumulated in the region of 8000 Hungarian folk melodies.[35] Bartók’s fieldwork alone comprised a further 3200 Slovakian melodies, 3,500 Romanian melodies, 200 Ruthenian, South Slavic and Bulgarian tunes, and 69 Arabian melodies.

After his fieldwork activities ceased in 1918, Bartók’s folksong work entered a more analytical phase as he began the vast task of classifying collected material.  His first significant publication of folk song transcriptions, Cântece poporale romanesti din comitatul Bihor [The Romanian Folksongs from Bihor Country], was published in 1913 by the Romanian Academy in Bucharest.  The work contained 371 melodies, an introduction, texts and notes.  Bartok grouped the tunes, not according to genre but adopting a system of classification from the work of the Finnish collector Ilmari Krohn (1886-1960).  According to this system there are four considerations: the number of lines, the pitch of the final note of each line, the number of syllables in each line, and the range of the melody.  In the Krohn system each tune is transposed so they all have a common tonus finalis on the pitch G. 

In his first major publication of Hungarian folksong, A Magyar Népdal [The Hungarian Folk Song] in 1924, Bartók classified material according to the Krohn system. Instead of grouping music according to its functioning role, Bartók established three basic stylistic divisions:

A- Old style

B- New Syle

C- Mixed Style


         Kovács points out that the melodies of the “old style” are subdivided in a way that is primarily intended to show evolution of material.[36]  Melodies from the “old style” are characterised by their free declamatory rhythm (parlando rubato), which is adapted to the word inflections of the Hungarian language.  The oldest songs have four isometric text-lines, which consist of twelve-, eight-, or six-syllables.  Their main characteristic features are the non-architectural structures (ABCD and ABBC) and the Hungarian pentatonic scale (Ex. 2.7).

Ex. 2.7:  Old Style Pentatonic Folk song with twelve syllables lines (ABBC).


         The first main caesura (end of second line), the mid point cadence, falls most often on the flattened third.  In some cases the pentatonic structure of melodies is transformed into Aeolian, Dorian and Phrygian folk modes (Ex. 2.8).

Ex. 2.8:  Old Style Folk Song, Dorian Mode, 8 Syllable lines, (ABBC).

Bartók describes the “old style” melodies as being specific Hungarian cultural products because of their radical divergence from the melody types of neighbouring countries.  This discovery lent itself to the hypothesis that “old style” melodies were remnants of ancient Asiatic musical culture.[37] 

Unfortunately we have no direct proof of their age; but one can draw the conclusion of old age from their antique mode of ornamentation, primitive pentatonic scale, antique character of underlying texts and so forth. [38]


Bartók stated that the “old style” melodies presented “the most interesting, exciting, and valuable features,” and it can be shown that these aspects exerted a significant influence on his music. [39]

In contrast the “new style” melodies had a greater inclination towards Western influences like architectonic form (AABA), major scales and mid-point cadence on the fifth or tonic (Ex. 2.9). 

Ex. 2.9:  New Style Melody, Major Scale, Architectonic form  (AABA).

A significant feature of these tunes is invariable rhythm (tempo guisto) with heterorhythmic melodic lines.  Bartók pointed out that many of them still preserved the characteristic pentatonic phrases of the “old style”, some being in the Dorian, Mixolydian or Aeolian modes.  They demonstrated a much greater cross fertilisation with the folk music of neighbouring counties than had occurred before. 

The “mixed style” melodies were least interesting to Bartók, who claimed that they were of a heterogeneous type, demonstrating the infiltration of Western European musical culture.


            Bartók’s ethnomusicological work continued throughout his entire life and in the 1920s he did extensive work on two important Slovakian and Romanian collections, both of which were not published during his lifetime.  His work on Hungarian folk music continued at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences from 1934 to 1940 and was aimed at the preparation of Corpus musicae popularis hungaricae.  This was another project, which was never published during Bartók lifetime.  The final chapter of Bartók ethnomusicological research occurred during his American years, when he transcribed recordings held at Columbia University of South Slavic melodies made by Milman Parry in the mid-1930s.


            In the following chapter I will discuss Bartók use of folk melody in the art-music genre.  This will be achieved with analysis of Bartók’s folk music settings, the majority of which, he published during the early phase of his composing career. 



Bartók. HFS, No.  313.

[2] See Suchoff, Benjamin. “Bartok’s Odyssey in Slovak Folk Music” in BP, p. 16.

[3] Steven/1975, p. 22.

[4] Kovács, Sándor. “Ethnomusicologist” in BC, (1993) p.51.

[5] 26th December, 1904. Quoted in Griffiths, Paul. Bartok ( London: J.M. Dent, 1984), p. 17.

[6] Bartók. “Autobiography” in BBE, p. 409.

[7], Kovács, 1993, p. 51.

[8] Bartók. “Hungarian Folk Music” (1921), BBE, p.59.

[9] Bartók. “Gipsy Music or Hungarian Music” (1931) in BBE, p. 206.

[10] Bartók. “What us Folk Music?” (1931), BBE, p.6.

[11] Bartók. “Why and How do we Collect Folk Music” (1936), BBE, p.10

[12] Bartók, HFS, p.3.

[13] Bartók. “Hungarian Peasant Music” (1933), BBE, p.81.

[14] Bartók. “Hungarian Folk Music” (1921), BBE, p. 72.

[15] Bartók, HFS, pp. 2-3.

[16] Stevens/1975. p.25.

[17] Bartók. “What is Folk Music” (1931), BBE, p. 6.

[18] Quoted in Bence Szalbocsi. “Man and Nature in Bartok’s world” in BS, p. 67.

[19] Stevens/1975, p. 36.

[20] Bartók and Kodály.  The Hungarian Folksong (Reprint of the original manuscript with commentaries by Denijs Dille (London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1970)

[21] Reproduced from Erdely,2001, p. 30.

[22] Erdely, 2001, p. 28. 

[23] Bartók. BBL, p. 69.

[24] Bartók. “The Folk Songs of Hungary” (1928), BBE. p. 332.

[25] Bartok. BBL. p. 74-5.

[26] Quoted in Erdely, 2001, p. 30.

[27] Erdely, 2001, p. 30.

[28] Bartók. “Hungarian Peasant Music” (1933) in BBE, p. 91.

[29] Suchoff, Benjamin. “Bartók’s Odyssey in Slovak Folk Music” in BP, pp. 17-18.

[30] Reproduced from Erdely, 2001, p 33.  This detailed account of Bartók’s field trips has been compiled from Béla Bartók Jr.’s account of his father’s life and János Demény’s biographical study.

[31] Bartók. “Romanian Folk Music” in BBE, p. 119-20.

[32] Reproduce from Yeomans, David “Background and analysis of Bartók’s Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano (1915)” in BP, p. 186.

[33] Bartók. “Why and How we Collect Folk Music? ” (1931) in BBE, p. 11.

[34] Ibid., p.12.

[35]Stephen Erdely. “Complimentary Aspects of Bartók’s and Kodály’s folk song researches” in BKR, p. 83.

[36] Kovács, 1993, p. 57.

[37] Bartok, “Hungarian Peasant Music” (1920) BBE, p. 305.

[38] Bartók, “Hungarian Folk Music” (1933) BBE, p. 74.

[39] Bartók “Hungarian Peasant Music” (1920) in BBE p, 305-306.