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

Chapter 3

The Mounting of a Jewel.

The number of Bartók’s folk music arrangements is estimated at nearly two hundred by Victoria Fischer, the majority of which were settings for solo piano.[1]  This activity, which spanned Bartók’s entire career, was most concentrated during the period 1906-1918, occurring when Bartók undertook the vast majority of his fieldwork. 

In a lecture given at Columbia University, Bartók described the arranging of folk melodies as the “mounting of a jewel.”[2]  This was the first of three different categories of folk arrangement outlined by him in 1931.

(1)           The folk melody is the most important part of the work and the accompaniment takes second place.

(2)           Equal importance of accompaniment and melody.

(3)           Added compositional treatment is the most important part and the melody is “only regarded as a kind of motto.”[3]


This three-level concept of folk music arrangement demonstrated the evolution of Bartók’s concepts for the assimilation of folk material into art-music..

The entry of folk song into Bartók’s musical vocabulary was an outcome of his meticulous transcription work, and consequently we can view Bartók’s ethnomusicological activities as part of his overall compositional training.  In this chapter, by looking at Bartok’s early folk music settings, I will illustrate what Paul Griffiths calls the marriage of Bartók’s creative and ethnomusicological self.[4]  It will show how Bartók’s extensive analysis of transcriptions influenced his musical thinking.  Examples of Bartók’s harmonisations of folk music arrangements will illustrate the derivation of harmonic structures from modal properties.

Derivation of Harmonic Structures

In his essay “Autobiography” (1921), Bartók talked about the considerable influence that folk music studies had over his harmonic thinking:

The outcome of these studies was of decisive influence upon my work, because it freed me from the tyrannical rule of major and minor keys…  It became clear to me that the old modes, which had been forgotten in our music, had lost nothing of their vigour.  Their new employment made new rhythmic combinations possible.  This new way of using the diatonic scale brought freedom from the rigid use of major and minor keys, and eventually led to a new conception of the chromatic scale, every tone of which came to be considered of equal value and could be used freely and independently.[5]


Bartók drew attention to the fact that most Western European musicians “believed that only simple harmonisations were well suited to folk melodies.”[6]  This was usually achieved by a succession of tonic, dominant and subdominant triads.  Bartók argued that the fundamental difference between Eastern European and Western European folk music was that it “generally avoids allusions to the dominant triad in its melodic structure” and in this way avoids conventional cadence structures.[7]  In his lecture recital “The Folksongs of Hungary” (1928), he pointed out that the old modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian), which are found in abundance in Hungarian folk music, generally lack a dominant harmonic function for the fifth degree (Ex. 3.1).

Ex. 3.1:  Heptatonic Folk Modes






            In the absence of the leading note, major seventh (F#) the conventional dominant/tonic resolution (Ex. 3.2) does not occur.

Ex. 3.2:  Perfect Cadence


Bartók pointed out that the Hungarian pentatonic scale functions in a similar way: “since the second degree [A] and major seventh [F#] are missing, the trite dominant-tonic cadence is not possible”[8] (Ex. 3.3). 

Ex. 3.3:  Pentatonic scale (the missing 2nd and 6th diatonic degrees are marked with arrows).

Bartók was primarily interested in the symmetrical relationship of the third, fifth and seventh degrees of the pentatonic scale, a circumstance, which he says exerted an important influence on his harmonic thinking.[9]  In Bartók’s work the minor-seventh-chord, constructed from these degrees, adopts a consonant character and is frequently used at points of rest – even final cadences. 

Bartók derived new and interesting harmonic materials from the pentatonic scale, but did not limit himself to its triadic resources.  It can be shown that, apart from the minor-seventh-chord, the pentatonic scale contains only two other triads and their inversions. In his arrangements Bartók frequently employed non-diatonic notes and chords that supported melody notes, but which did not form part of them.

Another harmonic idea Bartók derived from folk music was the important role of the interval of a tritone.  He attributed this to its use in Romanian and Slovakian folk music in the Lydian mode (Ex. 3.4).

Ex. 3.4:  Folk Song in the Lydian Mode.


In his lecture series “The Folk Songs of Hungary” Bartók pointed out that these melodies brought about the free use of the tritone and chords (Ex. 3.5).

Ex. 3.5:  Chords using the interval of a diminished fifth. 

Through inversion, and placing these chords in juxtaposition one above the other, many different chords are obtained and with them the freest melodic as well as harmonic treatment of the twelve tones of our present day harmonic system,[10]


One of the most important concepts in Bartók’s harmonic thinking was the idea of bi-modality or polymodality.  Bartók juxtaposes different pitch collections, based on a common pitch, to derive extensions from the basic diatonic mode.  In his 1945 Harvard lectures Bartók outlined the use of a Phrygian/Lydian combination to create a twelve-note polymode of the chromatic scale (Ex. 3.6).[11]  In this way he was able to use homophonic pitch relations to expand his harmonic palette to all twelve tones of the chromatic spectrum.

Ex. 3.6:  Combination of two heptatonic modes to create a twelve-note chromatic scale.

Bartok maintained that these chromatic degrees should not be considered as altered chord degrees, but should be understood as “diatonic ingredients of a diatonic scale.”[12]  He went on to say in his Harvard lectures.

Bi-modality led towards the use of diatonic scales or scale portions filled out with chromaticised degrees which have a totally new function. They are not altered degrees of a certain chord leading to a degree of a following chord. They can only be interpreted as the ingredients of the various modes used simultaneously and at a given time, a certain number of seemingly chromaticised degrees belonging to one mode, other degrees to another mode. These degrees have absolutely no chordal function; on the contrary, they have a diatonic-melodic function.[13]


Bartók called this technique “modal chromaticism,” which he distinguished from the “chordal chromaticism” of the late nineteenth century. 

Vocal Arrangements

Bartok’s first vocal arrangements was a volume of twenty songs published in collaboration with Kodály.  This volume, Magyar népdalok (1906), contains what Bartók and Kodály called “choice pieces” that set out to popularise the art of the folk song and make it more accessible to the public.  In the preface, the composers stated their intention to cut new clothes for the melodies “so as not to cramp their fresh country style.”[14]  This reserve is achieved with unobtrusive, level one-type, accompaniments, which simply double the vocal line.  Vera Lampert describes how the content of this collection reflects modal and rhythmic characteristics of folk music:


There are several traces of the archaic pentatonic scale (lacking any half steps) as well as Dorian, Mixolydian and Aeolian melodies. Yet the harmonisations follow traditional paths, especially in the fast songs.  The harmonisation of the slow songs show more affinities to the particular features of the melodies, although they are extremely reserved.[15]



The sixth song, a “new style” C-Aeolian folk melody, is fairly conventional in its method of harmonic accompaniment, as it uses a system of chordal chromaticism.  It does, however, demonstrate tendencies that are characteristic of Bartók’s later arrangements.  The accompaniment avoids conventional harmonic movement by punctuating the tune on the offbeat.  The influence of pentatonicism is apparent, as there is no cadential leading-note movement to C.  The left hand accompaniment of the first section (bars 1-6), with the exception of the A in bar 4, is comprised of the notes C, Eb, G & Bb from the C-pentatonic collection (C, Eb, F, G & Bb) (Ex. 3.7).  This illustrates the relationship of the Aeolian mode to an underlying pentatonic substructure.  Elliot Antokoletz points out that these modalities show a weakening of traditional dominant-tonic relations.[16] 


Ex. 3.7:  Twenty Hungarian Folksongs, No. 6, bars 1-6.



In the second section of the tune Bartók enriches his harmony language with chromatic inflections (Db, A, F#and E), which are not a feature of the C-Aeolian melody.  These pitches belong to the tonal progressions, supporting the melody, but are not a part of the modal structure.



Ex. 3.7: Twenty Hungarian Folksongs, No. 6, bars 7-14.


An interesting aspect of the C-Aeolian folk tune is the lack of a melodic (as well as harmonic) structure to support conventional progressions, such as a V-I progression.  The final cadence in bars 18 & 19 avoids the leading note, illustrating the lack of dominant-tonic relations of the Aeolian mode.  Bartók’s method of handling tonal progressions is faithful to the modal harmonic language of the original folk melodies.


Ex. 3.7:  Twenty Hungarian Folksongs, No. 6, bars 15-20.

A good example of the use of an “old style” (parlando rubato) tune is found in No. 3a (Ex. 3.8).  Bartók hangs a D-Dorian melody on a simple sequence of sustained two or three parts chords, contrasted with a stepwise moving line.

In the second half of the song, the Bb (bar 7) can be described as a passing chordal inflection.  It is debatable whether Bartók thought of this note as a chordal or modal chromaticism.  A bi-modal analysis would suggest that the Bb emphasises the D-Aeolian collection (D, E, F G A Bb& C). This is supported by the D-Pentatonic collection (D, F, G, A & C), a subset of D-Aeolian, which is emphasised by the final three bars of the melodic line. 

The Dorian and Aeolian modal scales relate to a basic pentatonic substructure.  The following table illustrates the symmetrical, pentatonic core linking modal collections.



D-Pentatonic Mode D     F G A     C
D-Aeolian Mode D   E F C A Bb   C
D-Dorian Mode D   E F C A   B F
D-Phrygian Mode D Eb     C A Bb   F



Ex. 3.8:  Twenty Hungarian Folksongs, No. 3a.


In 1907 Bartók arranged five songs, from the Csík district of Transylvania.  This cycle was completed in 1917 and published in 1922 as Nyolc Magyar népdal [Eight Hungarian Folksongs].   Paul Griffiths points out that this collection differs from the enterprise of the previous year, as the piano enjoys a more extended role and “is not an anxious shadow of the voice but a compliment to it.”[17]   The inspiration for the collection came from Bartók’s trip to Transylvania and his subsequent discovery of a large body of pentatonic songs.  Vera Lampart describes Bartók’s preoccupation with the pentatonic scale:

The first five of these Eight Hungarian Folksongs, at least, represent the immediate creative reaction to the discovery of ancient pentatonic melodies.[18]


Elliot Antokoletz has demonstrated how Bartók harmonises the pentatonic melody using segments from different modal collections.[19]  The first song, “Black is the Earth,” has a E-pentatonic vocal line and a Phrygian substructure.  Antokoletz shows the projection of the pentatonic line into the bass line where it forms a complete statement of the E-Phrygian mode (Ex. 3.9).[20]  The tonal priority of E is preserved by the contrapuntal alignment of E-Phrygian against E pentatonic.


Ex. 3.9:  Antokoletz’s analysis of Eight Hungarian Folksongs, No. 1.



In the opening two bars, at the point where the voice enters, the piano sets the mood by alternating between the minor seventh chord (E, G, B & D) and the full pentatonic collection (E, G, A, B & D) (Ex. 3.10).

Ex. 3.10:  Eight Hungarian Folksongs, no. 1, bar 2.

The C# of bar 3 is the first major deviation from the notes of the pentatonic scale. Antokoletz points out that the C# and the F# belong to the E-Dorian pitch collection (E, F#, G, A, B, C# & D).[21]  The cadence (bar 5) introduces the notes F and C, which belong to the E-Phrygian pitch collection.  This altering of the second and sixth degrees allows the music to traverse different modes linked by their common pentatonic pitches. 

Ex. 3.10:  Eight Hungarian Folksongs, No. 1, bars 3-8.


Bartók identified a type of pentatonic scale in Hungarian music “in which the second and sixth degree of the diatonic scale occur, but as secondary, ornamental notes only.”[22]  This variability of the second and sixth degrees provides a way to enrich the tonal palette and also retain a firm point of reference.  Antokoletz points out that the significance of the E-Dorian and E-Phrygian collections is that together they “symmetrically expand around the common E-Pentatonic nucleus.”[23]


E-Dorian Mode E   F# G A B   C# F
E-Pentatonic Mode E     G A B      
E-Phrygian Mode E F   G A B  C   F



In the middle section Bartók returns to arpeggiated figuration harmonised by the pentatonic scale.  The final phrase is harmonised in E-Phrygian with a modally weakened VI7-II7-I cadence.


Ex. 3.10: Eight Hungarian Folksongs, No. 1, bars 14-17

            The third song (“Wives let me be one of your company”) also demonstrates Bartók’s early treatment of modal harmony.  Antokoletz points out that this song is the first one of the set that is not entirely pentatonic and is quite modally ambiguous, implying both Eb-Aeolian and Eb-Phrygian modality.[24]  Bartók arranged the three-verse song with a through-composed accompaniment rather than conventional strophic treatment.  In the first verse he uses the bi-modal technique of chromatic filling of a basic common pentatonic structure.  In the second verse, bars 13 –17, a greater level of extension to the modal structure is employed, as contrasting statements of E-Major and E-Minor chords conflict with the Eb-Phrygian collection (Ex. 3.11).


Ex. 3. 11:  Eight Hungarian Folksongs, No. 3, bars 13-17.

The final chord of this phrase illustrates Bartók’s interest in using symmetrical pitch constructions as consonant structures. This chord is derived from the melodic use of the perfect fourth interval in folk melody. He writes:

The frequent repetition of this remarkable skip occasioned the construction of the simplest fourths chord (which was filled in to be completed as a consonant chord) and its inversions.”[25] 


At the end of the second line, bar 17, Bartók uses a re-ordered, symmetrical fourths chord (A, B, E & F#) in a consonance cadential function.  These chords can be seen as a re-ordering of the notes of the pentatonic scale. 


Ex. 3.12:  Fourths Chord and B-Pentatonic Collection

The minor-seventh-chord (also a symmetrical collection based on the pentatonic scale) is similarly treated in the final verse.  In bars 26-37 the accompaniment is exclusively harmonised by the minor-seventh-chord (Eb Gb, Bb & Db), which accentuates the basic pentatonic substructure of the entire song. 

Ex. 3.13:  Eight Hungarian Folksongs, No. 3, bar 26.

The fifth setting (If I climb Yonder Hill), based on the E-Pentatonic scale, goes a stage further than the modal extensions previously examined.  Antokoletz shows how Bartók goes “beyond the limits of the polymodal chromaticism of the preceding songs.”[26]  Similarly to the other songs of this group, the starting point is an opening statement of the minor seventh (pentatonic substructure) chords.  At bar 5, the pentatonic modal collection is transformed into a symmetrical series of root position triads based on the whole tone scale (Ex. 3.14).

Ex. 3.14:  Eight Hungarian Folksongs, No. 5, bars 5-7.


Antokoletz points out that the cycle of fifths in the two lower voices starts out from the pentatonic notes (B, E, A, D & G), which is a point of reference for most of the material of the piece:

Thus, the E-pentatonic pitch content of the folk tune serves not only as an invariant symmetrical structure without polymodal chromaticism (E-Phrygian, E-Dorian, and E-Aeolian) but also as a point of departure for the generation of larger sets of interval cycles (two whole-tone scales and a cycle of fifths). This foreshadows a new means of progression in Bartók’s later works.[27]


Vera Lampert draws attention to another interesting feature of the fifth song, which is the use of an instrumental variant in the sections where piano is heard alone.  This illustrates the growing importance of piano as an equal partner to the vocal line.  Both the third and the fifth songs demonstrate Bartok’s interest in variation-form and his need to incorporate folk material in his large-scale structures.  Lampert points out that the set is presented as a cycle with songs grouped into movements: “slow-slow-fast; slow-fast; slow-fast-fast.”[28]  This foreshadowed the more extensive assimilation of folk music and classical forms that took place in later collections like Village Scenes (1924) and Twenty Hungarian Folksongs (1929).


Piano Arrangements

In 1907 Bartók was given the chair of piano teaching at the academy of music in Budapest.  This period was marked by his interest in compositions for piano that expressed two frequently coinciding aims: 

(1)               His desire to forge a new individualistic musical language.

(2)                The need for a repertoire of pedagogical music to fulfil his teaching duties.

His important discoveries as an ethnomusicologist were to inspire keyboard creations and it was through piano music that the spirit of folk music was assimilated into his art.

            His first arrangements for piano were Három Csík Megyei Népal [Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csík District] (1907).  These simple settings were composed along similar lines to the Twenty Hungarian folksongs.  The first song illustrates Bartók’s interest in variable tempo rubato rhythm with its flowing ornamental line.  Similarly to the vocal settings, he uses harmonies that are derived from modal characteristics.  In the first song the B-Dorian melody is lacking the major seventh degree; consequently the dominant/tonic function is lacking.

Ex. 3.15:  Three Hungarian Foksongs from Csík, No. 1, bars 14-17.


            In 1908 Bartok mixed folk settings and free composition in The Fourteen Bagatelles Op. 6.  This volume of short pieces was a milestone in Bartók’s development as a composer, as it combined his interest in deriving new pitch structures from folk music and his own individual musical conceptions.  It also coincided with his discovery of parallels between Debussy’s music and folk music.  The majority of the pieces are original compositions with the exception of No. IV and No. V.  No. IV, a setting of a melody from the Tolna province of Hungary, is a good example of Bartók’s liking for the minor-seventh-chord. 


Ex. 3.16:  Hungarian Folk melody arranged by Bartók in Bagatelle No. IV.


In the first phrase, simple triads accompany the D-Aeolian melody and the seventh degree is added to each chord in the second phrase, creating a sequence of minor-seventh-chords (Ex. 3.17). Antokoletz describes this experiment:

The parallel motion of these root-position chords contributes to the equalization of the chordal tones, by eliminating the necessity for logical preparation or resolution of any of the tones in terms of traditional voice-leading.[29] 


The pentatonic bass line further weakens the tonal function, with its characteristic absence of semitone steps. 



Ex. 3.17:  Fourteen Bagatelles, No. IV, bars 1-4.



Bartok scholars have all drawn attention to the importance of the Bagatelles, as an important juncture in his rejection of the conventional principles of harmony.  Bartok combined the use of modal folk music with experimental use of dynamics, rhythm and piano sonority.

Unconventional use of piano sonority can be found in Bagatelle No, V, which is a harmonisation of a Slovakian melody.

Ex. 3.18:  Slovakian Folk Song arranged by Bartók in Bagatelle No. V.


Bartók harmonised the first 27 bars with a single minor-seventh-chord (G, Bb, D, F) (Ex. 3.19).  This chord reflects the primary notes of the melody and projects as Antokoletz points out “a vertical (harmonic) ordering from the melodic contour.”


Ex. 3.19:  Fourteen Bagatelles, No. 5, bars 5-11.


This harmonic procedure can be compared with serialism, where vertically presented melodic cells generate harmony texture.  The difference is that Bartok does not depart entirely from diatonic functions of modes and their ability to assert a sense of tonic key. 

            Bartók incorporated folk song settings into two other collections of piano pieces that were intended as companion volumes to the Bagatelles (Ten Easy Pieces (1908) and Seven Sketches (1908-10). 

Bartok subsequently turned his attention to folk music for didactic purposes.  These collections concentrated on settings of Slovakian and Romanian music for piano.  The arrangements in For Children (1908-10), a volume of Hungarian and Slovak melodies, exhibit similar harmonic tenancies to the Bagatelles.  Suchoff draws attention to no. 18, vol. 1, because of its use of the D-Lydian/ Phrygian, twelve-note polymode. Likewise, No. 39, vol. 2, is a good example of E-Phrygian/Lydian polymodal chromaticism, use of parallel fifths and unresolved dissonance.[30] 


After a considerable hiatus in his compositional output Bartók turned his attention to Romanian music and 1915 he produced two collections, Romanian Christmas Songs and Romanian Folk Dances.  The settings of Romanian colinda (Christmas carols) are interesting because of their distinctive melodic and rhythmic characteristics.  János Kárpáti demonstrated how Bartók retained the “asymmetrical quality of meter” (Ex. 3.20).[31]

Ex. 3.20:  Romanian Christmas Carols, No. II, bars 1-7.

Kárpáti writes:

This rhythmic concept must have been a major discovery for Bartok since it was obviously at variance with the metric structure of most European music, where the structuring of time is predominantly ‘divisive’, with larger temporal units being divided into smaller, equal ones. [32]


As I will demonstrate in chapter 5, many of Bartók’s original works exhibit the rhythmical freedom characteristic of these Romanian melodies.

 In the following chapter I will illustrate how some aspects of Bartók’s approach to the harmonisation of folk melodies influenced his own original music. 



[1] Victoria Fischer. “Piano music: teaching pieces and folksong arrangements” in CCB. 100.

[2] Bartók. “The Relation Between Contemporary Hungarian Art Music and Folk Music” (1941) in BBE, p. 351.

[3] Ibid., p. 352.

[4] Griffiths, 1984, p. 47.

[5] Bartok. “Autobiography” (1921) in BBE, p. 410.

[6] Bartók. “The Influence of Peasant Music on Modern Music” (1931) in BBE, p. 342.

[7] Bartók. “The Relation Between Contemporary Hungarian Art Music and Folk Music” (1941) in BBE, p. 353.

[8] Bartók. “The Folk Songs of Hungary” (1928) in BBE, p. 334.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bartók. “The Folk Songs of Hungary” (1928), p. 388.

[11] Bartók. “Harvard Lectures (1943) in BBE, p.367.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p.376.

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

[15] Vera Lampert. “Works for Solo voice with Piano” in BC (1993), p. 392.

[16] Elliot Antokoletz/1984, p. 26.

[17] Griffiths, 1984, p. 20.

[18] Vera Lampert, 1993, p.395.

[19]  Antokoletz/1984, ch. 2.

[20] Antokoletz/1984, p. 33.

[21] Ibid. p. 34.

[22] Bartok. HFM, pp. 17-18.

[23] Antokoletz/1984, p. 35

[24] Ibid., p. 42.

[25] Bartok. “The Folk Songs of Hungary” (1928) in BBE, p. 336.

[26] Antokoletz/1984, p. 41.

[27] Ibid., p. 42.

[28] Lampert, 1993, p.395.

[29] Antokoletz/1984, p. 29.

[30] Suchoff. “Fusion of National styles: Piano Literature, 1908-11” in BC (1993), p. 130.

[31] János Kárpáti. “The piano Works of the War Years” in BBC, p. 151.

[32] Ibid., p. 151-152.