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

Chapter 4

This chapter will examine the extent to which Bartók synthesised elements that were derived from his interaction with folk music.  In Bartók’s mature works these elements evolve into what Antokoletz calls “a highly complex and systematic network of divergent chords and scales.”[1]  In attempting to show the relation of folk music to Bartók’s creative music concepts, I concentrate on important techniques central to the early compositional idiom.  I will analyse Bartók’s use of modality, demonstrating its influence on the symmetrical intervallic constructions of abstract music.  It will be the purpose of this discussion to concentrate on the Bartók’s early collections of piano music, Fourteen Bagatelles op. 6 (1908), Ten Easy Pieces (1908) and Sketches op. 9b (1908-10).


In his Harvard lectures Bartók explained the difference between his concept of harmonic dissolution and that achieved by the dodecaphonic composers: Schönberg, Webern and Berg.  He described a contrast between works based on an atonal system and works fixed in a concept governed by tonal centricity:

To point out the essential difference between atonality, polytonality, and polymodality, in a final word on this subject, we may say that atonal music offers no fundamental tone at all, polytonality offers – or is supposed to offer – several of them, and polymodality offers a single tone.  Therefore our music, I mean the new Hungarian art music, is always based on a single fundamental tone, in its sections as well as in its whole.[2]


This illustrates how Bartók related chromatic pitches to modal pitch sets with common fundamental notes.  As was demonstrated in the previous chapter, Bartók used a system combining two or more modal segments, based on a single fundamental pitch, which enabled him to use all twelve pitches of the chromatic spectrum.  This system retains the fundamental tone as a point of reference, rather than a fundamental in the traditional hierarchical sense.  This technique is not concerned with atonality, but a rejection of harmony in favour of a new way of establishing tonal priority.  As was shown in the previous chapter, this technique was used to enrich the harmonic language of simple modal folk tunes.  Bartók’s rather more complex and variegated approach to polymodal interaction of his original works is demonstrated by his comments:

In our works, as well as in other contemporary works, various methods and principles cross each other. For instance, you cannot expect to find among our works one in which the upper part continually uses a certain mode and the lower part continuously uses another mode. So if we say our art music is polymodal, this only means that polymodality or bimodality appears in longer of shorter portions of our work, sometimes only in single bars.  So change may succeed from bar to bar, or even from beat to beat in a bar.[3]


It is important to note that Bartók’s ideas were not developed in isolation from other developments in European art-music: he acknowledged that this compositional trend was not only limited to the new Hungarian art music, but was also influenced by other composers affected by the folk idiom.  An important event in Bartók’s development as a composer was his discovery of Debussy’s whole-tone scales and pentatonic formations, which he felt gave “valuable hints for future possibilities.”[4]  He writes in his essay “Autobiography” about the common bond between composers linked to folk tradition:

In 1907, at the instigation of Kodály, I became acquainted with Debussy’s work, studied it through thoroughly and was greatly surprised to find in his work ‘pentatonic phrases’ similar in character to those contained in peasant music.  I was sure these could be attributed to influences of folk music from Eastern Europe, very likely from Russia.  Similar influences can be traced in Igor Stravinsky’s work.  It seems therefore that in our age, modern music has developed along similar lines in countries geographically far away from each other.  It has become rejuvenated under the influence of a kind of peasant music that has remained untouched by the musical creations of the last centuries.[5]


These discoveries coincided with Bartók’s examination of the modal and pentatonic structures of his native Hungarian folk music.  Bartók’s free compositions written after this period are an attempt to synthesis these elements and provide a cohesive framework for the construction of new works. 



In 1907 Bartók was appointed chair of piano teaching at the Academy of Music in Budapest.  His activities in 1907 led to a series of original piano works that formed the basis of a new style. These were published as collections of short pieces, the earliest of which was the Fourteen Bagatelles op. 6.  Bartók described them in 1945:

A new piano style appears as a reaction to the exuberance of the Romantic piano music of the nineteenth century; a style stripped of all unessential decorative elements, deliberately using only the most restricted technical means. [6]


He was evidently aware of the importance of the place of the Bagatelles in his compositional development when he said that: “the Bagatelles inaugurate a new trend of piano writing in my career.”[7]  He wrote in a letter of 1910 that after writing the Bagatelles:

 I have regained some inner “harmony,” so that today, I am not need of contradictory accumulation of dissonances which express that mood. This may be a consequence of allowing myself to become more and more influenced by folk music [8]


Many Bartók scholars have emphasised the importance of the Bagatelles in the wider context of the turn-of-the-century modernist movement.  Stevens points out that Bartok was ahead of his contemporaries:

The Piano music of 1908 shows experimentation with bitonality, dissonant counterpoint, chords in intervals other than thirds, somewhat before the works of Stravinsky and Schoenberg in which these devices first came to light.[9]s


Elliot Antokoletz, who uses the Bagatelles as the basis of his study The Music of Béla Bartók (1984), points out that they were “one of the earliest sets of pieces to discard the triad as the exclusive harmonic premise.”[10]  The originality of these pieces was highlighted by Ferruccio Busoni’s words of praise, which were included in an advertisement for the first edition published by Károly Rosznyai in 1909:

I hold these pieces to be among the most interesting and original of our time; what the composer has to say is out of the ordinary, and entirely individual.[11]


These pieces parallel the dissolution of tonality found in the early music of Arnold Schönberg.  There are strong parallels between the Bagatelles and Schönberg’s op. 11 piano pieces composed the following year.  They mark an important transition from the youthful style to Bartók’s more individualistic mature style found in later works.  Victoria Fischer, author of an article on the Bagatelles, points out that these pieces are a “microcosm” of Bartók’s mature style and contain seeds of what was developed in later compositions.[12] 


Other collections subsequently published by Bartók, Seven Sketches op. 9b, and Ten Easy Pieces, also all illustrate various levels of compositional treatment Bartók used for the accompaniment of folk music, as well as techniques for the creation of original music. A method quite common to all these collections is the pedagogical exploration into a limited use of technique.  These studies can indeed be interpreted as the seeds of composition, revealing the basic constructions of Bartók’s musical oeuvre, which later developed into more complex interactions.  On one level these works reveal Bartók’s interest in a pedagogical approach to composition, and on another they are an exposition of his early experimental ideas, which took shape in his larger scale compositions. 



In Bagatelle no. 1, polytonality is the main feature of the musical language and the piece is notated in two key signatures, which Bartók says is a “half-serious, half-jesting procedure” designed to make fun of the use of key signatures in contemporary music.[13]  The top stave has four sharps implying C#-minor, and the lower stave has four flats implying F-minor. In his analysis of this piece Bartók rejects a polytonal interpretation, which asserts the existence of two keys operating simultaneously.  He states unequivocally that the tonality is “simply a Phrygian coloured C major.”[14]  This statement supports a polymodal rather than the polytonal interpretation.  In his Harvard lectures Bartók explains the inability of the ear to perceive two or more different keys simultaneously.  He points out that the ear selects one key as the fundamental and “will project the tones of the other keys in relation to the one selected.”[15]  In other words, the pitches of one key will be heard as altered tones of a second key.


 Antokoletz’s analysis shows that the upper line has characteristics of C#-Aeolian superimposed over descending C-Phrygian segments.  At the most prominent cadential points the C-Phrygian and C#-Aeolian modal lines coincide on the dyad C-E, implying C major tonality (Ex. 4.1).[16]  It is clear that Bartok intended to assert the priority of Phrygian coloured C-Major without resorting to traditional dominant-tonic chordal functionalism.  It is interesting to note that the only pitch missing from the twelve-note spectrum is D-natural, which tends to emphasis the flattened second Phrygian colouring.


Ex. 4.1:  Bagatelle No. 1, Bars 1-12.


Bagatelle No. 1 demonstrates the use of melodic and harmonic symmetries, which equalise the notes of the diatonic mode.  Antokoletz points out that the C#-Aeolian mode is gradually transformed in this piece into reordered, three-note segments of the cycle of fifths.[17]  The second segment (F#-C#-G#) is presented in its symmetrical cyclic order (bar 7).  This process is intensified in the second section, where a six-note sequence of descending fourths is unfolded (E-B-F#-C#G#-D#) (bars 13-14).

Ex. 4.1:  Bagatelle No. 1, bars 13-18.


In bars 10-11, another symmetrical construction is used as the upper line is derived from a C-pentatonic pitch collection.  I have shown in the previous chapter that fourth chords, which can also be rearranged as cycle of fifths, are related to the pentatonic scale (Ex. 3.10).  In light of this fact, I can demonstrate that the pentatonic label applies equally as well to the three-note groups in bars 7-8 and 13-17.  To a large degree the intervallic constructions of this piece are influenced by the symmetrical pentatonic properties of folk music.  In bar 12, the upper line uses another symmetrical ordering (E-A-B-C#-F#).  These symmetries weaken the tonal hierarchy, creating a sense of tonal stasis.  Bartok warns us that an attempt to apply tonal interpretations is to “pigeonhole all music” that we do not understand.  The music is better understood as a complex interaction of scales, chords and pitch collections.

Bartók’s approach to polymodality is also well demonstrated in the second of his Seven Sketches op. 9b.  In bars 1–4 an E-minor triad is simultaneously sustained in the right hand with the Ab major tetrachord of the left hand.


Ex. 4.2:  Seven Sketches, Op. 9b, bars 1-5.


These chords belong to separate C-Lydian and C-Phrygian modal collections, which together form a twelve-note polymode. 

Ex. 4.3:  C-Phrygian/Lydian Polymode.

Implicit in the opposition of major and minor chords is the suggestion of a child’s see-saw implied in the title of the work, “See-Saw, Dickory-Daw”.  This alternation of major and minor chords is the basis of the piece until bar 16.  Here the unison texture adopts a C-Aeolian modality stressing the flattened seventh degree.  Suchoff points out that these final bars mark an abrupt change in tonality as a new polymode is constructed out of the fusion of the pitches of C-Lydian and C-Aeolian modes.[18]  This is emphasised by the use of the note Gb, an interval of a diminished fifth from the tonic C.


Ex. 4.4:  Seven Sketches, Op. 9b, No. 2, bars 17-20.


In asserting “its tonality is indisputably a pure C major,” Bartok resisted a bi-tonal explanation of this work.[19]  However, the use of the key C major is unconventional in a traditional sense, as the key asserts itself by the conjunction of two diverse pitch collections based on a common fundamental.  The chromatic pitches are best understood as the diverse ingredients of different modal materials. This procedure is similar to the methods of polymodal harmonic construction demonstrated in the previous chapter.

As was demonstrated in Bagatelle no. I, Bartók transforms modal material, concentrating on abstract symmetrical formations, which are treated like melodic cells.   Antokoletz points out that:


The new means of providing coherence in an idiom based on equalisation of the semitones is primarily found in the intervallic pitch cells.”[20]



The folk music precedent comes from Bartók’s interest in the symmetrical relations in the intervals of the pentatonic scale and the resultant minor-seventh-chord.

Ex. 4.5:Hungarian Pentatonic Scale.

A good example of the non-functional use of minor-seventh-chord can be found in the final four bars of Bagatelle No. XIII.  Bartók juxtaposes two minor-seventh-chords a tritone apart, which demonstrates the use of the augmented fourth/diminished fifth as a sort of substitute dominant (Ex. 4.6).  The tritone is a symmetrical division of the octave into two halves. Antokoletz points out that the pitches are derived from a complete octatonic collection (Eb-E-Gb-G-A-Bb-C-Db).[21]  These chords are treated like harmonic motives rather than a conventional chordal progression.


Ex. 4.6:  Bagatelle No. XII, bars 23-26.

The final Ebminor seventh chord, which is the point of rest on which the piece finishes, is given a consonant role.  As I have demonstrated in the previous chapter, this unconventional practice was derived from the symmetrical relations of the pentatonic scale.


Bartók also applied symmetrical concepts to more abstract formations based on non-diatonic pitch collections.  In Bagatelle no. 3, he uses a chromatic scale segment, which is repeated as a right hand ostinato figure.  The left hand symmetrically expands the cluster by emphasising a tritone boundary interval (F#-C).


Ex. 4.7:  14 Bagatelles, No. II, bars 3-6. 


New pitches are added at bar 12 (C#) and bar 18 (D), which finish a complete statement of all twelve chromatic tones.  The use of the tritone interval (F#-C) emphasises the underlying Lydian tonality, which belongs to the C-Lydian/Phrygian twelve-note polymode.  C major tonality is emphasised by motion from leading-note to tonic, which occurs at important cadential points. 


In the finger study, Ten Easy Pieces, IX, Bartok uses a similar ostinato figure constructed from the notes of the whole-tone scale. 



Ex. 4.8:  Ten Easy Pieces, No. IX, bars 5-8.



In bars 5-8, the music alternates between two whole-tone segments a semitone apart (Ex. 4.8).  In the bass clef, the interval A-Bb (bar 5-6) operates as a symmetrical expansion of the first whole-tone cluster, emphasising the flattened second of the A-Phrygian mode.  The melodic interval of a tritone, A-D#(bars 7-8) emphasises the A-Lydian mode.  It can be asserted that the chromatic material of this piece is derived from the A-Lydian/Phrygian polymode.  The tonal priority of A is emphasised by its use as an important final cadential note (bar 41).  In the final section an A-C dyad is superimposed over two whole-tone tetrachords (D#-C#-B-A and F#-E-D-C), emphasising the tritones, D#-A and F#-C.  Antokoletz used the label “Y-cell” to describe this symmetrical tetrachord, which is constructed from the first four degrees of the Lydian mode, outlining an augmented fourth interval.[22]


Ex. 4.8:  Ten Easy Pieces, No. IX, bars 41-51.




The whole-tone scale is treated in an experimental manner in Seven Sketches, no.3.  In bars 1-5, the principal pitches of the melody are derived from a whole-tone segment (Ab-F#).  This is a good example of Bartók’s syntheses of whole-tone scales with his Phrygian/Lydian, polymodal chromaticism. 


Ex. 4.9:  Seven Sketches, Op. 9b, No. 3, bars 1-5.


A similar use of the whole-tone scale can be found in Seven Sketches, no. 7.  The second half of this piece superimposes two whole-tone pentachords A-E# and F#-C*(in parallel motion), which are a major sixth apart (bars 17-22).

Ex. 4.10:  Seven Sketches, Op. 9b, No. 7, bar 17.


            The combination of pitches is derived from a ten-note segment of the chromatic scale.  In the final bar, Bartok uses the whole-tone pentachords as vertical cluster chords.  The tonal priority of A is asserted by its prominence as the lowest note of the pentachord formations.  In this piece Bartok synthesises whole-tone scales with the chromaticism of the A-Phrygian/Lydian polymode. 

Ex. 4.10:  Seven Sketches, Op. 9b, bar23.


Another symmetrical tetrachord used in Bartók’s Ten Easy Pieces, no. II is the Z-cell[23], which is made up of two semitone intervals separated by a perfect fourth.  In bars 3-6, Bartók superimposes a D-Dorian melody over a D-Z-cell ostinato in the bass clef. 


Ex. 4.11:  Ten Easy Pieces, No. II, bars 3-6.


In bars 7-9, Bartók uses an F-Z cell transposition, and it can be shown the D-Z cell and F-Z cells are related by their common derivation from a complete octatonic collection.  This piece is a good example of Bartók’s synthesis of modal, chromatic and octatonic collections, which are all derived from the twelve-note Lydian/Phrygian polymode.

Ex. 4.12:  Combination of two Z-cells to create octatonic collection.


Antokoletz (in his study of Bartók’s piano music) stresses the importance of the octatonic scale, demonstrating that by extending diatonic modes, one can form a complete octatonic collection.

While the diatonic extensions themselves appear as one or another of the church modes in authentic folk melodies, the octatonic extensions represent abstract formations of the original non-diatonic folk sources.  In addition, in certain instances in Bartok’s music, whole-tone scales may be understood as abstract extensions of one or another of the folk modes.  All these extensions, whether or not they can be found among the authentic peasant melodies (the completed octatonic and whole-tone scales cannot), are exploited both melodically and harmonically by Bartók as pitch sets, that is, as divorced from traditional tonal functions.[24]


Antokoletz uses an example of a non-diatonic mode (Ex. 4. 13), quoted by Bartók in his Harvard lectures (See Ex. 3. 6), to show the convergence of scale types in a folk music structure.


Ex. 4.13:  Non-diatonic Folk mode.


The primary focus of this analysis is to show the interaction of octatonic, whole tone and diatonic scales.  Whether the octatonic scale is a pre-compositional source is open to debate, as Bartók does not refer to it directly.  It is an effective analytical tool, as it becomes a way of linking abstract formations with the contextual properties of diatonic scales.  The octatonic scale encompasses several pitch collections and is a useful frame of reference for the combination of diverse harmonic types.


A good example of Bartók’s early use of the octatonic scale is found in Bagatelle number XI.  In this piece he superimposes an octatonic scale over a sequence of fourth chords (Ex. 4. 14).  These chords are based on a re-ordering of the cycle of fifths (F-C-G-D-A-E-B), which is related to the diatonic structure (C-D-E-F-G-A-B).  This is a good example of the use of the symmetrical fourth chord, which Bartók derived from the frequent skip of the interval of a perfect fourth found in Hungarian folk melodies.[25]  It is a significant shift away from the use of the triad as the basic harmonic premise of a piece.  The combined effect of these two diverse pitch collections is tonal stasis, which lacks traditional functional chordal progression.

Ex. 4.14:  Bagatelle No. XI, bars 26-29.

The final dissonant chord, containing a diminished fifth, which remains unresolved, reinforces this effect. The tonality is indecisive and taken as a whole it exhibits Bartók’s tendency towards a fusion of different elements derived from the symmetrical properties of folk music. 

Ex. 4.14:  Bagatelle No. XI, bars 83-88.


This examination of Bartok’s early music now leads into chapter five where I will examine how Bartók absorbed these techniques into his mature style.


[1] Antokoletz/1984, p.1.

[2] Bartók. “Harvard Lectures” (1943) in BBE, p.370.

[3] Ibid., p. 370.

[4] Ibid., p. 362.

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

[6] Bartók. “Introduction to Béla Bartók Masterpieces for the Piano” (1945) in BBE, p. 432.

[7] Ibid., p. 432.

[8] Quoted in Lázlo Somfai. Béla Bartók: Composition, Concepts and Autograph Sources (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 12.

[9] Stevens/1975, pp. 41-42.

[10] Antokoletz. “‘At last something truely new’: Bagatelles” in BBC, p. 110.

[11] Lásló Somfai, Béla Bartók: The Complete Edition (Budapest: Hungaroton LPX 1299), 8.

[12] Fischer. “Bartók’s Fourteen Bagatelles op..6, for piano” in BP, p. 273.

[13] Bartók. “Introduction to Béla Bartók Masterpieces for the Piano” (1945) in BBE, p. 433.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Bartók. “Harvard Lectures” (1943) in BBE, p.365.

[16] Antokoletz/1984, p.52.

[17] Ibid, pp 52-52.

[18] Bejamin Suchoff, 1993, p. 140.

[19] Bartók. “Introduction to Béla Bartók Masterpieces for the Piano” (1945) in BBE, p. 433.

[20] Antokoletz,/1984, p. 78.

[21] Ibid, p.83.

[22] Ibid., pp. 69-70.

[23] Label applied by Antokoletz.

[24] Ibid., p.204.

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