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


The evolution of Bartók’s works is best understood as a complex of simultaneous folk music influences.  It could be assumed that Bartók’s work has been so fully analysed that any future work would be inhibited.   I have tried to point out in this paper that, for musicians, there are many promising routes for investigation, which reflect the need for analysis of national and historical folk music models. 

From the very outset, Bartók’s youthful works were drawn into the arena of nationalism, as he adopted the prevailing musical clichés of the Hungarian tradition.  A major watershed in his life was the discovery of peasant folk music, which had a decisive impact over his music, and presented him with a unified body of music, providing him with new, hitherto unexplored models for musical composition.  Bartók embraced a concept of nationality that resided in the ancient cultural life of the peasant village and devoted a large part of his life to the collection and study of rural folk music.

The most significant achievement of this ethnomusicological work was the integration of elements into a personal musical style, which ran concurrently with his researches. This occurred in the form of arrangements of folk melodies, and in the construction of original music.  Bartók’s ethnomusicological study was insolubly linked with the evolution of a musical process derived exclusively from nature:

Of course, many other (foreign) composers, who do not lean upon folk music, have met with similar results at about the same time – only in an intuitive or speculative way, which evidently is a procedure equally justifiable. The difference is that we created through Nature, for the peasant’s art is a phenomenon of Nature.[1]


In his early works Bartók relied increasingly on harmonic characteristics of folk melodies to provide a new means of musical expression, which also played a unifying role in his more abstract compositions.  Bartók acknowledged the profound influence of folk music over his compositions.  As early as 1923, he wrote the following notes about his well-known Dance Suite for piano:

Peasant music of all kinds of nationalities served as a model: Hungarian Romanian, Slovak and even Arab, and indeed, in places, even a cross between these kinds.[2]


This statement and others like it have opened a gateway for an investigation into the musical roots of Bartók music and has raised important questions as to the level of influence that was brought to bare on his original music.

In many of these works he fuses simultaneous musical influences, such as modal and pentatonic scales, melodic turns, rhythmic ideas, strophic structures, performance characteristics.  This was achieved, not a by transplantation of material, but by the exploration of material, extraction of its essence and assimilation it into an organically unified whole.  In a famous and often quoted letter to Octavian Beu in 1931, Bartók explained the pan-nationalist aspects of this integration of musical cultures:

My creative work, just because it arises from 3 sources (Hungarian, Romanian, Slovakian), might be understood as the embodiment of the very concept of integration so much emphasized in Hungary today…. .My own idea, however—of which I have been fully conscious as a composer—is a brotherhood of peoples in spite of all wars and conflicts.  I try—to the best of my ability—to serve this idea in my music; therefore I don’t reject any influence, be it Slovakian, Romanian, Arabic or from any other source.[3]


It is my view that in the light of Bartók own extensive writings on the matter, a thorough understanding of Bartók’s life long interest in Eastern European folk is invaluable to a proper comprehension of his musical works.



[1] Bartók. “The Folk Songs of Hungary” (1928) in BBE, p. 338.

[2] Quoted in János Kárpati. “Béla Bartók: The possibility of musical integration in the Danube Basin” in BKR, p. 157.

[3] Bartók. Letter dated January 10th, 1931 in BBL, p. 201.