Béla Bartók was born in an area of Hungary that is now the westernmost tip of Romania. He began piano lessons at age five and in 1899 was admitted to the Budapest Academy of Music to study piano and composition. After his graduation in 1903, he embarked on a career unusually wide-ranging in its scope and impact. He was a concertizing pianist; a teacher of piano and member of the faculty of the Budapest Academy of Music; an internationally known composer; and a pioneer in the study of Eastern European folk music. In the 1930s, Bartók was among the many intellectuals and artists who came under attack for their protests against fascism and in 1940 he emigrated to the United States, where he continued to perform, teach, compose, and pursue his ethnomusicological research until his death.
Ethnomusicology is the scientific study of music of oral tradition, encompassing tribal and folk music and the art music produced by various world cultures. The discipline, whose origins date back to the 1880s, draws on methodologies of musicology, the scholarly study of Western art music, and anthropology, whose subject is mankind and human culture. Throughout the history of Western music, art and folk music repertories have influenced and enriched each other. The conscious exploitation of folk materials was especially important among 19th-century composers involved in the nationalist movement, who sought to imbue their music with a folk flavor by incorporating folk-like elements and even quoting actual folk melodies. But to Bartók and other ethnomusicologists, folk music was not a source of exotic atmosphere but an expression of human culture worth documenting for its inherent value. Beginning in his early twenties, Bartók and his friend and fellow musician Zoltan Kodaly made numerous expeditions to remote parts of Hungary and neighboring Slavic regions, recording on wax cylinders thousands of peasant tunes. As recalled by one of the singers they recorded:
I was a girl. It happened one Sunday…. The professors…asked my mother to receive them and to agree to my singing into the gramophone for them. They called the machine a ‘gramophone.’ I sang one nice verse, and then another one. It came back sounding so beautiful. The whole village gathered around us. The whole village. Everyone was wanting to sing. The young men sang, the old women sang…. I remember that the professors asked me not to sing songs we’d learned from the soldiers, but only those from the mountain region here. So I only sang ones from the mountains.
From these recordings, the music and text of the songs were notated, analyzed, and codified. Bartók’s published transcriptions of Twenty Hungarian Folksongs in 1906 was followed in 1908 by the first of his many musico-ethnological studies based upon his folk song research. He also composed numerous arrangements of folk songs—for piano, for voice and piano, for chorus—often publishing his settings alongside the notations of the tunes as recorded from the folk singers.
Bartók’s folk music studies were seminal in the formulation of a strikingly personal language in which compositional practices of art music are fused with melodic, rhythmic,
and harmonic materials of Eastern European folk music. Bartók was himself conscious of this profound influence, which he acknowledged in his many lectures and writings about his research and experiences in the field of folk music. As described by a scholar of Bartók’s music:
His music was nourished by his folkloristic studies while the scientific profited by the musician’s experience in both theoretical and practical issues. Viewing it from this angle Bartók was a very rare combination of scientist and artist….And Bartók himself considered his folk music research as entirely equal in importance to his creative activity as a composer.
That creative activity encompassed a broad range of musical genres—opera and ballet; orchestral, chamber, and solo piano works; songs and choral compositions. It is in the design and character of Bartók’s melodies, rhythms, textures, and harmonies that the influence of Eastern European folk music is most apparent. Bartók’s ethnographic music studies brought him in contact with melodies based on scales other than major and minor, which is evident in the modal flavor of many of his works. His use of irregular accents derives from the practice he encountered of grouping rhythms not into repeated patterns of two’s and three’s but into five’s, seven’s and other combinations of two’s and three’s. His textures reflect performance practices in many folk-music traditions that involve the addition of drone accompaniments and improvised countermelodies created through heterophony and parallel motion. And Bartók creates sonorities based on pitch combinations characteristic of Eastern European music in addition to those traditionally employed in Western classical music