The Kennedy Center


About the Work

Béla Bartók Composer: Béla Bartók
© Richard Freed

Around 1905, during the difficult, poverty-ridden years after he had completed his studies at the Liszt Conservatory in Budapest, Bartók was invited by a friend to spend a few days in the country. On the trip, he chanced to overhear one of the servant girls singing a strange and intriguing song while going about her chores. He asked her about the tune and was told that the girl's mother had taught it to her, as her grandmother had passed it on a generation before, and that there were many more such songs. Bartók encouraged her to sing the others that she knew, and he soon realized that this sturdy folk music was little related to the slick Gypsy airs and dances of the city cafés that had long passed for indigenous Hungarian music. He determined that he would discover all that he could about the peasant music of his own and neighboring lands, and many of the years of the rest of his life were given over to collecting, cataloging and evaluating this vast heritage. Folk music became not just the focus of Bartók's scholarship -- it formed the very core of his creative personality. In 1906, Bartók developed a systematic plan "to collect the finest Hungarian folksongs and to raise them, adding the best possible piano accompaniments, to the level of art song. The purpose of this would be to let foreign countries known Hungarian music." That summer, armed with a primitive phonograph and a missionary's zeal for his work, he set out into central Hungary to begin his huge project of making "a complete collection of folksongs gathered with scholarly exactitude." The following year he continued his research in Transylvania, then part of Hungary, where he found a wealth of melodies whose exotic modes, short, repetitive phrases, irregular rhythms and unusual ornamentations enthralled him. Immediately upon his return to Budapest, he made piano accompaniments for five of them in which he distilled the harmonic essence of the melodies into simple chord progressions. For a military benefit concert in Vienna and Budapest in early 1918, he arranged three songs that he had collected from soldiers in 1907 and 1914, and published the two complementary sets together later that year as the Eight Hungarian Folksongs (Sz. 64).

Bartók did not return to the genre of the accompanied folksong until 1929, when his renewed interest in the form seems to have come from a project undertaken in December 1928 by HMV in London to record a number of folksong arrangements. Bartók's colleague Zoltán Kodály had been publishing his arrangements steadily during the 1920s, and twenty of the 57 items that he had available were recorded. Bartók had only two sets, from 1906 and 1907-1917, to offer, and these did not represent the conception of folksong arrangement that he had developed after working in the field for a quarter-century, so in 1929 he chose twenty numbers from his treatise on The Hungarian Folksong , published in 1924, and provided them with a piano part that was more commentary and complement for the melodies than simple accompaniment. He divided these Twenty Hungarian Folksongs (Sz. 92) into four volumes: Sad Songs (Nos. 1-4), Dancing Songs (No. 5-8), Diverse Songs (Nos. 9-15) and New Style Songs (Nos. 16-20).