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(c) Copyright Bartók Archives of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Institute for Musicology, 2004-2005 


Folklore and Avant-garde

Bartók at Vésztő (Hungary), 1920



I was seventeen when I met Béla Bartók, and doing work in the fields of the Wenckheim estate in Kertmegpuszta, next to Vésztő. Bartók’s brother-in-law was the estate manager there, We were working in the fields when a man about thirty-five, with fair hair—not tall—came over to us and asked if anyone knew any old songs and would be prepared to sing them to him. There were many girls all together but they were all diffident and, in their shyness, said that they did not know any old songs. But I volunteered.
            In the evening he came to our quarters and sat down on a worker’s case, with a night-light beside him. I sat opposite him and sang. He noted it down. I sang two songs, the “Fehér László” and the “Angoli Borbála”. I was undoubtedly awe-struck, for no more songs came to my mind at that time. He was such a modest man, and did not press me to sing any further.
            There were many workers in the barn—the quarters—and in the evening everyone retired to rest. Only I sang. I well remember how careful he was that my singing and his work did not disturb the others. About myself I remember that I was then already a great lover of songs, and if I heard a new song I would set about learning it.
            Mostly I learnt these songs while working. My father died when I was 10. I never heard my mother sing. I learnt very many songs, but now I’m getting old and I’ve forgotten so many of them. However, I haven’t forgotten Béla Bartók—it’s as if he were here before me today. He has always remained in my memory.

Recollection of Róza Ökrös, whose songs Bartók noted down in 1918, in Malcolm Gillies, Bartók Remembered (London, 1990), 53–54





 The text and English translation of the folk ballad “Angoli borbála,” no. 34a in Bartók's Hungarian Folk Music, trans. M. D. Calvocoressi (Oxford, 1931), 112-13





So far—pour dégourdir mes membres musicaux—I have harmonized 7 Hung. songs from my collecting in the summer, among others Róza Ökrös’s famous Angoli Borbála. I recommend that you listen to her because it is truly sensational to hear such a thing in Hungarian, and furthermore, right in the centre of the Plain, and what’s more in 7/8 time.
            But I’m already thinking about the mandarin, as well; if it works out it will be a devilish piece. Its beginning—a very short introduction before the curtain opens—a terrible din, clattering, rattling, hooting: I lead the Hon. listener into the apache den from the bustle of a metropolitan street.

Bartók to his wife Márta Ziegler, September 5, 1918, in Bartók Béla Családi levelei (Family letters),
ed. Béla Bartók, Jr. and Adrienne Gombocz (Budapest, 1981), 282




Sketches for the Wooden Prince (f. 14v) and the Miraculous Mandarin (“the Chase,” f. 15r) in Bartók's single known early sketchbook, originally a folksong collecting book, published as Black Pocket-book, facs. ed. László Somfai (Budapest, 1987); Bartók estate, © 2005, Gábor Vásárhelyi, reproduced by the kind permission of Universal Edition A. G.                            

  The melody of “Angoli Borbála” (the example at the bottom of p. 9 of Hungarian Folk Music), whose melody was used by Bartók in his “Ballade,” no. 6 of Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs for piano (1914-18)


A page from Bartók's article, “Einfluß der Volksmusik auf die Kunstmusik unserer Tage” (The Influence of Folk Music on the Art Music of Today) showing an analysis of compositional technique using folk song motives and ostinatos in no. 4 of Stravinsky's Pribaoutki










So, in the meantime, I am writing music for a play by Menyhért Lengyel, its title is: The Miraculous Mandarin. And just listen to how miraculously beautiful its story is. In a ruffians’ den three rogues force a beautiful young girl to entice men up to her place, so that they then rob them.— The first one is a poor lad, the second one is no better, but the third one is a rich Chinaman. It is a good catch, the girl entertains him with dancing and the mandarin’s desire is awakened, passionate love blazes within him, but the girl is repulsed by him.— The ruffians attack him, rob him, suffocate him with an eiderdown, run him through with a sword, but all in vain, they are no match for the mandarin, who looks at the girl with loving and longing eyes.— Female intuition helps, the girl fulfils the mandarin’s desire at which point he falls lifeless to the floor.

An interview with Bartók, 1919, in Bartók Béla válogatott írásai
(The selected writings of Béla Bartók), ed. András Szőllősy (Budapest, 1956), 338–39

     Cologne after Mandarin there was a noisy demonstration against the text and a counter-demonstration in my support. The riot lasted a good ten minutes and they lowered the safety curtain, too, but the people still didn’t leave, so the fire-door was twice opened, too. Well, I can tell you that there was frantic applause (and frantic hissing)! You really should have been there, at such a big disturbance! ... The Pest newspapers report that the piece was officially banned; this is very likely, and my people in Cologne were on the one hand also afraid of this, and on the other, Szenkár says there’s no finer publicity than a ban like this. Well, we shall see.

Bartók to his mother, December 2, 1926, in Bartók Letters. The Musical Mind,
ed. Malcolm Gillies and Adrienne Gombocz, unpublished

  The world première of the Miraculous Mandarin on double bill with Bluebeard's Castle, Cologne, November 27, 1926, that caused a scandal; Bartók estate, © 2005, Gábor Vásárhelyi




I have received the revised text of the Miraculous Mandarin today. The changes (particularly from the appearance of the third man) is unfortunately at odds with the music. For this music—in contrast to today’s objective, mechanic, etc. tendency—will express psychic processes. Consequently, it is impossible to attach a text to it, which expresses a mood contrary to the music.

Bartók to his publisher, Universal Edition, April 11, 1927














On the same day, November 27, 1926, another première: that of the Three Village Scenes composed for the League of Composers; Bartók estate, © 2005, Gábor Vásárhelyi



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