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


Folklore and Nationalism


At the beginning of his career he would not even have dreamt that he would ever become a folklorist.
Until the age of twenty-four he travelled the customary road of the professional musician in a double
capacity: his first and main business was the piano, and alongside this was composition. ...

Zoltán Kodály, “Bartók the Folklorist,” in The Writings of Zoltán Kodály (Budapest, 1974), 102

An ethnographic map, showing the ethnically mixed population of Hungary at the beginning of the 20th century, taken from an atlas of 1906: e.g. red indicates Hungarians (“Magyars”), pale blue Romanians and yellow Germans



One of the Slovak volumes of Bartók's pedagogical series For Children (1908-1909) containing Slovak as well as Hungarian folk song arrangements


The principal scene of my research has been Eastern Europe. As a Hungarian I naturally began my work with Hungarian folk music, but soon extended it to neighbouring territories—Slovakian, Ukrainian, Rumanian. Occasionally I have even made jumps into more remote countries (in North Africa, Asia Minor) to gain a broader outlook. …
From the very beginning I have been amazed by the extraordinary wealth of melody types existing in the territory under investigation in Eastern Europe. As I pursued my research, this amazement increased. In view of the comparatively small size of the countries—numbering forty to fifty million people—the variety in folk music is really marvellous! …
What can be the reason for this wealth? How has it come to pass? … Comparison of the folk music of these peoples made it clear that there was a continuous give and take of melodies … This give and take is not so simple as many of us might believe. When a folk melody passes the language frontier of a people, sooner or later it will be subjected to certain changes determined by environment, and especially by the differences of language. …
            It is obvious that if there remains any hope for the survival of folk music … an artificial erection of Chinese walls to separate peoples from each other bodes no good for its development. A complete separation from foreign influences means stagnation: well assimilated foreign impulses offer possibilities of enrichment.
There are significant parallels in the life of languages and the development of the higher arts. English is impure in comparison with other Teutonic languages; about forty per cent of its vocabulary is of non-anglo-Saxon origin. Nevertheless it has developed incomparable strength of expression and individuality of spirit. …

Bartók, “Race Purity in Music” (1942), Béla Bartók Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (London, 1976), 29–31





            It would be going too far to give here a detailed description of the differences between Kodály’s works and mine. I will mention only one essential difference—a difference in procedure which may account (at least partly) for the differences in style. Kodály studied, and uses as source, Hungarian rural music almost exclusively, whereas I extended my interest and love also to the folk music of the neighbouring Eastern European peoples and ventured even into Arabic and Turkish territories to make research. In my works, therefore, appear impressions derived from the most varied sources, melted—as I hope—into unity. These various sources, however, have a common denominator, that is, the characteristics common to rural folk music in its purest sense. One of these characteristics is the complete absence of any sentimentality or exaggeration of expression. It is this which gives to rural music a certain simplicity, austerity, sincerity of feeling, even grandeur...

Bartók, “Hungarian Music” (1944), in Béla Bartók Essays, ed. Benjamin Succhoff (London, 1976), 394–95



Ethnographic photographs of peasants taken by Bartók, 1915: Rákoskeresztúr (Hungary)               Ethnographic photographs of peasants taken by Bartók, 1915: Poniky, now Slovakia               Ethnographic photographs of peasants taken by Bartók, 1915: Poniky, now Slovakia              Ethnographic photographs of peasants taken by Bartók, 1915: Poniky, now Slovakia



It cannot be denied that the impulse to begin folk song research … is attributable to the awakening of national feeling. The discovery of the values of folklore and folk music excited the national pride … Small nations, especially the politically oppressed ones, found a certain consolation in these treasures, their self-consciousness grew stronger and consolidated … But soon these nations encountered some disappointment: however little they were concerned with similar values of the neighbouring peoples, it still was unavoidable to come inadvertently in contact now and then with some aspect of the neighbouring nation’s cultural treasures of this kind. And so the trouble began.
            The offended national sentiment had to defend itself somehow—offended by the fact that the neighbouring nation was also in possession of the treasure which up to that point had been considered as an ancient, original national property—and did so by claiming priority. But as the same sentiment and similar ideology held sway in the neighbouring nation, the latter, too, would not yield from the conviction that the priority was theirs…
            …when researchers are obliged to state that in the folk music of different peoples there are interactions of importance, such as foreign influence or foreign origin, then these statements will be quite unfavourable to a considerable number of these nations. We should also consider that such “unfavourable” conclusions neither provide reason for an inferiority complex nor are they fitting for political capitalization. …
            It is regrettable that the ideological tensions of our time further the spread of such morbid one-sidedness instead of promoting an unbiased view. If, however, the above-mentioned partiality gains the upper hand in scientific discussions, that will be the end of science.

Bartók, “Folk Song Research and Nationalism” (1937), in Béla Bartók Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (London, 1976), 25






Bartók's first scholarly monograph written on the Romanian folk music of Bihor (Hungarian Bihar) and published by the Romanian Academy in 1913




Bartók's autograph notes for the German edition of his article on his 1913 Arab collection






In 1913 he learned Arabic because of his Arabian collecting. And in 1938 [recte 1936], on account of his collecting trip at the invitation of the Turkish government, he studied enough Turkish to be able to write down his recordings himself. Alongside such knowledge of languages and such exceptional musical ability, only the collector’s passion was necessary to make a large-scale folklorist out of anyone. And that, too, was there: from early childhood Bartók loved to collect insects and butterflies (later bringing home some specimens from Africa). ...

Zoltán Kodály, “Bartók the Folklorist,” in The Writings of Zoltán Kodály (Budapest, 1974), 105–106





One of Bartók's Arab textbooks with marginal notes                                                      Bartók's linguistic comments in one of his Turkish textbooks




Talking about rural life, let me add my own observations concerning the relationship between peasants of different nationalities. ... They live peacefully side by side, each speaking his own language, following his own customs, taking it for granted that his neighbour, speaking another language, does the same. An overwhelming proof of this is offered by the words of the lyric folk songs, the mirror of the people’s soul. It is hard to find among these words any thought expressing animosity towards other nationalities. And even if we should find a line or two poking fun at the foreigner, these have no more significance than some of the words by which the people of the soil good-naturedly ridicule their pastor or their own shortcomings.
            There is peace among the peasants; hatred against their brothers is fostered only by the higher circles.

Bartók, “Folk song Research in Eastern Europe” (1943), Béla Bartók Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (London, 1976), 34

  Among Turkish (Kumarli) tribesmen in Anatolia, 1936


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