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


Guide to the Virtual Exhibition


The exhibition is based largely on the original material of the Budapest Bartók Archives where the composer’s Hungarian legacy is preserved as permanent deposit from the composer’s heirs. Its holdings of primary sources are complemented with copies (mainly high quality colour copies) of compositional autographs and letters from the composer’s American estate generously donated to the Archives for scholarly use by the composer’s younger son, Peter who owns the manuscripts left in the US in his private collection.

            With this exhibition, we wish to capture something of Bartók’s significance especially as a composer who was also an ethnomusicologist. His personality is addressed primarily on two pages, Portraits of the Man and Private Life. The former is accompanied by quotations from recollections while the latter includes a few particularly important passages from Bartók letters to female confidentes of various periods of his life, the violinist Stefi Geyer in 1907, his first wife Márta Ziegler and his second wife Ditta Pásztory, as well as a few personal recollections of family members such as that of his son Peter about an excursion. Private Life is contrasted with Public Life, a page intended to provide a sketchy picture of Bartók’s career through snapshots of his professional life as concert pianist, participant of festivals and conferences, and teacher.

            A series of six further thematic pages address characteristics of Bartók’s work. Dichotomies point to the significance of contrastive pairs such as “ideal” and “grotesque” (or “distorted”) paradigmatically formulated in the Two Portraits 1908–1911), which replaced as op. 5 the early (and discarded) Violin Concerto (1907–1908) written for Stefi Geyer, a work also completed as a two-movement composition. Pairing is also present in Bartók’s music as the combination of slow and fast movements (e.g. in the rhapsody form), the contrast of his tragic opera and the fairy-tale ballet of The Wooden Prince and, more generally, as folk music versus higher art music, folksong setting or “original” composition and, finally, even as the fundamental differentiation between East and West. The symbiosis of folklore research and modernism (also a contrast) in Bartók’s activities is the subject of Folklore and Avant-garde whose point of departure is provided by a striking passage in a Bartók letter, in which he mentions some new folksong arrangements and in the same breath describes in some detail compositional ideas for his probably most progressive and shocking piece, The Miraculous Mandarin.

            Serge Moreux’s apposite concept of a folklore imaginaire in Bartók’s music is best and most palpably represented by the Dance Suite, composed (side by side with Zoltán Kodály’s Psalmus hungaricus) for the 50th anniversary of the unification of Buda and Pest in 1923. The international career of the piece, started two years later at the Prague contemporary music festival, is shown on Imaginary Folk Music. Reviews of the festival (including one by Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno) testify Bartók’s renown while the composer’s own comments illuminate the political as well as musical significance of his composition.

            His “Personal Credo” addresses, again, a single work of seminal importance, Cantata profana, whose text, compiled by the composer himself, is based on two fragmentary versions of the same ballad that survived as words for the ritual winter solstice songs in Romania, the colinde. In contrast to the Dance Suite, here it is the sources, rather than the reception of a work, that are presented, the first notation of the colindă melodies and texts in Bartók’s folksong collecting books and a fair copy prepared for the scholarly classification of the colindà collection that resulted in a monograph, Melodien der rumänischen Colinde (1935).

            Advising the interested amateur Octavian Beu writing about the Romanian inspiration behind his music in 1931, Bartók was quick to make it clear that in his Cantata only the text was derived from folklore. Although he again and again emphasized the central significance of East-European peasant music for his style in general, he also admitted some stylistic difference between his more overtly folk inspired compositions and his more “abstract” ones, especially the string quartets and the piano concertos. When speaking about it to the Belgian scholar Denijs Dille (many years later first head of the Budapest Bartók Archives), he referred to the “more rigid framework” (or “stricter setting”) of these more lofty genres. His analyses of his Fifth String Quartet (1934) and the Second Piano Concerto (1930–31), which are on show on the last-but-one page, demonstrate exactly this intellectual aspect of some of his compositions, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussions (1937) written for Basel also belonging here.

            The final page, Folklore and Nationalism, attempts to address a question that is not only implicit in any oeuvre inspired by folk music but was directly commented upon by Bartók himself, especially in his 1937 article “Folk Song Research and Nationalism” and in the late essay “Race Purity in Music” (1942) which, with far-reaching political significance, argues for the healthiness and greater riches of “impurity” in folk music.




On Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók’s life and work seem particularly relevant during a period of European integration that is just happening before our eyes and to an extent that was previously certainly never even dreamt of, especially not during the composer’s life when Europe was repeatedly divided by two “World Wars.” Bartók’s unquenchable interest in (and, as he himself expressed, love for) the peasant music of different nations, ethnicities, groups and territories has set an unparalleled example for us today.

            Béla Bartók, composer, pianist and ethnomusicologist, was born in Nagyszentmiklós in Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare in Romania) in 1881 and died in New York in 1945. His childhood was plagued with various illnesses. After the early death of the father (Béla Bartók, Sr.), when he was only 8 years old, his mother (Paula Voit) struggled to raise her two children, Béla and her younger daughter, Elza, wandering from town to town before finally settling in Pozsony (now Bratislava, Slovakia) where Béla received thorough musical instruction and completed his grammar school studies. Following in Ernő (Ernst) von Dohnányi’s footsteps, four years his senior and also coming from Pozsony, he studied piano (with Liszt pupil István Thomán) and composition (with Hans Koessler) at the Budapest Royal Academy of Music between 1899 and 1903. Although he was immediately recognized as a powerful talent as both pianist and composer, his career was not an easy one. After writing his first grand-scale “nationalist” compositions (notably the Kossuth Symphony, a work soon withdrawn, the Rhapsody for piano and for piano and orchestra, and the First Orchestral Suite), he discovered peasant music as a more indigenous and more “authentic” source of something particularly “Hungarian” in music and began to collect folk music on a regular basis and to write modern, often experimental works (Fourteen Bagatelles for piano, First String Quartet) using folk music-derived modernistic material. The development of his new musical style was also influenced by the personal crisis of his unrequited love towards the violinist Stefi Geyer in 1907–1908. In 1909 he married Márta Ziegler who bore him his first son Béla, Jr. (1911–1994). For more than a decade, he devoted most of his energies to field trips to remote areas of pre-First-World-War Hungary that also included large areas of partly or mainly Slovak and Romanian speaking ethnic groups. Quite early in his research, Bartók turned to the collection of folk music from the minorities as well. He was particularly interested in archaic features of peasant music that he described as a “natural phenomenon” whose study should be considered as “scientific” work. His extensive collections include some 3500 Romanian, 3000 Slovak and 2700 Hungarian melodies.

            From 1906, he often worked together with fellow composer and ethnomusicologist Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967). In search of ancient musical cultures, Bartók even collected rural Arab songs in Algeria in 1913 and later he visited Turkey in 1936. His collecting activity, however, practically ended in 1918 soon before the partitioning of Hungary in the wake of the First World War and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By then, especially after the successful premières of his ballet, The Wooden Prince (1914–17), and opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) in 1917 and 1918, respectively, he had established himself as the leading composer of his generation in Hungary. From that time on, his compositions were published by Universal Edition, Vienna and he could start to build up an international career as pianist and, more importantly, composer regularly visiting Paris, London and other musical centres of Europe. He also toured the United States and the Soviet Union in the later 1920s.

            1923 marks his divorce from his first wife and his marriage with his young pianist pupil, Ditta Pásztory. Their child, Péter Bartók, was born in the following year.

            Bartók’s piano music, e.g. Allegro barbaro (1911) and Out of Doors (1926) and his pedagogical compositions, e.g.. For Children (1909–1910) and Mikrokosmos (1932–39), as well as the Forty-four Violin Duos (1931) occupy a significant place in 20th-century composition, and his six String Quartets (composed between 1908 and 1939) are considered among the finest modern representatives of the genre. Some of his larger scale orchestral works also had a significant world-wide success from their first performances, especially the Dance Suite (1923) and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), the first of his compositions commissioned by the Swiss conductor and patron Paul Sacher. His pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin (1918–19, orchestration 1924), is also a classic masterpiece. These works put him close to the rank of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, the two most famous composer innovators of his generation. As author of numerous studies and editor of extensive volumes of folksong collections, Bartók was considered as a leading authority on East-European folklore.

            Following Nazi Germany’s occupation of Austria, he changed publishers to the London based Boosey and Hawkes and started to arrange for his departure from threatened Hungary and Europe and, in 1940, he went to the United States. Apart from giving concerts, he was mainly occupied at Universities (Columbia University, from which he received an honorary doctorate, and Harvard University). During his American exile, his fatal illness, leukaemia, soon made its appearance. Still, he was able to compose some great masterpieces, such as the Concerto for Orchestra (for conductor Serge Koussevitzky, 1943), the Sonata for Solo Violin (for the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, 1944) and his Third Piano Concerto written for his wife, and he was able to complete the preparation for publication of most of his folk music collections, which were, however, only posthumously published.





The exhibition was initiated by
The Hungarian Embassy in Copenhagen



It was supported by
The Hungarian Ministry of National Heritage
The Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Thanks are due to
Peter Bartók
Gábor Vásárhelyi


  Budapest Bartók Archives
Institute for Musicology
Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Graphics design:

  Museum of Music History
Institute for Musicology
Hungarian Academy of Sciences


Internet version:

Andocsek Computer Ltd.

The exhibition
is based on the collection of the
Budapest Bartók Archives