Bartók and Kodály Collect Hungarian Folk Songs Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály began collecting Hungarian folk songs and were able to transcribe and analyze them accurately, initiating the scientific study of folk music.

Summary of Event

In the summer of 1904, Béla Bartók heard a young girl singing Transylvanian folk songs in a small rural village and quickly wrote them down. A new world of sound opened up to him. Applying for a state grant to collect more songs, in 1905 he began to record on cylinders the authentic Magyar folk songs of the Hungarian people. Having fortuitously met fellow folk song enthusiast Zoltán Kodály in the same year, Bartók went out with Kodály to collect thousands of songs and dances among the peasants of Hungary over the next decade. Music;folk Folk music;Hungarian Ethnomusicology [kw]Bartók and Kodály Collect Hungarian Folk Songs (1904-1905) [kw]Kodály Collect Hungarian Folk Songs, Bartók and (1904-1905) [kw]Hungarian Folk Songs, Bartók and Kodály Collect (1904-1905) [kw]Folk Songs, Bartók and Kodály Collect Hungarian (1904-1905) [kw]Songs, Bartók and Kodály Collect Hungarian Folk (1904-1905) Music;folk Folk music;Hungarian Ethnomusicology [g]Hungary;1904-1905: Bartók and Kodály Collect Hungarian Folk Songs[00920] [c]Music;1904-1905: Bartók and Kodály Collect Hungarian Folk Songs[00920] Bartók, Béla Kodály, Zoltán Vikár, Béla

Both men had been trained in the classical traditions of Western harmony and sonata form. Composers such as Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, and Richard Strauss had been their models in composition. The new worlds of melody and rhythm found in the Hungarian folk songs struck them like thunderbolts. Here in their own homeland was a different kind of music. As they amassed, separately and together, thousands of tunes from Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, and Bulgarian singers and instrumentalists, they realized that they had discovered the authentic folk music of Hungary and that it operated along tonal and rhythmic lines different from both the traditional classical music they had played and composed and the so-called Gypsy music that passed in Hungary and elsewhere at the time as folk music.

Kodály became interested in folk song a bit earlier than did Bartók. In 1905, he finished a doctoral dissertation on the structure of Hungarian folk songs. He had begun to listen to the folk songs recorded in 1896 on cylinders by ethnographer Béla Vikár. After introducing Bartók to these earlier recordings, Kodály set about transcribing their tunes with Bartók’s help. Kodály and Bartók were determined to carry on where Vikár had left off; they wanted to uncover the total body of living folk song in Hungary.

They sensed that what passed for genuine folk song among the general public was basically watered-down fragments. Whether in the music of Gypsy bands playing for middle-class urban audiences in Hungary and abroad or in the appearance of folk-derived melodies in classical music, compromises had been made to fit the folk melodies within conventional harmonic bounds. Nationalistic composers of the nineteenth century had tried to incorporate some folk songs into their works. Popular pieces such as Brahms’s Hungarian Dances (1869) and Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (1878, 1886), as well as the efforts of other musical nationalists, indicated a willingness to explore roots and folk heritages, but for Bartók and Kodály, this movement was not enough. With their growing concern for establishing a distinctive Hungarian art apart from the generally accepted musical models emanating from Austria’s capital, Vienna, and from Germany, they believed that new materials and new manners of composing and listening had to be forged out of fieldwork, recording, and analysis.

For a decade, beginning in 1905, Bartók and Kodály traveled the length and breadth of Hungary, sometimes together but often separately, trying to gather as much of the music as they could before it died out among the peasants, who would soon be modernized from creators and performers of music into more passive consumers of it. They discovered a harsh and ancient music that to them was a pure and natural part of the lives of rural people. Pentatonic Pentatonic scales and modal scales (similar to the old medieval church scales) were dominant in this music; only more recent, nineteenth century pieces featured conventional “Western” major and minor scales.

More rigorously than others who were starting to record folk songs on cylinders, including the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Australian Percy Grainger, they developed a method that remains the norm in the study of comparative musicology—as Bartók called it—or ethnomusicology. The first step in their method involved collecting widely and deeply in an ethnic enclave, recording everything. The next steps were to transcribe what they had recorded, using a notation system devised to indicate sound features beyond the standard notes on the music staff, and to systematize the collection of melodies. Finally, they analyzed melodic contours and scales, the minutely articulated rhythms and the frequent changes in them and in tempo characteristic of live folk song, in addition to analyzing the exact relation of words and melody.

Béla Bartók.

Bartók further stressed in his numerous essays during this period and later that the field-worker had to know the context before entering the field, including previous collections and the folk customs and rituals of the people to be studied. Field-workers also needed to use photography to record instruments and their detailed features, and, ideally, they would use film to capture folk dance. As pioneers in ethnomusicology, both men advocated a gestalt approach, a complete study of a culture and its music.

They were also concerned with publishing their results so that a broad public would become aware of this heritage. In 1906, they issued piano arrangements of twenty Hungarian folk songs. Through the remainder of their lives they published a steady stream of essays and books; the flow continued even after their deaths. A massive corpus of folk song containing more than ten thousand items began to appear in the 1920’s. Kodály’s later work has been appearing since World War II in volumes produced by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.


Almost immediately after Bartók and Kodály began their research, their own work was affected and Hungarian musical life was turned upside down. The new harmonies and scales shocked the concertgoing public, and the two men’s vociferous advocacy of a reform of music making and even educational practice in the schools disturbed conventional ways of hearing music. Bartók, in particular, extended his research beyond Hungary to North Africa in 1913 and to Turkey in 1935. He was determined to trace Eastern European music styles to Asian styles, and he succeeded. In his many essays and in his own classical compositions, he fused Eastern European music with analogous Asian practice and brought to Western classical music a more worldwide sensibility. Like his contemporary Igor Stravinsky, Stravinsky, Igor who had delved into authentic Russian folk song, he was a revolutionary in composing tonally—but with new tonalities based on folk practice. Unlike the members of the Austrian-centered atonal and twelve-tone schools, who rigorously avoided a tonal base in their practice, Bartók and Kodály always believed that some tonal system was essential if classical music was to be renewed, so that music would remain in a sense “within” cultures. To them, that meant a kind of music making that flowed from a people’s folk culture through to the composing of concert music. Neither man eschewed altogether the standard genres of classical music; rather, they renewed those genres from within.

Bartók’s music from 1908 on reflects his research into folk song. With the inspiration of Claude Debussy and later Igor Stravinsky, who were working with whole-tone scales and rhythms from folk music, Bartók began in works such as the piano pieces Allegro Barbaro (1911), Allegro Barbaro (Bartók) the Fourteen Bagatelles (1908), Fourteen Bagatelles (Bartók) and Two Rumanian Dances (1909-1910) Two Rumanian Dances (Bartók) to use pentatonic scales, the interval of the fourth, the minor third, and folk dance rhythms (especially Bulgarian ones) to alter his earlier musical practices, which were quite conventional in the line of Liszt, Brahms, and Strauss. Even the most conventional of his six string quartets (usually considered to be the greatest set of string quartets since Ludwig van Beethoven’s) reveals the influence of folk song. Most significant is his creation, in the period 1908-1909, of a piano manual in miniature, For Children, For Children (Bartók) consisting of eighty-five graded pieces for students. Like Kodály, whose major interest became that of music education as reform method, Bartók committed himself to the spread of his ideas through publications for the general public.

It was not until after World War I that Bartók and Kodály emerged as world figures and achieved mature styles and methods. Kodály wrote a number of concert works that have remained popular. His symphonic pieces based on folk tunes became world renowned. His two “folk” operas, Háry János (1926) Háry János (Kodály) and Spinning Room (1924-1932), Spinning Room (Kodály) were based on folk customs and used folk songs. His unyielding commitment to music education was stunning in its impact. He arranged folk songs for choruses of various types in order to revive group singing and developed what is now called the Kodály method of music instruction Kodály method of music instruction for schools from the elementary through secondary levels. Taught in institutes in Hungary and in other nations, his method of graded instruction in group singing and the fundamentals of music (intervals, rhythms), which incorporated elements of folk music, helped to renew interest in putting music into the educational system on an equal basis with other subjects.

Both men continued their scientific analysis of folk song from the 1920’s on, with Bartók balancing his touring as a pianist (one of the most brilliant of the century) and composing of large-scale works with his research, which intensified from 1934 until his death in 1945. He also contributed to Kodály’s educational crusades with settings for chorus of folk songs he collected.

From 1920 on, Bartók’s own compositions reflected a synthesis of various kinds of folk music with some features of other avant-garde composers. His study of baroque music and counterpoint in the 1920’s contributed another strain to his own music, one not fundamentally alien to the underlying folk aesthetic he had mastered. Counterpoint and baroque motor rhythms, with the repetition and variation of small phrases and motifs, did not clash with the similar methods of folk musicians, who used repetition and variation as fundamental structural principles. Alternation of slow and fast movements as well as polyrhythmic features within movements of large-scale compositions fit with folk performance practices, especially of folk dance tunes, which Bartók used widely. Vocal styles that included passing tones (or grace notes), melisma, and sudden leaps became part of his instrumental method. The often freely varied, essentially rhapsodic, and increasingly rapid ornamental style of folk fiddlers inspired nearly all of his mature works for orchestra. His percussive use of the piano stemmed from his knowledge of folk drumming in Africa and elsewhere. Combinations of modal scales were frequent in the vertical (harmonic) aspect of his composing, and in the horizontal (melodic) he tended to use short-phrased figures that were often in eighth-, sixteenth-, and dotted-note configurations. All these features imparted to his major compositions a unique sound and style.

In another light, Bartók’s Forty-Four Duos for Two Violins (1931) Forty-Four Duos for Two Violins (Bartók)[Forty Four Duos for Two Violins] and the 153 pieces in Mikrokosmos for piano (1926-1939) Mikrokosmos (Bartók) reveal his concern for music education and his creation of what are in essence musical encyclopedias for a new corpus of music. In these collections, graded for teaching, he not only addressed music students in a practical way but also set forth an aesthetic rooted fundamentally in folk music. Using folk tunes he had collected as well as all the technical features inherent in required mastery of violin and piano playing, Bartók succeeded in bringing together explicit folk practice and more standard classical techniques, which are themselves derived in large part from folk practice of the past.

Bartók’s double career represents a unique accomplishment for a composer. His methods are a model for the reinvigoration of twentieth century music. Whereas other methods seem to have petered out, his legacy points a way to a more democratic and truly international idiom of making music. Music;folk Folk music;Hungarian Ethnomusicology

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abrahams, Roger D., and George Foss. Anglo-American Folksong Style. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. An introduction to ethnomusicology using familiar materials. Usefully illustrated to make each point with music and lyrics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bartók, Béla. The Hungarian Folk Song. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981. A new edition of the master’s 1924 book with English versions of the lyrics. Contains nearly four hundred pages of detailed analysis and classification of tunes, all reproduced in Bartók’s meticulous and groundbreaking method. The book is difficult but worth study, and it is approachable by nonspecialists. A classic in ethnomusicology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Choksy, Lois. The Kodály Method: Comprehensive Music Education. 3d ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1998. A lucid and thorough step-by-step explanation of what Kodály wanted in terms of understanding both the fundamentals of music, through graded group singing and rhythmic exercises, and the folk heritage of each nation and its peoples. A manual with musical samples, diagrams, and suggested selections for classroom use.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eösze, László. Zoltán Kodály: His Life and Work. London: Collet’s, 1962. A general coverage of Kodály’s life and works, with some musical samples. Good for context and the author’s Hungarian perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffiths, Paul. Bartók. London: J. M. Dent, 1984. A moderate but thorough volume, current in its understanding of the many facets of Bartók’s accomplishment. Includes music examples, index, and lists of key personages and all works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kodály, Zoltán. Folk Music of Hungary. Rev. ed. Budapest: Corvina Press, 1971. An enlarged edition of the 1952 original and the English version of 1960. Like Bartók’s book, it is a technical study of the music but is more focused on types classified by function in the culture. Includes descriptions and photos of instruments. Comprehensively illustrated with music examples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Selected Writings. London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1974. Brings together many short essays on folk song and other kinds of music. The vivid pieces provide easy access to the significance of Kodály and Bartók’s work and the contexts of the times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nettl, Bruno. Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1989. A short but thorough study of folk music and a good example of how ethnomusicology can be accessible. Covers some of the same folk music studied by Bartók and Kodály.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Suchoff, Benjamin. Béla Bartók: Life and Work. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 2002. A comprehensive biography of Bartók as man, composer, and folklorist. Includes discussion of the impact of his pioneering multinational investigations of folk song on music in general and on his own composed works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ujfalussy, József. Béla Bartók. Boston: Crescendo, 1972. Translated from the original 1971 book in Hungarian. Possibly the most thorough book on Bartók’s life and his music as both cultural and social phenomenon. From a native’s perspective, it is always cogent and detailed and never specialist in approach. Delves into all important musical techniques, although musical examples are not included.

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