Bartok and Folk Music

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  • Topic: Folk music, Music, Percussion instrument
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  • Published : August 2, 2008
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Bartók and Folk Music

Béla Bartók (1881-1945), one of the best-known Hungarian composers is also one of the most significant musicians of the twentieth century. He shared a strong passion for ethnomusicology, which is the scientific study of music, especially traditional music, as an aspect of culture. Bartok synthesized the Hungarian pattern of music and other folk music that he studied to make his own distinctive style. As composers continued to seek originality in the twentieth century, many new styles of music emerged. The music of Bartók is no exception to this trend. Bartók’s music is saturated with qualities derived from folk music that Bartók was undoubtedly exposed to during his youth. His music was recognized for containing characteristics representing much of the folk music of Eastern Europe. These folk music qualities present in Bartók’s music give his compositions a unique quality separating him from other European composers of his time. In the years 1934-40, Bartók devoted himself full-time to work as an ethnomusicologist. He collaborated with Zoltán Kodály and led a small team of folk-music researchers to collect various folk-music in countryside and arranged the folk music. Meanwhile he put them in practice and wrote many famous works. On these compositions, Bartók emphasized on exploring the melody and absorbing the material from the folk music. Among these famous compositions, Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta (1936) is one of Bartók’s most celebrated compositions, which was commissioned by the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher for the Basle Chamber Orchestra. As the title suggests, the orchestration of this piece is double strings, harp, piano, xylophone, timpani, percussion and celesta. According to Bartók’s instructions for orchestra position, placing the piano, harp (piano is a percussion instrument in this case, and harp is part of the strings) xylophone, timpani, percussion and celesta in the center of the stage, and equally divide two groups’ strings on its two sides to build antiphonal effect. In his book, Béla Bartók, Serge Moreux explains why this composition is a masterpiece, “because elements as disparate as twelve tone chromaticism, folk-music, diatonic harmonization, linear orchestration and impressionist colouring are co-ordinated into a homogeneous combination which exerts the utmost fascination on the hearer” and “the piece shows great originality at all levels of its construction and seamlessly integrates the broadest range of Bartok’s folk music and art-music sources.” Bartók’s well-known use of folk music can be seen in Music for String instruments, Percussion and Celesta, and in this paper I will discuss how Bartók incorporates characteristics of folk music in a variety of ways in the fourth movement of this piece. The fourth movement is a fast movement marked Allegro molto in 2/2. Jozsef Ujfalussy called this movement a “Jubilant folk dance.” The form of this movement is “extended rondo”: A-B-A1-C-A2-D-A2-A1, which resembles strophic structure of folk music. This movement opens dramatically with two timpani strokes and followed by strummed pizzicato chords on strings, has the character of a lively folk dance. The use of strummed pizzicato (see example 1) for string instruments is not very common. Players need to pluck four strings at one time and then back and forward continually for 4 measures. Bartók tried to use the strings to imitate a traditional folk plucked instrument-Tambura. This piece is notated without any key signatures, but his tonal language continued to be colored by his work with folk music. Through using folk modes Bartók established a clear tonal center on A for the fourth movement. The folk modes are easily found in Bartok’s music. Bartók used an original system of tonal organization which drew as much from the non-Western scales of folk music as it did from any traditional sense of tonality. The main theme is an extended version of the...
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