Béla Bartók: how music broadened the mind of a ‘nationalist’ composer

The innovative musician’s biographer traces his journey from Hungarian patriot to a synthesiser of not just folk and classical music but also of neighbouring cultures

In Irish music studies the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) has occasionally, if contentiously, been offered as the model of a kind of figure supposedly absent in the main from Irish art music history: a “national” composer who fully, coherently and authentically synthesised approaches from the folk and classical spheres in his compositions to create a radical new language.

There may appear, from a superficial judgement, to be some similarities between the social and political milieu Bartók was born into in Hungary in 1881 and that of Ireland at the same juncture. Hungary was the junior partner in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and although it had considerable autonomy, three major strands of power were controlled from Vienna – military, fiscal and foreign policy.

After the failure of the 1848-9 revolution which was followed a period of effective military dictatorship from Austria and the “compromise” of 1867 which gave rise to the Dual Monarchy, a movement for Hungarian independence gained ground. This was supplemented by a programme of Magyarisation which prioritised ethnic Hungarian language and culture within the borders of Hungary.

However, the country (like the empire) was extraordinarily diverse in terms of the ethnicity of its population and indeed census returns demonstrate that in 1890 only about 40 per cent of its inhabitants claimed to be ethnically Magyar. The rest of the population included those of Romanian, Slovakian, German, Ukrainian and Croatian extraction, with significant numbers of Gypsies and Jewish people, all of whom coexisted peacefully.


Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós (Great St Nicholas) on the south-eastern edge of Hungary, a town in which Magyars formed a small minority and which had a preponderance of Romanians and Germans. He had both Hungarian and German lineage (the latter on his mother’s side) and was bilingual, but with his father’s early death in 1888 German would have become the predominant language at home.

When Bartók was attracted in his late teens to what was perceived as the Hungarian popular music – performed by Gypsy musicians in the main – he was nailing his colours to the mast of the divisive politics of Hungarian nationalism. An early musical output which referenced one of the heroes of the 1848-9 revolution was his Straussian symphonic poem Kossuth of 1903, whose narrative concerned the role of its eponymous hero (Lajos Kossuth) in the campaign and defeat in 1849.

The musical language Bartók drew upon in Kossuth and several other pieces written around the same time employed characteristic features of the urban Gypsy-performed music which Liszt had embedded in his compositional output, including the use of a minor key scale with a sharpened fourth note, rhythmic ideas such as a short-long figure derived from the stress pattern of Hungarian speech (similar to the Scotch-snap found in Scottish folk music), and the emulation of the performance style of indigenous instruments including the hammered dulcimer called the cimbalom (the sound of which was later made famous in Anton Karas’s score for The Third Man).

However, Bartók would soon discover a completely different type of Hungarian popular music through the mediation and support of his close friend the scholar, composer and educator, Zoltán Kodály. This was the music of the countryside, which in style and performance was far removed from the urban schmaltz. He would spend much of the rest of his life collecting, and subsequently editing and cataloguing folk songs and dance music he recorded in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, North Africa, Turkey. The scale of this work was phenomenal and along with 2,700 Hungarian melodies, and more than 3,500 Romanian and 3,400 Slovakian tunes he collected himself, he catalogued a further 10,000 melodies from other field workers.

A difference between Bartók’s approach and that of nineteenth-century collectors in the Irish sphere, such as Edward Bunting and George Petrie, was that he attempted to be properly scientific and systematic in its taxonomy. At the same time, he was able to make use of the recently developed phonograph rather than simply relying on transcription by ear. Throughout his life he refined his approach, creating ever more detailed and accurate transcriptions of the tunes and discovering numerous points of correspondence between the repertoires of people from different ethnic backgrounds.

And it was through his ethnomusicological study that he reoriented himself from a narrow Hungarian nationalist outlook based on Magyar ethnicity to a much broader and more inclusive view that saw an essential unity between the rural working people of Hungary and the neighbouring states. In compositional terms this led to a musical style that had a Hungarian bedrock, but permeated by elements derived from other cultures.

Like Ireland, Hungary was partitioned after the first World War, in its case through the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, in an attempt to deal with the “nationalities issue”, and the country was reduced to a third of its prewar land mass. As a result, Bartók’s place of birth was ceded to Romania (becoming Sânnicolau Mare) and Pozsony (his mother’s home town, where he spent most of his teens) to the newly formed state of Czechoslovakia (and renamed Bratislava). He moved to Budapest in 1899 to study at the Music Academy, and this would become his musical base as a piano teacher for the following 30 years.

The Bartók we are familiar with, as the composer of the opera Bluebeard’s Castle, the ballets The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin, the three piano concertos, the violin and viola concertos, six string quartets, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the marvellous Concerto for Orchestra and numerous pieces for solo piano, was forged in the specific environment of early twentieth-century Hungary. As I have noted elsewhere, Bartók’s works reconstructed Hungarian nationalism “by accepting the importance of racial impurity and hybridisation in the art work, and by allowing that identity, whether individual or societal, is not static, but subject to the changes brought about by continual ‘crossing and re-crossing’ between national, social or musical boundaries”.

David Cooper is author of Bela Bartok, published last week by Yale University Press, priced £25, and professor of music and technology, and dean of the Faculty of Performance, Visual Arts and Communications, University of Leeds