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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 Social Validation
Richard Taruskin

We do not need to adjudicate this old controversy about the origins of the magyar nóta. What is significant to us is the tension its lurking presence contributed to the new, maximalizing phase of Hungarian musical nationalism, the chief protagonist of which, Béla Barték (1881–1945), was the most famous Hungarian-speaking composer Hungary ever produced. Bartók began his career in the self-conscious image of Liszt, as a virtuoso pianist committed both to Hungarian nationalism and to the advancement of all the most “progressive” ideas in the music of his time. Both aspects of Bartók's creative agenda were equally pertinent to his eventual preeminence among Hungarian musicians.

A Change of Course

fig. 7-2 Bartók collecting songs from Slovak peasants in 1907.

The work that brought him his first celebrity was a symphonic poem, Kossuth, composed in 1903 and first performed the next year. Its self-evident patriotic associations were enhanced, at the time of its premiere, by renewed tensions between Hungarians and Austrians, sparked by Hungarian demands that their language be used equally with German within the “k.u.k.” army, and that Hungarians be given equal opportunity to command. The composition embodies a kind of narrative of the 1848–1849 revolution, in which the Austrians are represented by a grotesque distortion of Haydn’s famous imperial anthem (“Gott, erhalte Franz den Kaiser”), and Kossuth (by extension, the Hungarians) by a melody in the noblest magyar nóta style (Ex. 7-4).

A Change of Course

ex. 7-4 Béla Bartók, Kossuth, opening theme

A list of the self-evident Hungarian characteristics of this theme would begin with the “haughty” accompanying rhythms, and go on to include dotted pairs on every downbeat (some of them ornamented by breaking the short note into two thirty-seconds as notated), the use of the raised fourth degree (D♯), the “crowded” upbeats (four sixteenths, quintuplets, eventually sextolets as well), and so on. But as the Hungarian-born Bartók scholar Judit Frigyesi has emphasized, equally important is the fact that Bartók has fashioned an “endless,” motivically evolving melody out of these materials, of a kind that is never found in popular music, but only in the most advanced “post-Wagnerian” symphonic compositions like the tone poems of Strauss and the early symphonies of Mahler.4

There are indeed many specific resonances in Kossuth with Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (“A hero’s life,” 1898) and the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, which (as we may recall from chapter 1) represented a Todtenfeier, a heroic funeral. The appropriateness of these resonances for glorifying a Hungarian national hero is obvious, and so the “progressive” aspect of Bartók’s achievement was a full partner in its nationalistic agenda. In the view of Hungarian modernists, their country’s coming of age as a musical nation demanded both its possessing the particularity of a national style and its meeting the universal standard of modernity.

The problem was that by the end of the nineteenth century, the style hongrois, in Bellman’s words, “was ubiquitous as entertainment music,” and “through familiarity had lost much of its quality of strangeness.”5 Both its commonness and its associations with café genres could only devalue it in the eyes (and ears) of modernists. As long as musical nationalism implied the use of the magyar nóta idiom, or what Bartók described as “popular art music,” it could only impede the development of a universally viable Hungarian modernist music. As Frigyesi puts it, there seemed to be a barrier between “national” and “serious” music.6 The contradiction gave rise to a dilemma.

The solution that Bartók hit upon, together with his fellow composer-nationalist and frequent collaborator Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967), might at first seem paradoxical. They strove for universal viability by seeking a more authentic “Hungarianness.” Kodály, who had a rural upbringing, had long been aware that the peasant music of the Hungarian countryside was of an altogether different style and character from the magyar nóta. He began to study it seriously, published his first articles about it in 1904, began making collecting expeditions in 1905, and in 1906 earned a Ph.D. in literature with a dissertation on the stanzaic structure of Hungarian folksong. Meanwhile, partly as a result of a chance encounter with a peasant singer, partly in emulation of Kodály’s activities, Bartók also began transcribing peasant songs.

In 1906, the two composers issued an epoch-making anthology, Magyar népdalok (“Hungarian folksongs”), consisting of twenty transcriptions with piano accompaniment, the first ten arranged by Bartók, the rest by Kodály. The preface, signed by both but written by Kodály, expressed the hope that, once provided with access to them, the Hungarian public “might get to like” authentic folksongs.7 “If only these primordial expressions of the spirit of our people would meet with even half the affection they deserve!” the editors exclaimed. But these “primordial expressions” of Hungarianness were something even Bartók had only encountered in adulthood. They were not his “native music.” Even for him they were an acquired taste.

A Change of Course

fig. 7-3 Bartók and Kodály with the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet, March 1910 (photograph by Aladár Székely).

And so the preface ended on a pessimistic note: “The overwhelming majority of Hungarians are not yet Hungarian enough, no longer naive enough and not yet cultured enough to let these songs touch their hearts.” And indeed, the anthology sold only 150 copies in twelve years. The epoch that it marked was slow in coming, reforming the editors themselves, and other members of the nation’s musical elite, long before it did the general public. Throughout his life Kodály grumbled that in Hungary those who were cultured were not Hungarian and those who were Hungarian were not cultured. What might have been a racist complaint in other contexts was in this case a particularly forthright statement of the dilemma facing Hungarian modernists, who wanted equally to be national on the peasant model and to be sophisticated, which implied urbanity. It was a dilemma that pervaded every aspect of their creative lives, and would haunt their legacies.

As always, reform proved to be a two-way street. Bartók summed up the import of the new folk idiom he and Kodály had discovered, in sharp and somewhat sneering contrast to the older style hongrois, in a memoir dating from 1918:

Its expressive power is amazing, and at the same time it is devoid of all sentimentality and superfluous ornaments. It is simple, sometimes primitive but never frivolous. The more valuable part was in the old ecclesiastical or old Greek modes, or based on more primitive pentatonic scales, and the melodies were full of the freest and most varied rhythmic phrases and changes of tempi, played both rubato and giusto [in strict time].8

But in their zeal, Bartók and Kodóly considerably exaggerated the simplicity of the music in the course of arranging it for publication, so that it would conform to their modernist aesthetic ideals. In 1938, when they could afford a less polemical approach (and when Bartók had the use of a low-speed phonograph that made them easier to transcribe), they reissued the collection with the “superfluous ornaments” they had originally suppressed reinstated (see Ex. 7-5). Also typically exaggerated or mistaken was Bartók’s assumption that the unusual diatonic structure of the peasant melodies represented survivals of medieval or even ancient Greek modes. There is no need to assume such historical connections between diatonic scales, simply because they do not conform to those of the major/minor key system.

But these inaccuracies and equivocations were born of the composers’ wish to justify a change in their own composing style. Creative fervor temporarily gained the upper hand over scholarly scruples. As Bartók put it in a slightly later (1921) version of the same memoir,

The outcome of these studies was of decisive influence upon my work, because it liberated me from the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys …. It became clear to me that the old modes, which had been forgotten in our music, had lost nothing of their vigor. Their new employment made new rhythmic combinations possible. This new way of using the diatonic scale brought freedom from the rigid use of the major and minor keys, and eventually led to a new conception of the chromatic scale, every tone of which came to be considered of equal value and could be used freely and independently.9

So the primary value of the rediscovery of the old was the possibility it created of achieving the new, yet without any loss in national specificity (which alone could guarantee “authenticity”). The simple peasant music, precisely because it was little known and previously uncultivated by composers of “art music,” offered modernists greater scope for creative appropriation than the ornate and highly stylized magyar nóta, which had its own tradition in art music, and which therefore carried a heavy baggage of associations, including some (to urban commercial genres, to the reactionary nobility, etc.) that nationalists of Bartók and Kodály’s generation had to reject.

Exhilarated by his breakthrough, Bartók eagerly began to theorize about the proper relationship between “peasant music” and “modern music,” eventually arriving at a three-tiered prescription that he published in a Budapest music magazine in 1931. Excerpted and laid out in tabular form, Bartók’s schema looks like this:

  1. 1. We may, for instance, take over a peasant melody unchanged or only slightly varied, write an accompaniment to it and possibly some opening and concluding phrases. This kind of work would show a certain analogy with Bach’s treatment of chorales. Two main types can be distinguished among works of this character:

    1. a. In one case accompaniment, introductory and concluding phrases are of secondary importance, and they only serve as an ornamental setting for the precious stone: the peasant melody.
    2. A Change of Course

      ex. 7-5 Two versions of no. 1 from Bartók/Kodály, Magyar népdalok

    3. b. It is the other way round in the second case: the melody only serves as a “motto” while that which is built around it is of real importance. In any case it is of the greatest importance that the musical qualities of the setting should be derived from the musical qualities of the melody.
  2. 2. Another method by which peasant music becomes transmuted into modern music is the following: the composer does not make use of a real peasant melody but invents his own imitation of such melodies. There is no real difference between this method and the one described first.

  3. 3. There is yet a third way in which the influence of peasant music can be traced in a composer’s work. Neither peasant melodies nor imitations of peasant melodies can be found in his music, but it is pervaded by the atmosphere of peasant music. In this case we may say, he has completely absorbed the idiom of peasant music which has become his musical mother tongue. He masters it as completely as a poet masters his mother tongue.10

The last, and obviously most important (because most creative) manner of assimilation is—perhaps deliberately—the most vaguely expressed, since the greatest vagueness imposes the fewest limits. It seems clear, though, that what Bartók is describing is related to what, with reference to Stravinsky in chapter 3, was termed “neonationalism,” the adoption from folklore not of thematic material but of style characteristics, abstractly conceived. Bartók’s reference to the “mother tongue” is significant, precisely since he recognizes that urban composers like himself do not learn the idiom of peasant music from their mothers but must master it through deliberate application, as an adult learns a foreign language. So the “Hungary” that this music, composed according to Bartók’s precepts, represents is no real Hungary but an idealized Hungary constructed by combining rural (or “primitive”) raw material with the most sophisticated, urbane techniques of elaboration and development: the Hungary of the liberal utopian imagination.

And just because it was liberal, and because it was utopian, Bartók’s musical nationalism, unlike any we have seen before, was pluralistic and all-embracing in a manner recalling the eighteenth-century philosophy of Herder, the original romantic nationalist. Bartók studied, and in his creative work assimilated, the folk music not only of the Magyars, but of all the peoples who inhabited “greater Hungary”—Romanians, Slovaks, Bulgars, Croats, and Serbs—and even ethnically remoter peoples like the Turks (distantly related linguistically to the Magyars) or the Arabs of North Africa (coreligionists to the Turks), both of whose musics Bartók researched on location, and about which he published treatises. He was reviled for the catholicity of his musical range by narrower nationalists; and eventually Bartók felt impelled to leave a Hungary that had allied itself politically with the German Nazis, the most virulently narrow nationalists of all. He may be justly viewed as the last of the Herderians, in contrast to the—sadly—more typical twentieth-century nationalists who had betrayed Herder’s pluralistic legacy.


(4) Judit Frigyesi, “Béla Bartók and Hungarian Nationalism: The Development of Bartók’s Social and Political Ideas at the Turn of the Century (1899–1903)” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1989), p. 117.

(5) Bellman, Style Hongrois, p. 215.

(6) Frigyesi, Béla Bartók and Hungarian Nationalism, p. 138ff.

(7) Bartók and Kodály, Magyar Népdalok (Budapest: Rozsnyai Károly, 1906), Introduction; trans. Klára Móricz.

(8) Bartók, “The Influence of Peasant Music on Modern Music,” in Béla Bartók’s Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976), p. 341.

(9) Bartók, “Autobiography”; Béla Bartók’s Essays, p. 410.

(10) “The Influence of Peasant Music on Modern Music”; Béla Bartók’s Essays, pp. 341–44.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Social Validation." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Social Validation. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Social Validation." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007002.xml