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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 Social Validation
Richard Taruskin

Bartók almost immediately began incorporating the melodies of peasant songs into his original compositions, alongside modernist explorations of a kind familiar to us from the work of other composers. The two lines of development were kept in a kind of symbiosis thanks to what could be called Bartók’s neonationalist credo, his insistence “that the musical qualities of the setting”—that is, the original composition—“should be derived from the musical qualities of the melody.” His unique synthesis was the result of an unerring eye for musical qualities latent in the folk material that could be brought into conformity with the modernistic concepts that attracted him.

He was, in short, as committed a modernist and a maximalist as any of the composers whose work we have been tracing in the last few chapters, but he felt a need unfelt by the others to justify his stylistic predilections to his social conscience. Grounding in folklore provided a social validation for his art, just as it did for German artists a hundred years before, who remade their art in the spirit of Herder’s romanticism. Bartók and the rather less maximalistically inclined Kodály were the only European modernists who remained faithful to this strain of romanticism at a time when it was the complementary strain—the egoistical strain that justified its ways solely on grounds of fidelity to one’s own unique subjective self—that captured the imaginations of the Germans.

Bartók never openly opposed his social conscience to Schoenberg’s arbitrary “instinct,” but there are passages in his writings that allude to social matters under cover of “nature.” In the romantic view an “authorless” folksong was the product of impersonal nature rather than human subjectivity: hence the implicit superiority of the new Hungarian music. In an article of 1928, written at the request of E. Robert Schmitz and his Pro Musica Society in New York (already encountered in chapter 5, under the name “Franco-American Musical Society,” as the sponsors of Charles Ives’s quarter-tone music), Bartók undertook to answer the questions, first, “whether contemporary music of Hungary and the contemporary music of other countries have any points in common,” and second, “whether contemporary Hungarian music differs from that of other countries.”11 After tracing in some detail the process, which we will trace below, whereby novel harmonies and tonalities could be milked from the “musical qualities of the melody,” Bartók summed up by conceding that “many other (foreign) composers, who do not lean upon folk music, have met with similar results at about the same time—only in an intuitive or speculative way, which, evidently, is a procedure equally justifiable.” But, having already injected a slightly ironic tone with the word “evidently,” Bartók played his trump card. “The difference,” he added immediately, “is that we created through Nature.”

And several paragraphs later, Bartók allowed himself to spell out the implicit negative critique just a bit:

One point, in particular, I must again stress: our peasant music, naturally, is invariably tonal, if not always in the sense that the inflexible major and minor system is tonal. (An ‘atonal’ folk music, in my opinion, is unthinkable.) Since we depend upon a tonal basis of this kind in our creative work, it is quite self-evident that our works are quite pronouncedly tonal in type.12

So there it was at last, a social prescription: unless modern art music, however maximalistic, rested on a “natural” basis, by which Bartók meant something that would now be more likely called a social basis, its style would be “unthinkable.” Composers and their audiences had to speak a common language, and that language had to be determined by “nature”—that is, a social consensus that subsumed the individual. The same assumptions encompassed and motivated aspects of Bartók’s professional activity that set it sharply at odds, both esthetically and ethically, with the work of his Viennese contemporaries. He wrote, for example, a wealth of pedagogical piano music designed to train musicians from childhood in the idiom of contemporary music; and here he was especially careful to keep the nexus between peasant music and modern music clear. Kodály’s pedagogical work was even more extensive than Bartók’s; many regard it as his most important achievement.

The idea of Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern writing music for training children, or incorporating folklore into their work except as an ironic invocation of “innocence,” is as unthinkable as was the idea of an “atonal folk music.” Bartók and Kodály, in keeping with the traditions of the Hungarian urban intelligentsia from which they had emerged, maintained, alongside their modernist nationalism, a sense of social mission that was regarded elsewhere as inimical to stylistic progress. Most twentieth-century artists were impelled (or compelled) to choose between these goals. Even Kodály did, eventually. Only Bartók, among the century’s universally recognized maximalists, attempted to fuse them. That makes him, for historians, a uniquely interesting “phenomenon.”

The crucible in which Bartók tried in most concentrated fashion to work out his maximalized peasant-song idiom was a set of fourteen innocently titled Bagatelles for piano (op. 6), composed in May 1908. The set contains everything from straightforward harmonized folk song to modernistic experiment; but within its confines (and with a sidelong glance or two at other works) it is possible to show the relationship between the one extreme and the other with special clarity. Simplest by far, apparently, is Bagatelle no. 4(Ex. 7-6a), nothing more or less than a song Bartók himself had recorded on a phonographic cylinder from the singing of a peasant the year before (Ex. 7-6b), harmonized in a sort of “impressionist” style. The words show it to be a sort of cowboy’s lament:

  • I was a cowherd,
  • I slept by my cows;
  • I awoke one night,
  • Not one beast was in its stall.

To designate this setting as “impressionist” in style is to call attention to the prevalence of seventh chords in the harmonization, often moving in parallel à la Debussy. Bartók may well have thought of his setting that way, since 1907, the year in which he collected the song on which he based his bagatelle, was also the year in which he discovered the piano music of Debussy—a discovery that Bartók compared, in terms of its impact on his development, to his discovery of peasant song itself.

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-6a Béla Bartók, Bagatelle, Op. 6, no. 4

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-6b Song model for Béla Bartók, Bagatelle, Op. 6, no. 4

Just as salient to the analytical eye is the resolute diatonic purity of the setting (apart from the deliberately jarring chromaticism at the ends of the third and fourth phrases). There are no leading tones in evidence, as there were even in Bartók’s 1906 folk-song harmonizations. That means that there can be no real dominant chord, since the dominant of D minor, by definition, is an A-major triad. Instead, we have a harmonization not in the conventional minor but in an unaltered “Aeolian mode” or natural minor. In that mode all the primary chords are minor (i, iv, v) and the secondary chords are major (III, VI, VII) or diminished (iio).

This means that in the second phrase, for example, which is a reharmonization of the first with added sevenths, all the primary harmonies are “minor-minor” seventh chords (/0 3 7 10/). What is, at least in retrospect, the most characteristically Bartókian aspect of that harmony is the fact that its constituent intervals, counting from the top or bottom, are a palindrome—m3, M3, m3—which means that to count from the top is the same as counting from the bottom. The chord is inversionally symmetrical. And Bartók enhances the inversional symmetry of his harmonization even further when he can—in m. 4, for example, where he adds a ninth to the VII chord (on C) so that its intervals, too, become palindromic: M3, m3, m3, M3.

Between the minor-minor seventh chord and the dominant ninth we may observe in passing an important distinction between two types of symmetry: those with an odd number of elements in which there is a single axis (like the M3 in the minor-minor seventh) as opposed to those with an even number of elements in which there is a double axis (like the m3/m3 pair in the dominant ninth). We will return to this point later, for it will assume enormous importance for Bartók as he maximalizes the style we are in the process of discovering. Another little point that will become bigger concerns the one chromatic touch in Bagatelle no. 4: the G♯ and F♯ that decorate the cadences in mm. 8 and 12. Together they are a kind of double chromatic neighbor encircling the fourth degree of the scale, so that instead of proceeding from the fifth degree to the third through two whole steps (T–T) we proceed by an alternation of semitones and whole tones (S–T–S). That, too, is a symmetrical arrangement of intervals, indeed a “symmetricalized” one.

Like its predecessor, Bagatelle no. 5 (Ex. 7-7a) is based on a folk song that Bartók collected himself, this time one of Slovak origin (that is, from the northernmost province of what was then “Greater Hungary”). Ex. 7-7b shows the original tune as Bartók transcribed it, in a collection that remained unpublished until 1970. (The words are sadder than Bartók’s quick setting might immediately suggest: “Hey, before our door the jilted lad plants a wild rose.”) Once again the harmonization insists (even more emphatically than in the previous bagatelle) on the intervallically symmetrical minor-minor seventh chord as primary consonance.

But this time the melody, too, is cast in a mode (the “Dorian”) that is intervallically symmetrical. It is the only diatonic mode that retains all its intervals when inverted. (See Ex. 7-8a; the other diatonic modes are related by inversion as follows: major inverts to Phrygian, minor to Mixolydian, Lydian to “Locrian.”) And as Bartók apparently discovered (or at least demonstrated in his music) earlier than Stravinsky, the Dorian mode, conceived as a pair of symmetrical T–S–T tetrachords placed a whole step apart, can interact easily with the octatonic scale, conceived as a pair of similar tetrachords placed a half step apart (see Ex. 7-8b; either tetrachord can be held in common while the other is transposed).

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-7a Béla Bartók, Bagatelle, Op. 6, no. 5, mm. 1–19

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-7b Song model for Béla Bartók, Bagatelle, Op. 6, no. 5

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-8a Dorian inversional symmetry

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-8b Dorian/octatonic interaction

Bagatelles 4and 5 both conform to the method labeled “1a” in the extract given above from Bartók’s essay on the relationship between peasant music and modern music. The original tune in both cases occupies the foreground, the composer’s additions, however imaginative and suggestive, being merely the “ornamental setting for the precious stone.” Before proceeding with the Bagatelles into more abstractly stylized territory, we can savor the difference between the ornamental style labeled “1a” and its counterpart, “1b” (in which “the melody only serves as a ‘motto’ while that which is built around it is of real importance”), by comparing Bagatelle no. 4 (Ex. 7-6a) with a piece written a year later, the second in a set of Four Dirges for piano, which Bartók published (as op. 9A) in 1912 (Ex. 7-9a).

It is not immediately evident that the dirge is based on the same folk melody as the bagatelle, but Ex. 7-9b, which reconstructs their relationship, will make it clear. The dirge melody is constructed by omitting all tones from the folk tune that do not conform strictly to a pentatonic scale, and making up for their absence with neighbors and internal repetitions. In addition, even rhythms have been made uneven to enhance the prevalence of “noble” Hungarian short-long patterns. The tune, in short, has been rendered folkier than the folk; or rather, it has been recast to conform to a set of theoretical abstractions, the first step in “utopianizing” folklore and rendering it fit for modernist use.

Thereafter the tune is developed in various ways: through enharmonic modulations, by altering its intervals, and (most interestingly) by allowing its predominant structural interval to multiply. That interval is the perfect fourth, which begins the melody and also (in the dirge) brings its first and last phrases to an end. Beginning in m. 31 a variant of the melody is played (Ex. 7-9c) that begins as if splicing the beginning and ending fourths together (mm. 31–32) and repeating the same little symmetrical stack of fourths a couple of measures later (m. 34).

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-9a Béla Bartók, Four Dirges, Op. 9a (1912), no. 2, mm. 1–29

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-9b Béla Bartók, Four Dirges, Op. 9a (1912), no. 2, mm. 1–14, compared with folk tune in Ex. 7-6b

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-9c Béla Bartók, Four Dirges, Op. 9a (1912), no. 2, mm. 31–37

This is one simple instance of one of Bartók’s most pervasive neonationalist techniques: mining his tunes for harmonic symmetries and exploiting them in both the horizontal and the vertical dimension. The technique led him to many of the same harmonies we have seen in the “atonal” (or pantonal) works of Schoenberg and his pupils, but in the case of Bartók it is often possible to trace the novel harmonies back to a specific folk-melodic source, showing the process to have been less speculative than empirical. In the middle of Bagatelle no. 7 (Ex. 7-10), there is a long melodic passage consisting of the same superimposed perfect fourths we have just observed in Dirge no. 2, a harmony about which Schoenberg speculated in a famous passage from his Harmonielehre, and used with striking effect in his Chamber Symphony, op. 9 (1906). But Bartók’s stacks of fourths encompass exactly five notes, which if compressed into “best normal order” (as defined in chapter 6) would coincide exactly with the pentatonic (“black key”) scale, the scale to which (according to Bartók) all the oldest Hungarian peasant songs conformed.

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-10 Béla Bartók, Bagatelle, Op. 6, no. 7, mm. 49–70

The fourth-melodies, especially when accompanied as they are in Dirge no. 2 and Bagatelle no. 7 by dissonant harmonies (often involving a “white key/black key” opposition), are among Bartók’s most elemental modernistic abstractions from folklore. The next stage of abstraction for Bartók, as it was also for Schoenberg, was the “verticalization” of melodic formations, precisely as happens in Bagatelle no. 11 (Ex. 7-11a), where the fourths now occur not as successions but as vertical piles. The immediate juxtaposition of fourth chords at the tritone, as happens in mm. 14–15, introduces another sort of symmetry to the mix, one that will recall the alternations of perfect fourths and tritones that we have already observed in the work of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Ives. With Bartók the essential harmonic unit is not the three-note “atonal triad” or “Rite-chord” as it was with Schoenberg or Stravinsky. Rather, it takes the form of a four-note unit consisting of two fourths at the tritone, as happens melodically at the very climax of Bagatelle no. 11 (Ex. 7-11b).

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-11a Béla Bartók, Bagatelle, Op. 6, no. 11, mm. 1–18

For its harmonic extension (or “verticalization”), see Ex. 7-11c, the coda of Bagatelle no. 8. The harmonies suspended there over the tonic pedal look like pairs of tritones at the minor ninth (=semitone); but that is the inversion of the “four-note unit” at the climax of Bagatelle no. 11 (Ex. 7-12). In either case, the harmony can be described as the atonal triad plus its inversion, analogous to an ordinary triad expanded to include both the major and the minor third. As we will see, it is the “Bartók chord” par excellence. For reasons that will emerge later, it is often called the “Z-tetrachord” by analysts.

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-11b Béla Bartók, Bagatelle, Op. 6, no. 11, mm. 55–60

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-11c Béla Bartók, Bagatelle, Op. 6, no. 8, end

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-12 “Z-tetrachords” in Béla Bartók, Bagatelles, Op. 6, nos. 8 and 11

For the ultimate in Bartókian symmetry, at least as expressed within the Fourteen Bagatelles, consider the second item in the set (Ex. 7-13). Bagatelle no. 2 was a recital favorite of the composer, who often played it as an encore and recorded it more than once. The catchy opening is a demonstration of “axial symmetry,” wherein every interval is invertible around the same “axis pitch,” in this case A. The opening dyad, A≭B≭, is A ± one semitone. The third BG, with which the left-hand melody begins, is A ± two semitones. The next interval in the left hand, CG≭, is A ± three semitones, and so it goes: D≭F = A ± 4 and DF≭ = A ± 5. The whole complex, reminiscent of a similar array that governed the harmony of Salome by Richard Strauss, Bartók’s early hero (see chapter 1), is summed up in Ex. 7-14. Not that Bartók was the only composer to “inherit” the technique from Strauss: we have already spotted it, in more rudimentary form, in Webern’s fourth Bagatelle for string quartet (Ex. 6-26b).

A Precarious SymbiosisA Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-13 Béla Bartók, Bagatelle, Op. 6, no. 2

But in the fifth measure of Ex. 7-13 comes an interesting deviation. As Ex. 7-14 shows (and as we may remember from Salome), any axis pitch—that is, the point where two chromatic scales in contrary motion intersect at the unison or octave—will have a counterpart at the tritone (that is, the other place where the scales will so intersect). That point is reached at the end of the Bagatelle’s fourth measure with the high E≭ in the left hand, to be followed (we can only expect) by another E≭ an octave below to complete the pattern. Instead, Bartók writes E≭≭. The unexpected note might either be viewed as a “wrong note” joke or as a sort of deceptive cadence. Either way, an unstated (or unreached) goal is acknowledged.

But this is momentous. Implying a goal in advance is something that in our experience only “tonal” harmony, with its preassigned functions and directed motion, can do. Bartók’s axial symmetry has managed to do the same: it has identified E≭ with a function that can be either fulfilled or evaded. And of course the axis itself, the A about which there has been so much to say, has been similarly implied rather than sounded outright. And yet its ruling presence is felt “behind the scenes” just the way an implied tonic (like the A major or minor triad that is forecast but never sounded through the whole Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) can rule in absentia in tonal music. Axial symmetry, then, can be construed (or deployed) as an alternate form of functional tonality that takes the chromatic scale rather than the circle of fifths as its basis.

A Precarious Symbiosis

ex. 7-14 Axial symmetry in Béla Bartók, Bagatelle, Op. 6, no. 2

And just as harmonic functions can furnish a form-defining trajectory for tonal music (most basically, the binary form with its movement from tonic to dominant and back by way of a Far Out Point), so can the reciprocal axes in a symmetrical array. That is precisely how Bartók’s Bagatelle no. 2 is laid out. The cadence on E≭, evaded in m. 5, is finally made (in a conventional “tonal” way) in mm. 7–8. The section thus inaugurated plays with another symmetrical formation that encompasses both A and E≭: namely the /0 3 6 9/ circle of minor thirds with which Bartók had been familiar since encountering it in the music of Liszt. All the triadic roots in mm. 8–12 —E≭, C, and F♯—are drawn from it. Only one member, A, is withheld; and that, of course, is to forecast it as the final goal of the bagatelle’s tonal trajectory.

The approach could not be neater. Beginning in m. 17 the music begins to stutter on the dyad ED, which is eventually played (mm. 18–21) as a pulsing harmonic interval like the A≭B≭ pair at the outset. And just as the original dyad initiated a regular expansion to approach the E≭pole, so the ED dyad and its consequences point us back toward A—an A that, whimsically, is never allowed to materialize (except disguised as B≭≭ resolving to A≭). An evasive action similar to the one in mm. 5–6 is employed in mm. 20–23 to skirt the A and prepare a return, instead, of the A≭B≭ dyad from which the piece had taken off. The coda reproduces the first 6 measures with registers adjusted, and the D≭from mm. 5–6, which makes consonances with both A≭ and B≭, is allowed to end the piece as a specious tonic—a sort of “tonal” pun.


(11) Bartók, “The Folk Songs of Hungary” (1928); Béla Bartók’s Essays, p. 331.

(12) Ibid., p. 338.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Social Validation." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007003.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 5 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007003.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 5 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-007003.xml