Kodály, Bartók, and fiddle music in Bartók’s compositions.
©Agnes Kory, October 2007
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The ultimate purpose of the present article is to indicate the influence of the folk violin – also known as fiddle – in Bartók’s compositional output. But, in the first instance, I wish to pay tribute to Kodály – who was born 125 years ago and died 40 years ago – and to draw attention to his influence on Bartók.

Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967)

The middle of three children, Zoltán Kodály was born in 1882 in Kecskemét (Hungary) but lived – from age 3 to 10 – in Galánta. Later Kodály referred to this period as the best seven years of his childhood. Indeed; many years after the Galánta period, he dedicated the Dances of Galanta and Bicinia Hungarica to the people of Galánta. Kodály’s parents were passionate amateur musicians. His father – a railway official but eventually a station master – was a violinist, his mother a singer and a pianist. At home they played chamber music regularly, with or without additional friends and instruments. As he later recalled, Kodály’s first and deepest musical impression occurred at the age of three or four, when he heard his parents play Mozart’s F major Sonata for violin and piano.

Grammar school in Nagyszombat (where the family moved to when Kodály was 10) provided excellent opportunities to study and compose music as well as have his compositions performed. Kodály passed all his school examinations with distinction, showing particular proficiency in languages. He also won a literary prize for his essay ‘Parallels between Virgil’s Aeneas and Homer’s Greek Epics’. After school hours he studied piano, violin and later cello but he also played viola and drums in the school orchestra.

After grammar school, Kodály moved to Budapest. There – at the university – he studied Hungarian as well as German Language and Literature, but he also attended courses on philosophy, cultural history and art history. In the process of these studies, Kodály examined speech-melody and studied ancient Hungarian literature which led him to the text of Psalmus Hungaricus. Kodály concluded his university studies with his doctoral dissertation on The Strophic Structure of Hungarian Folk Song.
Concurrently with his university studies, Kodály also enrolled at the Academy of Music where he studied composition with Professor János Koessler who also taught Dohnányi, Bartók and Weiner. After four years at the Academy, Kodály was awarded a diploma in composition and a grant to travel to Bayreuth.
During his concurrent university and compositions studies – that is, from age 18 to 22 (1900 – 1904) – Kodály lived at the Eötvös College of Budapest, which was a training college for forty exceptionally gifted trainee teachers. Here he studied English, French and German under the supervision of highly qualified staff. At the age of 23, Kodály passed the examination for the teacher’s diploma.

Immediately afterwards, still at the age of 23 (in 1905), Kodály met Mrs Emma Gruber (some twenty years Kodály’s senior) and Béla Bartók. Both of these meetings have developed into the most important relationships in Kodály’s life.

Emma was a wealthy lady in her own right and she was married to a banker. Not only did Emma support arts and artists but she herself was a gifted composer and linguist. She studied piano and composition with Dohnányi, Bartók and – from 1905 – with Kodály. There is reason to believe that all three of these young men were strongly attracted to the sharply intelligent and vivacious Emma and that she liked all three of them. Eventually Kodály won: Emma divorced Mr Gruber and married Kodály in 1910 when Kodály was 28 and Emma 47. They were together, until Emma’s death at the age of 95, for almost 50 happy years. Emma was crucial support to Kodály in several dimensions. A year after Emma’s death, and apparently according to her own wishes, at the age of 77 Kodály married a second year student at the Music Academy, the 20 year-old Sarolta Péczely, whom the Kodálys had known from the time when she was 5 years old. For the last 8 years of his life, the beautiful young Sarolta saw to it that Kodály – who worked energetically until the very last moment – had happiness at home

Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók

Though they were contemporaries at the Music Academy and studied with the same composition professor, Bartók and Kodály met in Emma Gruber’s home.

Bartók's life-long devotion to folk music was prompted by a chance meeting. In May 1904, almost a year after obtaining his diploma (as pianist and composer) from the Budapest Music Academy (and followed by a successful season both as pianist and composer), Bartók withdrew for six months to Gerlice in county Gömör in order to concentrate on his compositions and on his forthcoming piano recital in November 1904. Lidi Dósa, a young peasant servant girl from Transylvania (at that time employed by Bartók's Gerlice hosts), was Bartók's first encounter with genuine folk songs. Bartók notated some of Lidi Dósa's songs which opened a new dimension for him.

Having thus, by chance, come across genuine folk music and having studied Kodály’s ‘Collection from Mátyusföld’1, Bartók asked for a meeting with Kodály. Though he was a year younger than Bartók, Kodály – with his broad education and knowledge – was able to advise him. The first meeting soon developed into strong collaboration and into a life-long friendship. They worked together on what we now may call ethnomusicology, they campaigned together on musical issues as well as on a wide range of other issues, they supported each other’s compositional as well as scholarly work and they vigorously defended each other whenever either of them was under attack in the press or by any institution.

During his six decades of teaching, Kodály’s composition students included great many musicians of later fame – such as Antal Doráti, Zoltán Székely, Mátyás Seiber, Géza Fried, Ödön Pártos, Tibor Serly, Sándor Veress, Pál Kadosa, Pál Járdányi, Lajos Bárdos, Ferenc Szabó, István Szelényi and Georg Solti – but, as Bence Szabolcsi (famed musicologist, also a Kodály pupil) said at Kodály’s funeral, all of Hungary was his pupil. Earlier Bartók, who refused to teach composition, said: “Kodály is the greatest teacher of composition that Hungary has ever had.”2

Kodály’s active folk music collecting trips started in 1905. Though Bartók notated folk songs while visiting his family in 1905, his specific field trips (by now with a phonograph) started in 1906.

Within a few months Bartók and Kodály had collected over a 1000 folk songs between themselves. They continued to collect – indeed, Kodály continued to visit villages even in his seventies – but they also started to analyse and classify their melodies. Classification was of crucial importance for both composers – that is for both scholars – and, as their numerous important publications show, both were heavily involved with it until the end of their lives. However; while – throughout his life – Kodály focused on Hungarian folk songs (and spent a great deal of time on developing and establishing his system of music education), Bartók devoted his energies to folk music of many nations and to comparative musicology. Indeed; as László Somfai remarked, ‘Bartók spent more of his life working on folk music than on composing’3.

Béla Bartók and folk music

Bartók collected and classified 7000 Hungarian, Slovak, Rumanian, Arab, Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbian and Ruthenian songs, and he also classified some 10000 Hungarian songs collected by others. During his American exile Bartók transcribed and classified about 200 songs from the Milman Parry Serbo-Croatian collection.

Bartók's field trips, research, folk music collections and ethnomusicological studies inevitably influenced his compositional work. The impact of ethnomusicology on Bartók's compositions is immense.

In 'The Influence of Peasant Music on Modern Music'4 Bartók explains three ways in which folk music can influence art music:

  1. One way is to base the work on an actual folk melody. Within this method there are two possibilities: a) to take a melody unchanged or slightly changed and to write an accompaniment to it with some opening and concluding phrases, so to treat the melody as the essence of the work and to treat the rest of the composition as ornaments to the melody. Bach's treatment of chorales is similar to this method; b) the folk melody can act as a motto with substantial new and important material by the composer5.
  2. The second way is the imitation of folk melodies with the possibility of imitating such characteristics of folk music as their particular intervals, modes, rhythms and free treatments of triads6.
  3. The third way does not include folk melodies or their imitations but the composition is pervaded by the atmosphere of folk songs: the composer has completely absorbed the idiom which has become his musical mother tongue.7

Though Bartók does not mention it, a fourth way may also be considered: the text of the folk song is recomposed with new music. This is the method Bartók used for his 27 two-and three part choruses and for his three-part chorus From Olden Times. The Cantata Profana is a magnificent example of Bartók's deep interest in folklore texts, with or without their music.

I suggest that – judging by various evidence, including a vast body of secondary literature on the topic8 – there are only 3 mature Bartók compositions, starting from when Bartók was 23 years of age, which do not seem to have any folk music influence. All 3 of these compositions date from 1904 and 1905. Although Bartók made his first deliberate folk song notations while visiting his family in rural Hungary in 1905, his specific field trips – by now with the phonograph – started only in 1906. It is of note that arguably there is not a single Bartók composition from this year right until Bartók‘s untimely death of leukaemia at the age of 64 in 1945 – that is throughout 40 years of compositional work – without folk music influence.

Fiddle music in Bartók’s folk music collection

I have found 517 fiddle tunes in the first volume of Bartók’s Rumanian Folk Music9 and 74 in his Maramureş volume10, so it is likely that Bartók collected 591 Rumanian fiddle tunes. His publication of Serbian and Bulgarian folk music includes 2 Serbian fiddle melodies11.
According to data currently held at the Institute of Musicology in Budapest, during his field trips Bartók recorded 509 Rumanian, 6 Hungarian, 2 Serbian and 21 Ruthenian therefore altogether 538 fiddle tunes. As seen in his studies, he collected and notated more, but not all have made it to his phonograph cylinders. I propose to add the five kemenç melodies from Bartók’s Turkish collection to the Budapest list: three of these are purely instrumental, and in the remaining two melodies the kemençe contributes introductions and interludes to vocal folk songs. The four string kemençe – also known as keman or kemane – is tuned in two fifths and a fourth, for instance to g d1 a1 d2, but the tuning-folk plays no part in the tuning which adjusts to the voice of the singer. The kemençe also exists in a three-string version but Bartók saw and heard the four–string instrument.
In all, Bartók seems to have collected over 600 fiddle tunes.

As per his first way of incorporating folk music into art music, Bartók made arrangements of 26 of his collected fiddle tunes. This material is shown in Vera Lampert’s source catalogue12. The 26 fiddle tunes serve as some of the themes in Rumanian Folk Dances for piano, BB 68 (five fiddle tunes); Sonatina for piano, BB 69 (three fiddle tunes); Rhapsody No.1 for violin and piano, BB 94 (six fiddle tunes); Rhapsody No.2 for violin and piano, BB 96 (ten fiddle tunes); Forty-Four Duos for two violins, BB 104 (two fiddle tunes)13.

It is still open for researchers to surmise, how many of Bartók’s collected fiddle tunes made it into his second and third way of incorporating folk music into art music. However, the style of East-European folk fiddle playing is undoubtedly incorporated into several Bartók compositions. The following excerpt is Bartók’s description of Rumanian folk fiddle playing (although I substituted the word ‘tone’ for note on each occurrence).

‘In most of the villages there is only one violin player for dance music service. In Mureş, however, as well as in some villages of Torontal, a “band” of two violinists does the job.
The tuning of the second violin in Mureş is rather peculiar as it has only the following 3 strings: g d1 and a (4th below the d1). The bridge of the instrument is completely flat, the notes of the accompanying chords, therefore, will sound together … and played in the rhythm of the main beats. The second violin in Banat is stringed and tuned in the normal way ...only double stops are performed on it, again in the rhythm of the main beats….The violin is used almost exclusively to serve for dance music… In general, only the first position is used…The minor–second interval is mostly too wide: this is due more to the width of the player’s fingers than to any intention, because the player simply cannot manage to place his fingers close enough together. The performance generally is very rhythmic. Invigorating accents are frequently put on either odd or even eighths of the 2/4 measure; sometimes the two kinds of accentuation are alternated. Higher positions on the E string occur mostly with Gypsy players or peasant players influenced by Gypsies. This, on the whole, seems to be an urban influence. The higher positions are used especially in certain kind of codas or interludes, seldom in the portions of the melody proper…One note of the comparatively frequent double stops is generally played on an open string; such double stops are mostly intentional. Players with less skill, however, touch the adjacent open string purely by accident. With such performers, it may even happen that they play portions of the piece in consecutive fifths, stopping two adjacent chords with their finger and striking both unintentionally with the bow. Double stops, stopped deliberately on two strings of which neither is open, are comparatively rare. The use of open strings as an accompanying part is most important and frequent in pieces imitating bagpipe music, the long-drawn lower open string substituting for the drone. In a quite inexplicable way, some violinists produced double stops consisting of c1 or b as the lower note, and c2 or others as the higher note, the latter apparently being played on the A string.’14

Research into the topic (of fiddle playing style in Bartók compositions) has been minimal. Below I present those who commented on the theme.

Somfai compares the Ruthenian kolomyjka folk violin melody, one of the sources in the second Rhapsody (BB 96), with Bartók’s version and notes that Bartók uses not only the same key but also the same technical solutions such as double stops and a specific kind of crescendo (düvö). Bartók wanted to transport the style and technique of folk violinists Toma Tofolean and Ion Popovici (and others) into his arrangement and to the concert platform. Somfai suggests that, in order to understand Bartók’s violin style and its sources, it is important to study the Rumanian folk violin material.15
The source of the lament incorporated into the first Rhapsody (BB 94) existed both in vocal and violin forms but Bartók based his violin version on the violin source because he composed for the violin. In his version Bartók used also technical characteristics as applied by other Gypsy violininists, not only those played by János Balog in the source melody.16

Sárosi suggests that the Bartók pizzicato most probably originates from Gyimes violin-gardon music.17

In her substantial article Papp writes that the two rhapsodies (BB 94 and 96) particularly show the folk origins of Bartók’s unique violin style which is manifest in the second string quartet (BB 75), in fast movements of the two violin-piano sonatas (BB 84, 85) and also in late violin/chamber works including the solo sonata (BB 124). In Rumanian and Ruthenian folk violin music fast pieces dominate, as peasant violinists usually play for dances: rhythm, therefore, is the most important element. On one hand, the playing style of the Rumanian peasant violinist is simple: mostly in first position, in unison or with open string accompaniment, with sustained dynamics, with separate bows on each note or with paired notes on the semiquavers. On the other hand, as apparent on Bartók’s cylinders, peasant violinists play with wonderful rhythmic and metric feel, with excellent bowing as well as left hand tecnique. Bartók writes about Toma Tofolean and Ion Popovici: ’Both excellent violinists, and the best contributors in the Mureş area. The surety of Popovici’s fingers and bow technique and his vigorously rhyhmical playing are especially remarkable’. Open strings or open string accompaniments are regular in Rumanian and Ruthenian folk violin music. In the rhapsodies Bartók uses this device even when the folk source does not: thus the last dance in the fast movement of the first rhapsody gains extra vitality. Bartók uses this technique also in free variations such as the second dance in the fast movement of the second rhapsody. Bartók develops the open string accompaniment technique into stopped string accompaniment. Almost all of Bartók’s violin compositions show such technique, coupled with folk music motives. Another characteristic Rumanian violin technique is the asymmetric slurring, which also appears in Bartók violin parts including the Contrasts (BB 116) and the first violin-piano sonata18. Bartók starts the third movement of the Contrasts with a mistuned violin, which plays double string chords for twenty-nine bars. Not only is the speed of the movement very fast, its title (Sebes, which means very fast in Hungarian) also indicates the kind of virtuosity which some of Bartók’s folk violinists displayed. The Contrasts was written for and dedicated to clarinettist Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigeti.

Bartók worked closely with violinists Joseph Szigeti and Zoltán Székely. Their testimony is possibly the most powerful argument for looking closely at the influence of the folk violin on Bartók’s compositions.

Szigeti writes:

‘I see Bartók in his villa in the hills of Buda – his tables, couch and piano littered with those hard-earned discs of folk fiddlers, mostly unaccompanied, which he had recorded during many epic years of folklore exploration. He plays them to me while I follow the intricate, almost hieroglyphic signs on the literal transcriptions he has made of these, as he has of thousands of others. Putting me to the test: whether I would recognise the sometimes infinitesimally small rhythmic or melodic shreds that went into Rhapsody, No.1, which he dedicated to me in 1928; making the distinction, while discussing these themes, between the unimaginative, premeditated incorporation of folklore material into a composition, and that degree of saturation with the folklore which unconsciously and decisively affects the composer’s melodic invention, his palette, his rhythmic imaginings.’19

In the summer of 1928, the Székelys were invited to dinner at the Bartók’s house. Székely recalls this exciting evening:

‘The dinner party at the Bartók’s home was in one of those rooms with all the Hungarian embroidery and the furniture painted in the Hungarian peasant style, even the chairs. Bartók was in a jovial mood. You could see there was something in the making. We talked, then a little bit later he came up with two manuscripts. He said, “ I have a surprise for you. I have written two rhapsodies. One is for you; one is for Szigeti”… Later that evening, after the excitement of seeing the new rhapsodies, Bartók invited me to listen with him to the early recordings of his folk music collection.
There are certain instructions that one cannot know from the notation of the rhapsodies, and that is always a hard problem. In the fifth measure of the Friss movement of the Second Rhapsody with the entrance of the violin solo, Bartók expected a definite style of bowing. Now anybody who plays it, plays it at the frog with lifted bow strokes, because something about it inspires one to do that. But that is not correct. The bow should not be lifted, but instead the passage played on the string in the peasant style…In both the Violin Concerto and in the finale of the Fourth Quartet, we often have the problem of whether or not to lift the bow in such passages. I remember that later when I played the premiere of the Second Rhapsody in the orchestral version with Dohnányi conducting, Bartók was satisfied and said, “You played it very well. You played it like a peasant.” In this remark he was referring to this style of on–the–string bowing that I have mentioned. The gypsies do not play with lifted bowings, but rather “on the string”, and this was what Bartók had in mind, so that justifies playing these passages in the way he preferred. I play it that way, and I recommend it be played that way.’20

The probable incorporation of great many of Bartók’s 600 folk fiddle tunes into his compositions still awaits research. I will report in due course.

1 ‘Mátyusföldi gyüjtés’ [Collection from Mátyusföld], Ethnographia (Budapest), xvi (1905), pp. 300-305.
2 From Eösze, László: Zoltán Kodály, His Life and Work, trans. István Farkas and Gyula Gulyás, London : Collet's, 1962.
3 Somfai, László: abstract for ‘Definitive Authorized Version vs. Authentic Variant Forms in Bartók Music’, Radford University International Bartók Conference, 6 – 9 April 1995.
4 ‘A parasztzene hatása újabb müzenére’ [The Influence of Peasant Music on Modern Music], Új Idök (Budapest), 1931; ed. Suchoff, Benjamin: Béla Bartók Essays, pp. 340 - 344.
5 Approx. 50 compositions, that is, about a third of Bartók’s output belong to this first category.
6 Approx. 16 Bartók compositions of various lengths belong to this second category.
7 Approx. 38 of Bartók’s compositions belong to this third category.
8 Kory, Agnes: Béla Bartók and Ethnomusicology, MPhil thesis, 2005.
9 Rumanian Folk Music, ed. Benjamin Suchoff, The Hague (Martinus Nijhof); Volume One (1967) contains instrumental melodies.
10 Volksmusik der Rumänen von Maramureş [Rumanian folk music of Maramureş], Sammelbände für Vergleichende Musikwissenschaft, iv, eds. Carl Stumpf and E. M. von Hornbostel, München (Drei Masken Verlag), 1923.
11 Musique paysanne serbe (No 1-21) et bulgare (No 22-28) du Banat [Serbian and Bulgarian folk music of Banat], Budapest (printed by Bartók), 1935.
12 Lampert, Vera: Bartók népdalfeldolgozásainak forrásjegyzéke [Source catalogue for Bartók's folk song arrangements], Budapest (Zenemükiadó), 1980.
13 BB numbers refer to the Somfai catalogue, see Somfai, László: Béla Bartók: Composition, Concepts, and Autograph Sources (Berkeley, 1996).
14 Introduction to Volume One (Instrumental Melodies) of Rumanian Folk Music, pp. 16-17.
15 Somfai, László: ‘A 2. hegedürapszódia rutén epizódja’ [Ruthenian episode in Rhapsody No. 2 for violin]’, Muzsika, March 1971, pp. 1-3.
16 Somfai, László: ‘Az “Árvátfalvi kesergö” Bartók elsö rapszódiájában’ [The Árvátfalva Lament in Bartók’s first Rhapsody], Muzsika, May 1977, pp. 9-11.
17 Sárosi, Bálint: ‘Bartók és hangszeres népzene’ [Bartók and instrumental music], Somogy, 1981, pp. 7-9.
18 Papp, Márta: ‘Bartók hegedürapszódiái és a román népi hegedüs játékmód hatása Bartók müveire’ [Bartók’s Rhapsodies for violin and the influence of Rumanian folk violin playing on Bartók’s compositions], Magyar Zene, September 1973, pp. 299 –308.
19 Szigeti, Joseph: With Strings Attached, Reminiscences and Reflections, Cassel, 1949, p. 127.
20 Kenneson, Claude: Székely and Bartók, The Story of a Friendship, Amadeus Press, 1994, pp. 113-114.