Bartók's Collection of Hungarian Instrumental Folk Music and Its System*

By Tari, Lujza | Studia Musicologica, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Bartók's Collection of Hungarian Instrumental Folk Music and Its System*


Tari, Lujza, Studia Musicologica


Abstract: Béla Bartók's collection of Hungarian instrumental folk music is known only for Hungarian Bartók scholars and ethnomusicologists although Bartók's permanent interest in folk musical instruments, and instruments in general, manifesting itself in essays and compositions has always been evident. The term Bartók's instrumental collection implies the Hungarian instrumental folk music material that emerged as the outcome of his own collecting work and explicitly melodies performed on instruments. This report gives a survey of Bartók's work in the field by means of some randomly chosen phenomena.

Keywords: Béla Bartók, Hungarian instrumental folk music, folk music collection

"The sheer volume of writing on Bartók is staggering. The complete bibliography ... has grown to truly overwhelming proportions" - writes László Somfai in the introduction to his book Béla Bartók: Composition, Concepts and Autograph Sources.1 In the past twenty years this literature has further increased as predicted by Somfai in his 18 Bartók Studies printed in the year of the Bartók centenary.2 This said, it is hardly to be believed that a portion of Bartók's oeuvre, an important chapter of his ethnomusicological work is still missing from this tremendous literature, namely his accomplishments in the field of Hungarian instrumental folk music, above all his collection of Hungarian instrumental folk music between 1907 and 1914 and the system of instrumental melodies created until 1940. Certain melodies of Bartók's not very numerous but many-sided collection of Hungarian instrumental folk music in respect of style, genre and function have already been printed, beside the melodies published by Bartók in his lifetime as melodic supplements to the description of Hungarian folk music instruments.3 Research has revealed the possible folk music sources of Bartók's own compositions (from the only concrete melody to "quasi-folklore" phenomena4); certain Hungarian instrumental tunes have also been published in works of this kind. Musicians and concert-goers are familiar with several compositions and segments of Bartók's works based on or inspired by instrumental Hungarian folk tunes, whether purely instrumental or vocal folksongs rendered on an instrument at the time of collection, ornamented in a way that is characteristic of the given instrument. Such general knowledge cannot make up, however, for the professional neglect of several decades, i.e. for the detailed description of the Hungarian instrumental collection, for the evaluation of its role in the history of research and scholarship. So far Bartók's complete Hungarian instrumental collection has not been dealt with yet.

Even in Hungary Bartók's collection of Hungarian instrumental folk music is known for the greater part by Bartók scholars and ethnomusicologists although Bartók's permanent interest in folk musical instruments, and instruments in general, manifesting itself in essays and compositions has always been evident.5 The 125th anniversary of Bartók's birth provides an opportunity for rendering account of the research programme aimed at elaborating and publishing the critical source edition of Bartók's collection of Hungarian instrumental music. This report gives a survey of Bartók's work in the field by means of some randomly chosen phenomena.

Bartók's instrumental collection

The term Bartók's instrumental collection implies the Hungarian instrumental folk music material that emerged as the outcome of his own collecting work and explicitly melodies performed on instruments. Not included in this category are, apart from a few exceptions, the instrumental dance tunes Bartók collected in vocal form. The number of instrumental melodies collected during fieldwork and transcribed for the greater part - mostly by Bartók - amounts to 165. Of his last Hungarian collection Bartók left untranscribed a flute and a violin melody each and it is conceivable that there are additional items on phonograph cylinders (that could only be checked in part for technical reasons). …

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