Bartók and the Berlin School of Ethnomusicology*

By Lampert, Vera | Studia Musicologica, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Bartók and the Berlin School of Ethnomusicology*


Lampert, Vera, Studia Musicologica


(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

In the summer of 1906, when sending news to his mother about one of his earliest collecting trips at the Northern region of pre-war Hungary, Bartók reported that

I transcribed 120 songs, 1/3 of them definitely Hungarian but with Slovak words... Because of this, I will seek out in Nyitra not only Hungarians but Slovaks as well... I have found, among others, a longer, and until now unknown variant of "Piros alma", with the words of "Pri Preppolku, pri ?ihom Dunajku".1

Thus, the interest in the music of Hungary's minorities, its relationship to the Hungarian folk song, the exploration of their similarities, differences and reciprocal influences were present already from the very beginning of Bartók's folkloristic activity. A few years after launching his massive folk song collecting trips with these ends in mind, Bartók heard about the work at the Berlin Phonogramm- Archiv, where similar investigations were being pursued.

The formation of the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv is credited to Carl Stumpf (1848-1936), founder and director of the Psychologisches Institut at the University of Berlin. Stumpf became involved with the music of non-Western people through his research of sound perception and broached the need to create a sound archive already in 1892. His phonograph recordings of the performance of a Siamese theater group in Berlin in 1900 mark the beginning of the Phonogramm- Archiv that became the cradle of a new discipline: ethnomusicology, or as it was then called, comparative musicology. It was the mission of the institution to collect as many examples as possible from all around the world and through the comparison of the different types of music, carried out applying the exact methods of the natural sciences, to point out similarities and differences in order to shed light, in the spirit of Darwin's evolutionary concept, on the origin and evolution of music.2

Two discoveries made the scientific foundation of folk music research possible: the phonograph that enabled the objective registration and close scrutiny of melodies, and the instruments for physical tone measurement that allowed the exact transcription of unusual scales and intervals. Stumpf owned that the "developmental thought became flesh and blood in me as in all my contemporaries," but he also admitted that

[i]t is not possible at the moment and may be just as impossible in the future to construct an unambiguous, progressive series out of the entirety of human musical achievement, because progress has taken place from the beginnings in very different directions. Conversely, we shall gradually find more and more corresponding or related musical conditions among groups of peoples who are geographically or ethnologically linked.3

To expose and understand these relationships was precisely what fuelled Bartók's unremitting interest in the music of the people of the Danube valley. While the investigations carried on in the Berlin School of Ethnomusicology were much broader than Bartók's, the affinity is evident. Discovering the existence of a research program so closely related to his must have struck Bartók with revelatory force. He must have felt assured in his ambitions and in the direction he proceeded. He realized that he belonged to the same camp with the scholars of Berlin and it is quite natural that he not only familiarized himself with their work but also reached out to them. In this essay, I try to piece together the history of the relationship between Bartók and the members of the Berlin School of Ethnomusicology and point out the many significant ways the acquaintance with their ideas and achievements influenced Bartók's scholarly work.

1. Erich von Hornbostel and the galvanoplastic preservation of wax cylinders

As the surviving correspondence corroborates, Bartók had personal contacts with two members of the Berlin School of Ethnomusicology. One of them was Erich von Hornbostel (1877-1935), the leader of the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv from 1905 until 1933. …

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