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A Selection from my MA dissertation "The Mounting of a Jewel"

Bela Bartók

Bela Bartók and Turn-of-the-century Hungary      

          One of the main achievements of the Hungarian War of Independence, 1848-1849, was the abolition of serfdom and the emergence of a new social ideology influenced by the events of the French Revolution.  In 1867, Hungary established a duellist division of power between the Habsburg Empire and the Hungarian nobility.  The compromise of 1867 established Franz Joseph I as the joint monarch of Austria and Hungary. Hungary was granted an independent government, ruling local and national affairs.  This situation created a new constitutional order, which was controlled by the aristocracy and middle nobility.  Judit Frigyesi points out that, as the result of the abolition of feudal privileges, the landless gentry dominated the bureaucracy of local government, adopting a patriotic ideology, regarding the nobility as the true embodiment of the Hungarian nation. 

Out of an almost mystical belief in the legitimising power of the conquest of Hungary arose the idea that the supremacy of the nobility was “natural” and “in accordance with the genuine Hungarian spirit.”[1]


This mode of government preserved a quasi-feudal economic and social system, which maintained a polarized society between the nobility on the one hand, and a largely underprivileged peasant class on the other.

          Towards the end of the nineteenth century Hungarian society was influenced by a rising tide of national consciousness, which expressed itself in an increasing anti-Austrian sentiment.  Frigyesi points out that it was the middle nobility (gentry), who monopolised these concepts of patriotism, proclaiming itself the true prototype of the Hungarian people.

Instead of the peasantry, the gentry passed for the best guardians of national identity. The real character of the peasants had no place in this concept of Hungarianness. As a class, the peasants were of little importance in public life, and the peasant question was believed to have been solved forever with the abolition of serfdom. Yet, in reality, the lifestyle and standard of living of the peasantry had hardly changed.[2]


This self-aggrandising nationalism dominated official art and literature, creating a hierarchical and chauvinist social order.  Against this background a younger generation of artists like Bartók made a radical break with the past, adopting an outlook that embraced modernistic ideals, which became essential for continued artistic creativity. 


            Social change at the turn of the century was influenced not only by nationalism, but also by the rapid rate of industrialisation, urbanisation and population growth.  Mary Gluck points out that Bartok came to maturity in a “society undergoing rapid even cataclysmic, social, economic and political transformation.”[3]  A growth of twenty per cent in the population of Hungary occurred between 1890 and 1910, with an increase in the numbers employed in industry, by seventy-five per cent.[4]   The disposition of population in Hungary’s towns was transformed, and the urban population increased from fourteen per cent in 1867, to one quarter of the overall population by 1913.[5]  This was influenced by developments in Hungary’s infrastructure, which progressed at a fast pace towards the end of the nineteenth century. 

            Hungary, at the turn-of-the-century, was a multi-ethnic society, in which Hungarian speakers were the largest of a number of distinct ethnic groups. Hungary’s rural provinces contained large Romanian, Slovak and Slavic ethnic peasant groups.  Jews and Germans integrated themselves into Hungary’s urban society, rising into the middle classes, undergoing a large-scale assimilation, which often involved adopting Hungarian nationality.   This furthered the division between the urban middle classes and the rural population, who occupied what Miklós Lackó calls the “under nation” position in society.[6] 


Hungarian Musical Tradition

   In her essay, Frigyesi writes that the Hungarian nobility “transmitted the cultural-ideological trends of the West, while at the same time it developed a distinct ‘national’ culture.”[7]  She goes on to describe how the middle nobility adopted the music of the Gipsy band as the preferred form of musical expression.

Stephen Erdely shows how dissimilar types of music corresponded to different layers of Hungarian society. 

(1)     The upper classes (which included the nobility, the urban fanciers, industrialists and bourgeoisie) turned to the west for their needs.

(2)     The gentry and the urban middle classes found satisfaction in the music of gypsy bands and popular art songs

(3)     Agrarian folk who lived with its folksong and musical custom isolated from the rest of the country.[8]


              The musical favoured by the gypsies and adopted by the gentry, can be divided into two main forms, verbunkos and Magyar nóta (Hungarian tune). These permeated all Hungarian musical traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  

              The verbunkos (derived from the German word Werbung) was a recruiting dance used by the Habsburg army between the years of 1715 and 1849.  The music, which was performed by Gipsy bands in a spectacular display of virtuosic leaps and clicking of heels, was used to entice young men into military service.[9]   It was comprised of two sections, a slow Lassú and a fast Friss.  Bálint Sárosi points out that the term Verbunkos was applied later “as a musical indicator of the whole period.”[10]   In earlier times Verbunkos was known as the Magyar, which was also linked to civilian dance forms such as the Allemande, Anglaise, Française and Polonaise.[11]  Its musical characteristics are marked by a characteristic dotted rhythm and fast virtuosic ornamentation.  In his New Grove article, Johnathan Belman gives the following examples of Verbunkos from an edition of Hungarian dances for clavichord.


Ex. 1.1: Magyar tántzok klávikordiomra válok, Vienna 1790.

Adagio (lassan)

Allegro (frissen)


               Verbunkos music was considered to have originated from folk music sources that were adapted to suit the gypsy temperament.  Bellman writes:

Although the Verbunkos is sometimes considered to be Gypsy music, it was actually Hungarian, often derived ultimately from the song repertory, but played in a fashion characteristic of the gypsy musician.[12]


In the late eighteenth century, Hungarian music was influenced by trends that emerged from Viennese classicism.  Amongst the many Verbunkos composers were the names of assimilated foreigners who introduced Western musical elements into Hungarian music. It was the influence of Western music, which was responsible for the introduction of aspects like functional harmony and chordal accompaniment.  Zoltan Kodály states that:

It was town art-music, in essence nothing but dance music; at first it was even written by foreigners and immigrants, and like its later counterpart, was to be found in print.[13]


It was during this period that Hungarian music was transformed into a new instrumental style for middle-class consumption, represented by its best-known exponents, the violinists János Lavotta (1764-1820), Mark Rozsavölgyi (1789-1824) and János Bihari (1764-1827).  Contemporary accounts describe the manner in which Verbunkos was portrayed as the true manifestation of Hungarian national consciousness.  Sárosi describes how Verbunkos music was used to embody a sense of “nation” that excluded other layers of society.

The representative of this period largely did not recognize the music of the Hungarian people as being characteristic of the “Hungarian nation”—that is, the noble and very slender upper class layer — indeed they simply refused to consider the existence of folk music.[14]


              The Magyar Nóta (Hungarian tune) was a mid nineteenth century phenomenon, and was largely the creation of middle-class composers of noble descent.  These popular songs were often transmitted orally, as folk songs, without the name of an associated composer attached.  Erdely points out that the songs were intended “to provide the growing urban population with songs resembling folksongs but ‘on a higher level’.”[15]  The songs were disseminated in urban areas and performed by Gipsy bands.  Erdely describes how the general public regarded these songs “as being the true Hungarian tune and gypsy music tradition.”[16]  In this nationalist ideology, music was exploited to promote the patriotism of the gentry and urban middle classes, who were completely unconcerned with the genuine musical tradition of the Hungarian peasant. 

              Sárosi describes harmonic features of the Magyar nóta, which distinguish it from genuine Hungarian folk music. 

Its main distinctive feature is its strong harmonic base: the turns of melody virtually dictate the accompanying chords — the chord sequences and accompaniment clichés well known from gypsy orchestras. Such accompaniments are inconceivable with folk songs, especially the old-style ones.[17]


The following example, by the composer Kálmán Simonffy (1831-188), demonstrates melodic features, which support a conventional harmonic structure.


Ex. 1.2:  Magyar Nóta: Szomorúfuz ága hajlik a virágra.[18]


In spite of its urban origins, the Magyar nóta permeated the music of rural villages, where it was assimilated into an orally transmitted folk tradition.  Variants of popular song were responsible for the creation of new forms of folk music that began to displace the older tradition.  Kodály points out that “the tunes became common property soon after their appearance and nobody inquired into their origin.”[19]   The common misconception of the origin of Hungarian music at the turn-of-the-century was that the Magyar nóta represented the indigenous culture of both the Hungarian and the Gipsy peoples.  It was not until the twentieth century that these claims where invalidated by Bartók and Kodály’s ethnomusicological research.


Verbunkos was also transplanted into the nineteenth century art-music in the works of Hungarian Romantics such as the opera composer Ferenc Erkel and instrumental composer Milhály Mosonyi.  However, it was with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances that so-called Hungarian music reached its widest audience. 

Sárosi demonstrates how Liszt adapted a well-known popular song (Ex. 1.3) for the first theme of his eighth Hungarian Rhapsody (Ex.1.4).  In his composition Liszt imitated all the mannerisms of Gipsy performance, which he regarded as the true source of Hungarian music.  The eighth rhapsody uses all the common musical clichés of Verbunkos performance: like: cimbalom-like broken chord ornamentation, fantasy-like breaking up of the vocal melody, emphasised dotted rhythms, grace-notes, trills and chromatic runs.  Sárosi points out that “in the original melody there is no augmented second: here on the other hand there is.”[20]  In an attempt to notate the improvised practices of the Gipsy musician Liszt was less concerned with preserving the original character of the source material.

Ex. 1.3:  Second theme from Rózsavölgyi’s Víg szeszély czardas:  Káta tövén költ a ruca (In the rushes, that’s the duck’s home).[21]

Ex. 1.4:  Extract from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, No. VIII.


Bartók’s nationalism

            Bartók’s early nationalist views are well documented in his letters of 1902 and 1903 containing many references to his discontent at the prevalence of the German language, which was retained as the language of culture amongst the Budapest intelligentsia.  Bartók imposed these views on his family by insisting on the use of the name  “Böske” (the Hungarian diminutive for the German name Elizabeth), as a nickname for his sister, and requesting that Hungarian be spoken in their family home.  It was also during this period that Bartók adopted the use of Hungarian national dress.  In his essay “Autobiography” (1921), he described how he was caught up in the growing nationalist movement.

It was the time of a new national movement in Hungary, which also took hold of art and music. In music, too, the aim was set to create something specifically Hungarian. When this movement reached me, it drew my attention to studying Hungarian folk music, or, to be more exact, what at that time was considered Hungarian folk music.[22]


In his early youthful works, Bartók’s interest in nationalism was achieved by a synthesis of elements of the Hungarian music tradition with western Romantic influences. This was carried out in a manner that directly followed on from the Liszt precedent.  These early musical works embraced the mythologized political function of the verbunkos tradition. 

A good example is the tone poem Kossuth (1903), which celebrated the life of Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the abortive Hungarian revolution of 1848-49.  The work was modelled on Strauss’s symphonic poem Thus Spake Zarathustra, which Bartók transcribed for piano in 1902.  His overtly nationalist agenda was projected in both the thematic programme and musical material of the work.

The opening theme is a sort of idée fixe, which delineates the character of the hero (Ex. 1.5), and contains a number of verbunkos influences.[23]  These include the characteristic dotted rhythm (long-short-long) with the use of an augmented fourth, which was the signifying feature of the gypsy scale (Ex. 1.6). 

Ex. 1.5:  Kossuth: the hero’s theme, bars 1-5.

Ex. 1.6:  Gipsy scale with augmented intervals.


In the following section Bartók uses another rhythmical feature derived from verbunkos, the scotch snap (Ex. 1.7).


Ex. 1.7:  Kossuth: thematic idea representing Kossuth’s wife, figure 3.

Another technique associated with the gipsy style of rendition was the florid ornamental line of the fifth section (Ex. 1.8).

Ex. 1.8:  Kossuth: Section V.


            In the two subsequent works: the Rhapsody Op.1 (1904), the Scherzo for Piano and Orchestra Op.2 (1904), Bartók continued to use verbunkos as the basic ingredient of his musical expression.  This interest in nationalism was short lived, and in the years 1904-1905, he became increasingly frustrated with the musical culture of Budapest.  In a letter to Irmy Jurkovics of April 1905, he wrote:

The intelligentsia comes, almost exclusively, from foreign stock (as shown by the excessively large number of Hungarians with foreign names); and it is only amongst intellectuals that we find people capable of dealing with art in a higher sense. A real Hungarian music can originate only if there is a real Hungarian gentry. This is why the Budapest public is so absolutely hopeless. The place has attracted a haphazardly heterogeneous rootless group of Germans and Jews; they make up the majority of Budapest’s population.[24]


Bartók’s nationalist pronouncements should be understood as being entirely motivated by his frustration with the conventional forms of musical expression, and necessitated by his rejection of the German dominated tradition.  Ferenc Glatz points out that Bartok was not a nationalist in an “ethnic” sense, but “was guided primarily by musical motives.”[25]  The discovery of a more authentic agrarian folk music led Bartók to completely re-evaluate his views on Hungarian music.  Mary Gluck makes the points that this discovery liberated Bartók from not only “the stylised gipsy music of contemporary popular entertainment, but also from the forms and restrictions of nineteenth century classical music.[26]  Glatz goes on to write: “his program was to create a new type of music that would overthrow the centuries old dominance of German music, of German tunes and harmonies.”[27] 

Copyright: Rory Braddell, September 2001

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[1] Judit Frigyesi. “Béla Bartók and the Concept of Nation and Volk in Modern Hungary” in Musical Quarterly, 72/2 (Summer 1994), p. 259.

[2] Ibid. p. 263.

[3] Mary Gluck “The Intellectual and Cultural Background of Bartók’s work” in BKR, p. 10.

[4] Statistics taken from Miklós Lackó. “The Intellectual Environment of Bartók and Kodály, With Special Regard to the Period Between the Two World Wars” in BKR, p. 26.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p. 27.

[7] Frigyesi, 1994, p. 260.

[8]Stephen  Erdely “Bartók and Folk Music” in CCB (2001) p. 26.

[9] Detailed descriptions of the use of Verbunkos as recruiting music can be found in Bálint Sárosi. Gipsy Music (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1978), pp. 86-89.

[10] Ibid. p. 85.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Johnathan Bellman. “Verbunkos” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition, Vol. 26, pp. 425-426. (London: MacMillan, 2001).

[13] Kodály, Zoltán. Hungarian Folk Music  (London : Barrie and Jenkins, 1971), p. 7.

[14] Sárosi, 1978, p. 90.

[15]Stephen Erdely, 2001, p. 25.

[16] Ibid. p. 26.

[17] Bálint Sárosi. Folk Music: Hungarian Musical Idiom (Budapest:  Corvina, 1986), p. 57.

[18]Reproduced from Sárosi, 1986, p. 58.

[19] Kodály, 1971, p. 6.

[20] Sárosi, 1978, p. 115.

[21] Examples 1.3 & 1.4 are Reproduced from Sárosi, 1978, pp. 115-118.

[22] Bartók. “Autobiography” (1921) in BBE, p. 409.

[23] The programme of Kossuth is explained in Bartók’s essay “Kossuth Symphonic poem” in BBE, pp. 399-403.

[24] Bartók. BBL, p. 50.

[25] Ferenc Glatz. “Music, Political Thinking, National Ideas. The Social and Cultural Background to the Kossuth Symphony” in BKR, p. 77.

[26] Gluck, 1987, p. 10.

[27] Glatz, 1987, p. 77.