Béla Bartók was an Austro-Hungarian composer who was born in a small town in what is now Romania in 1881. Throughout his lifetime, the composer lived in many different places, but most notably recorded the folk music of native peoples. As he elevated some of their music for listening in classical music venues and the like, he also became one of the fathers of ethnomusicology, or the study of music indigenous to various groups throughout the world.
Bartók took Hungarian music he collected from the peasants and “raised” the level of the peasant music to that of art song. He also said how if Hungarian peasants could have been as educated as the old masters, Hungarian music would be on the same level as those old masters. Along being influenced by mostly Hungarian folk music, Bartók was also influenced by composers of his day, like Claude Debussy, as well as by Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss.
This idea of “raising” folk music by putting it new “higher” forms of music raises questions about a musical hierarchy and why peasant music in its natural form isn’t as elevated or as worthwhile as the old masters. This is also paradoxical because why does Bartok use peasant music, instead of just continuing the techniques of the old masters, which he says is better? It seems paradoxical in that Bartok says the music of the old masters is better and more elevated—the kind of music he himself is trying to create—but he uses peasant music in his music just to create something new. This idea seems to imply that Bartok was satisfied with the old masters and only used his peasant music to create modern music only for the sake of creating something new.
Despite his love for the people of Hungary, he did could not continue to live there after the political situation in the country worsened after the 1940 outbreak of World War II. He moved to New York City that year. He never fell in love with the country, however, and while he became well-known as a pianist and ethnomusicologist, he had difficulties composing in his new country. His compositions were unpopular in America during Bartók’s final years, but have since become popular in American circles. He passed away in New York City in 1945, at the age of 45.
What do you think of Bartók’s music? Are you interested in the concept of ethnomusicology?