On the routes of Béla Bartók


Bartók is acknowledged worldwide as one of the most important and influential musical personalities of the century. The majority of his works exhibit the influence of folk music. While he forged a twentieth century modern musical language, he also used melodies, melodic shapes, harmonies and rhythms which he encounted on his own collecting trips, and during his subsequent work writing this material down. At the beginning of this century, the peasant country people, who preserved a rich tradition of music, folk song and dance, lived worlds apart from the middle class to which Bartók himself belonged. Bartók wrote that "In the so-called cultured urban circles, the unbelievably rich treasure trove of folk music was entirely unknown. No one even suspected that this kind of music existed."

There are many stories of how Bartók gradually became interested in folk music. According to one, he heard an uneducated Transylvanian girl singing the song "The red apple has fallen in the mud." Bartók was so struck by it that he made his own version and soon even published the original. Bartók was a patriotic Hungarian, but he was also very demanding musically, and he had finally found something, albeit a tiny little song, that he could be authentically, patriotically proud of. Soon, he set off, as did his friend and contemporary, Zoltán Kodály, in long journeys to collect folk music in the countryside. It was resulted in a collection of many thousands of songs, and from this a new science was born: folk music studies. The two men used original folk material in their compositions for the rest of their lives. Bartók wrote of his often physically arduous activities as a folksong collector, saying "People are mistaken who believe it is horribly tiring, despairing work, demanding great sacrifices. As far as I'm concerned, I can only say that the time I spent on this work was the happiest of part of my life. I would not relinquish it for anything on earth."

Bartók collected in virtually every area where the Hungarian language was spoken. During the course of his travels, he became acquainted with instrumental music and dance traditions. His experiences with the ancient and yet unique folk cultures of Transylvania and his observations of the relationship between the different ethnic groups fueled his own philosophy of life, best summarised in his much quoted remark: "My guiding philosophy has always been the ideal of different nations uniting into brotherhood, inspite of all the wars and hostility. I have tried to serve the aims of this idea, as best as I can, in my music, so for that reason, I do not shrink away from any influence, be it Slovak, Romanian, Arab or any other source." In 1919, Bartók felt that the final hour had come for folk music collecting. Against expectations, the tradition proved itself much stronger. Bartók and Kodály's successors were still uncovering valuable material many decades later. And slowly, the cataloging and scholarly study of Hungarian folk material began.

In the nineteen fifties, the study of folk dance received a new impetus with the invention of portable cameras and sound recorders. A new generation immersed itself enthusiastically in the task of "mapping" the traditions of Hungarian language territory. This was achieved under the guidance of György Martin, who emulated Bartók's own ideal of deep scholarship. The modern study of folkdance was born, which looked at the structural properties of Hungarian dances, their types and regional variations, and also made comparisons with the dance traditions of neighbouring peoples. The filming also brought about the discovery of large quantities of dance music, which was still virtually unknown, from the archaic territory of Hungary, principally Transylvania. The great contributor in this field was Zoltán Kallós. The result of the new technology was that longer musical performances, including the accompanying music for large dance cycles, could be recorded. This was something that was not possible at the start of the century for technical reasons. In the 1970s, a new wave of interest in folk art swept Hungary. Part of this was an interest in folk dance and music traditions. The new generation wanted to experience these traditions at the source, stripped of the accretions that non-authentic interpretations tended to add. We, the members of the Muzsikás group began our studies during this period. We also would go on collecting trips into the countryside, armed with cameras and taperecorders. But our principal aim was to learn the instrumental techniques from village musicians. Dancers did the same. We all found ourselves fascinated by the power of traditional folk art. György Martin enthusiastically supported us. He supplied us with his own recordings, and gave the dance house movement the necessary scholarly background. Something akin to a new lifestyle evolved in the clubs and cultural centres. It became known as the Dance House Movement, and it provided informal opportunities for people to learn folk music and dances. It also became a means for self-expression. Folk music was heard outside the clubs as well, on the stage, and on records.

The Muzsikás group quickly became a performing band. In this way, we played in concert halls all over Europe and the world. On one occasion, we were invited to New York for the Bard College music festival. The theme of the festival was Bartók's music. Although the audience knew Bartók's music well, most were hearing folk music for the first time. It was then that we decided to make a record which would demonstrate the relationship between Bartók and Folk Music. Almost every melody on Muzsikás' Bartók album was originally collected by Bartók himself. He also wrote these melodies down and used them in his own works. We want to show this side of Bartók, Bartók the collector. We do not aim to produce something for the library catalogues, rather we wanted to make something like Muzsikás' other recordings. We conceive of it as having three strands: you can hear the original phonograph recordings, which inspired three violin duos which also feature on the CD. Behind the scratchy recordings is the man, the sound, which captivated Bartók. The duos are performed by Mihály Sipos, of Muzsikás, and the Romanian born classically trained violin virtuoso Alexander Balanescu. We have been friends with him for many years, and he has played the duos before. "Now, when I work with the Muzsikás ensemble, I feel that something important is happening to me. If can feel just how important for me is the cultural background against which I grew up, the area from where I come, where I grew up and where I studied." (Alexander Balanescu) Finally, we hear Márta Sebestyen, who has performed with the orchestra almost from its very beginning, and has herself a superb knowledge of ancient folk singing styles. She can reproduce with sensitivity and authenticity the sound of the singers that Bartók heard in the villages, and who he recorded with his phonograph. Together with the Muzsikás group, you can hear the vocal and dance melodies that Bartók could hear during his collecting trips at the start of the century. And we ourselves learned to play by studying village musicians. We are joined by dancer Zoltán Farkas and choreographer, Ildikó Tóth in some numbers - you will be able to hear them dancing sometimes. In our CD, we are searching for the answer, what is it in folk music, that attracted Bartók like a magnet? It is a question that applies perhaps equally to ourselves.