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March 25 composer birthday: ethnomusicologist Bela Bartok

March 25 composer birthday: ethnomusicologist Bela Bartok featured image

Bartok, recording the music of local European villagers 


The whole concept of “ethnomusicology” can be attributed to Bela Bartok, the Hungarian composer who travelled with fellow composer Zoltan Kodaly to the countryside to collect and research Magyar folk melodies. This involved schlepping a heavy phonograph everywhere to record the villagers singing these tunes. The music, once considered gypsy music, was based on the pentatonic scale, very close to those from Central Asia, Anatolia, and Siberia. Bartok incorporated these melodies into his own works, which also drew upon the classical tradition and strong elements of modernism. He also wove into his works the folk music of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldavia, Algeria, and Turkey. Some of his works sounds modern even by today’s standards; others, like rustic dance tunes.

Bartok emigrated to the United States in 1940 to escape the war. He never quite took to the States, and was never embraced as a composer. He was, however, acknowledged as a pianist, ethnomusicologist, and teacher. He became an American citizen shortly before he died in 1945. For many professional musicians, his legacy lives on in his works for piano, string players, and orchestra. For many people who studied piano, he wrote terrific studies and dance pieces for piano, full of rhythmic punch and attractive folk melodies that are fun to play.

“Mikroskosmos” is a collection of pieces meant for the beginner to the very advanced. It’s like a modern version of what Czerny did in the classical era, writing books of studies to improve one’s technique. Frequently, in Volume 6, numbers 149 and 153 are paired together. For my Royal Conservatory of Music grade 10 piano studies, I recall learning the first one, and beginning the second, then abandoning both to “dance with the Romanians” (I learned Bartok’s “Romanian Dances” instead).


Nicholas Rapidis plays two pieces from “Mikroskosmos Volume 6”, Nos. 149 and 153.

Bela Bartok was born March 25, 1881 in Austria-Hungary (now Romania) and died September 26, 1945, in New York City, US.

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