In 1908, the young Béla Bartók, along with his compatriot, Zoltán Kodály, traveled to remote corners of the Hungarian countryside to document the peasant folk music of the Magyars. This is the ethnic group which occupied the region between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains between the eighth and fifth centuries B.C. before migrating west to form present-day Hungary.
The colorful inflections of this music, as well as the jagged, irregular rhythm of the ancient Magyar dialect, can be heard in Bartók’s Allegro barbaro. This wild, ecstatic romp for solo piano was written in 1911, the same year as Bartók’s opera, Bluebeard’s Castle. The composer performed it frequently from memory as an encore before later notating the score. The mischievous title arose after the French press referred to Bartók as a “barbarian.” Harmonically, Allegro barbaro combines the sounds of Hungarian folk music (based on the pentatonic scale) with the chromaticism of Romanian music. A spirited dance, this music teases us with abrupt surprises and moments of polytonality (multiple keys heard simultaneously). This music inspired The Barbarian, the opening track on the 1970 debut album of the English progressive rock band, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Here is a performance by Zoltán Kocsis:
- Bartók: Allegro barbaro, BB 63, Sz. 49, Zoltán Kocsis
- Bartók’s 1929 recording