Bartók outside a nomad tent in south Anatolia, 1936.
In the world of WAM, Béla Bartók’s work collecting folk music is often regarded merely as providing raw material for his compositions. Much as I relish these masterpieces, his archive of recordings, along with his meticulous transcriptions, is so vast that it can hardly be seen as subsidiary (see e.g. Chapter 9 of Michael Church, Musics lost and found).
His seminal early fieldtrips around east Europe were disrupted by World War One, whereafter he became in demand as a composer and performer. But in 1932, after a long break from fieldwork, Bartók attended the Congress of Arab Music at Cairo, recording at Mevlevi and Laythi dhikr ceremonies, and at a Coptic mass.
Meanwhile he had long been drawn to Turkey. As he wrote, “I first searched for Finno-Ugrian-Turkic similarities among peoples by the Volga, and then, starting from there, in the direction of Turkey”. in October 1936 he took the train there to inspect recordings in Istanbul and give lectures in Ankara, before embarking in November with a little team of Turkish scholars on an all-too-brief fieldtrip to south Anatolia (see e.g. Bartók, Essays (1976), pp.137–47, as well as this exhibition site).
Always seeking “ancient” tunes, his main brief was to explore links between Turkish and Hungarian melody. Tracks from his fieldwork feature on the 2-CD set
- Bartók: Turkish folk music collection (Hungaroton, 1996)
Here are the 85 short tracks as a playlist:
They made a base at Adana, near the Syrian border, recording Yörük nomads at their winter base—notably in Osmaniye, then a large village. Bartók hardly broached social or political issues in the regions that he visited; like much of Anatolia, Adana was no rural paradise, with a history of ethnic tensions already going back several decades. Since his time, along with all the other trappings of modernity, with the outbreak of the war in Syria it has become a site for refugee camps.
The very first recording they made was of their 70-year-old host Ali Bekir oğlu Bekir singing “Kurt Pasha went up to Kozan” with kemençe bowed fiddle (CD 1, #45):
From Bartók’s transcription of “Kurt Pasha went up to Kozan”.
The same song, Essays p.140.
He noted their “shabby, stereotyped” European clothing, by contrast with the peasant costumes he had been used to finding in Transylvania and the Balkans. The performers were all male, and mostly illiterate; after Bartók’s efforts to record women singing came to nothing, he reflected on how future fieldworkers might rectify this and other issues.
In Osmaniye they also recorded dance music for davul-zurna drum-and-shawm (CD2, ##18–19, 22–25 = playlist #63–64, 67–70)—Bartók regretting the lack of higher-quality recording equipment and a sound-film camera (as do we…). Travelling by cart along rutted tracks, they went on to record songs of Tekirli nomads.
While the repertoire that Bartók documented is only a tiny sample of the wealth of Turkish folk music (contrast Paul Bowles in Morocco), he suggests that the connection with Hungarian melody is no mere coincidence:
No such tunes can be found among the Yugoslavs, the Slovaks of the West and North, or the Greeks, and even among the Bulgarians they are only occasional. If we take into account the fact that such tunes can be found only among the Hungarians, among the Transylvanian and Moldavian Rumanians, and the Cheremis and Northern Turkish peoples, then it seems likely that this music is the remains of an antique, thousand-year-old Turkish musical style.
Still stressing the Hungarian angle, here’s a TRT documentary (in Turkish) from 2015—with his visit to Ali Bekir from 10.27:
Bartók’s monograph Turkish folk music from Asia Minor, completed in 1944, was belatedly published in 1976.
Bartók was concerned to help Turkish scholars collect their own music more methodically. This memoir by his fellow fieldworker Ahmet Adnan Saygun includes a list of Turkish collections from 1926 to 1971. On the broader topic of doing folklore outside academia from the 1950s to the 1980s is this article, with an introduction on antecedents. And János Sipos, In the wake of Bartók in Anatolia (2000)—again based on the Hungarian connection—describes his own fieldwork from 1988 to 1993 at sites including the Adana region.  Yet later research yields further insights. See also Jérôme Cler’s work on the yayla.
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By the time of his 1936 visit to Anatolia, Bartók was already deeply anxious about the rise of Nazism in Europe. He would happily have settled in Turkey, but as international and domestic policies shifted, in October 1940 he left Hungary for the USA—where successive waves of refugees from Europe, and the Levant, had already made a new home.
In New York, alongside his activities as composer and performer, Bartók set to work at Columbia on the massive task of transcribing the precious Milman Parry collection of Yugoslav epics (see again here, under “Bards”). His book with Albert Lord, Serbo-Croatian folk songs, was published in 1951; his overview of the project (in Essays, pp.148–51) is here (for a critique of the “Homeric question” and other caveats, click here).
Since Bartók’s death in 1945, ethnomusicologists have continued to refine methods for musical analysis, but all this takes place within a wider concern to document social change (see e.g. under Society and soundscape). While Bartók’s prescriptive search for disembodied “ancient” melody has fallen from fashion, that doesn’t make his fieldwork and analyses any less admirable.
 A note on my teacher Laurence Picken (who maintained a lively correspondence with musicologists from behind the Iron Curtain, I may add): apart from his groundbreaking work on the music of the Tang court, Laurence also compiled a magnum opus on the folk instruments of Turkey. After his first visit to Istanbul in 1951, exhilarated by the sound of the Black Sea kemençe fiddle, he made regular summer fieldtrips to Turkey until 1966. As Richard Widdess explains (here, pp.238–41):
he travelled, alone and at his own expense, the length and breadth of the country, collecting, photographing and recording instruments in almost every region, and interviewing musicians, instrument makers, school masters, farmers, street vendors, children.
For more on Turkey, see Köçek in Kuzguncuk and links there.