Béla Bartók is not just known as a composer, of course. He also plays a prominent role in the history of ethnomusicology.
In fitting with the transitional tendencies of the 1900-1920 period, a moment that served as a hinge between Romantic aesthetics and the “real” twentieth century, Bartók was not given entirely to exoticized representations of folk music – a Romantic compositional trait – but neither was he a fully-formed ethnomusicologist in the modern sense of the term. (Indeed, the field as we know it today did not exist then.) While concerned with documenting the oral traditions of his native lands, he was also interested in hunting for material that could then be synthesized into new music. Bartók’s is a very new sort of relationship with folk sources, in fact, one that attempts to both capture a foreign music in all of its raw “authenticity” (including some of the earliest real field recordings we have – see picture below), but also to put it to good use in the creation of a national, not to mention personal, style. In this way, Bartók could be simultaneously rooted in native folk history while also being uncompromisingly “modern” (in the broader, cosmopolitan sense of the term).
This approach was amazingly prescient. By synthesizing the literate Western tradition with the music of variously-defined others, composers could walk a middle path in an increasingly binarized field of musical production, a field that became even more split with the meteoric rise of popular music. Neither fully academically modernistic, nor “authentically” folksy or popular, this stylistic path is betwixt and between. Indeed, there is a bit of Bartók in Gershwin’s operatic evocations of 1920s Charleston; Messiaen’s ornithological fieldwork (really a form of zoomusicology); Takemitsu’s dabblings with shakuhachi and biwa; Lou Harrison’s “American gamelan”; Reich’s visits to Ghana; Bolcom’s poly-stylistic mashes; and Golijov’s klezmer and Afro-Cuban influenced pieces, among countless examples. Indeed, Bartók seems to have inaugurated the era of the composer-ethnomusicologist.