The Society of Folk Dance Historians

Search Site The Web

Bulgarian Rhythm


article by Bela Bartok

In Enekszo, v/6 (May 1938), 537-541.
Also found in Bela Bartok Essays selected and edited by Benjamin Suchoff.

The only metres known to ancient European art music were those divisible into twos or threes; that is, in modern terms, 2/4 and 3/4 bars, or their equivalents with the units doubles (half-notes) or halved (eighth-notes) in value. Although I cannot recall any example, it is possible that fleetingly and disguisedly some other kind of rhythmic division occurred here and there, but it is certain that no other kind of time signature was known than these two. To my knowledge the first example of 5/4 time occurs in Chopin, in the slow movement of an early work, the First Piano Sonata. Probably we may see the influence of Polish folk music in this decidedly unusual time signature. A famous example of 5/4 time is one of the movements of Tchaikovsky's Symphonie Pathétique. Wagner also occasionally used quintuple metre, for instance in the third act of Tristan und Isolde (it is noticeable here that the 5/4 rhythm arises from an earlier, symmetrically barred theme, one-half of the bar accelerates with increasing excitement). These five-unit bars are still comparatively slow, so that there is no great difficulty in grasping or performing them. The bar units are for the most part quarter-notes of comfortable speed.

The beginning of the twentieth century was the moment of discovery of Eastern European folk music. In this music melodies of asymmetrical rhythmic movement were abundant, in Hungarian material no less than in Slovakian and Rumanian. I quote two examples:

Example 1

An - go - li Bor - bá - la kis szok - nyát var - ra - tott,_ e - lül kur - táb - bo - dott, há - tul hos - szab - bo - dott.

Hungarian folk song from Vésztő, Békés County

Example 2

D - oĭ roa - gă să,_ roa - ga t'i - ňe - riat mi re - luĭ. Ĭoĭ Dom - nu - luĭ Doam - ňe. Ti - ňe - riel mi - re - luĭ, D'e ce - z vân - tu - ĭ li - nu.

Rumanian Colindă melody from Hunyad County

In both melodies we feel that the 7/8 metre originated in a 3 × 2 metre in eighth-notes: in the first example the fourth eighth-note has expanded into a quarter-note; in the second example, the sixth one. Composers who are responsive to the influence of folk music, such as Stravinsky or the Hungarians, have made increasingly frequent use of this type of metrical structure in their works, much to the terror of orchestral musicians. Even in Petrushka, and to a greater extent in Le Sacre du Printemps, Stravinsky writes asymmetrical bars made up of fairly quick eighth-note units, often with different bar-lengths in alternation—some symmetrical, some asymmetrical.

In our examples the metrical unit is no longer the quarter-note but a quite fast eighth—about M.M. = 200-250. The most common metres are 5/8, which is usually articulated as 3+2 (more rarely: 2+3), and 7/8, normally articulated as 4+3. But one can also meet hitherto unfamiliar divisions of 8/8 and 9/8 metres: the former may be articulated as 3+2+3, which naturally results in a completely different rhythm from a 4/4 metre of equal duration; the latter articulated as 4+2+3 is wholly different from the 3×3 types of 9/8 time.

It is astonishing how helpless orchestral musicians were, not so long ago, when presented with such rhythms. They had become so accustomed to hand-organ-[hurdy-gurdy]-like symmetrical rhythms that they could not grasp these rhythms at all, which were so unfamiliar to them, yet so very natural. Once in Frankfurt I was giving a radio talk (before 1933, of course—since then the German radio has never invited me to make any appearance whatever), and several members of the rather good radio orchestra there were to play my music examples. Among others, they had to play this:

Example 3

Belt-dance score in 5/8 time

Brâul (Belt-dance) from Alibunár, Torontal County

Even after many rehearsals they could hardly play this melody; they always wanted to transform it into 6/8 time. (Some years later, when revising the notation, I noticed that I had transcribed the recording in a faulty rhythm. This is how it should be:

Example 4

Belt-dance score in 9/16 time

9/16 (2+2+2+3). Two violins

What would have happened had those musicians been faced with the dance tune in this form?)

I said earlier that these rhythms are natural ones. By that I mean they have not been laboriously thought up by composers, but have come into being in village music-making, by the most natural development. And we have seen that even these rhythmic types caused great difficulties to trained musicians (though not to the peasant).

But then along came the Bulgarian musicologists who pointed out some quite astonishing things.

In 1913, in Vol. xxvii of the ethnographical publications of the Bulgarian Academy of Learning, Dobri Christov published a study entitled Bases rhythmiques de la musique populaire bulgare, with music examples, including one section of melodies in 5/16, 7/16, and trisected 8/16. The tempo is extremely quick, the average sixteenth being M.M. = 350-400. This publication went unnoticed abroad, perhaps because it is in Bulgarian or was not given the necessary publicity. Thus Christov's work has remained completely unknown to composers and scholars farther west. As far as I know it was in this volume that melodies in such distinctive rhythms and of such hitherto unusual speed, first appeared in print.

Then in 1927 a little pamphlet by Vasil Stoin appeared, entitled Grundriss der Metrik und der Rhythmik der bulgarischen Volksmusik, containing 187 songs as examples, mostly from his own collection. Concerning the so-called Bulgarian rhythm Stoin has this to say: 'Die musikalische Zählzeit ist in der (abendländischen) Musik immer gleichmässig', that is, that the principal metrical quantities in Western music, within a given bar, are of equal length. By 'principal quantity' he means a quarter-note of about M.M. = 150-200. He then goes on roughly as follows: 'In nearly half the Bulgarian folk songs the principal quantities of individual bars are not of identical length: usually the value of one, and sometimes of two or three among them, is prolonged by half.' This then is how Stoin quite correctly defines the so-called Bulgarian rhythm, except that one should add that the principal quantities described are quite short—about M.M. = 150-200.

The Bulgarian rhythm might be defined in another way: Bulgarian rhythm is that in which the quantities indicated in the irregular time-signatures are exceptionally short (M.M. = 300-400), and in which these very short, basic quantities are not evenly—that is to say not symmetrically—grouped within larger quantities.

Since we are dealing with such short, basic quantities, it is best to indicate them as sixteenth-notes, as the Bulgarians do, but the notation might also be in the form of eighths—this is after all merely a convention. In this case, of course, the metronome marking would be ♪ = 300-400.

In the two large volumes of Stoin's collections he publishes more than 6,000 melodies, and lists the types of rhythm. It appears that the most frequent Bulgarian rhythms are as follows: 5/16 (subdivided into 3+2 or 2+3); 7/16 (2+2+3—the rhythm of the well known Ruchenitza dance); 8/16 (3+2+3); 9/16 (2+2+2+3); and about sixteen other less common rhythmic types, not counting the rhythmically-mixed formulas (that is, with different rhythmic patterns in alternation).

When I first saw these unfamiliar rhythms, in which such fine differences are decisive, I could hardly imagine that they really existed. But then I seemed to remember that in my own collection of Rumanian material I had come across similar phenomena, but at that time had not dared—if I might put it that way—to take note of them. Among my old phonograph notations there were dance melodies which, with a perfectly clear conscience, I had noted down in 4/4, in steady quarter-notes (or perhaps not with a perfectly clear conscience, because I had written on my notations: 'the ends of the bars drawn out in gipsy fashion'. Elsewhere, on a melody notated in 4/8, I had put down a note that reads: 'transition from 4/8 to 3/4', because the third and fourth eighth-notes were prolonged).

Since then I have thoroughly revised my phonograph notations, and it turns out that about five per cent of the Rumanian material is also in so-called Bulgarian rhythm (admittedly confined to certain districts; it is known in Maros-Torda, Torda-Aranyos, and Bánát, but there is no trace of it, for instance, in Bihor). This rhythm is principally found in the dance music of the mentioned counties (see Example 4); among the songs with texts it is so far known only in the Colinde of Hunyad County. The most widespread rhythm is 9/16 subdivided into 2+2+2+3.

But it was enough that I belatedly found this rhythm—thanks to the phonograph—in the Rumanian material. I became aware that in some of these songs the tempo was even faster: the basic value of the sixteenth note was about M.M = 500, or even 600. I would call this rhythm hyper-Bulgarian. (Ex. 5)

Example 5

Pe picioare score in 2+2+3+2/16 time

Dance (pe picioare) for violin from Pernyesd, Arad County. The accompaniment was tapped out by another player with two sticks on an unstrung cello

The Bulgarian publications do not indicate the above-mentioned type, but it does not follow from this that it is non-existent there. The Bulgarians have so far worked without the phonograph, notating everything by ear. Thus it is possible that these still finer rhythmic nuances have eluded even them, because they had no recordings which they could slow down to half-speed for study purposes (Ex. 6)

Example 6

Pre loc score in 7/16 time

'Spot' dance (pre loc) from Tolvădia, Torontal County

In the Hungarian material this kind of rhythm can only be found in traces, and at present nothing can be inferred from them. We know only two Hungarian melodies in which such a rhythm runs consistently right through: one from Moldavia, in Pál Domokos's collection, the other from Nyitra County, in Béla Vikár's collection.

Example 7

Té - li - nyá - ri la - bo - da, szir - ke la - vasz ka - to - na, Kell - e ne - ked re - ze - ta? ké - ne biz a, há le - ne.

Moldavian Csángó-Hungarian folk song from Trunk, Bákó County

There is no trace of the rhythm in Yugoslav publications, but this again does not mean it is non-existent there. I believe that it must be present there, too, but that nobody among the Yugoslav collectors has noticed it.

An important point is that the so-called Bulgarian rhythm obviously exists in part of the folk music of the Turkish peoples. In one of his publications, Uspensky (and Belaiev) gives Turkestan (Turkmenian) folk music, in which there are a considerable number of melodies notated in 5/8, with eighths of about M.M. = 300. I, too, encountered rhythms of this kind in Asia Minor, although admittedly only in dance or instrumental music which was probably not of ancient Turkish but of foreign origin (Ex. 8).

Example 8

Garip score in 10/8 time

'Garip' from Osmaniye, Adana region. The melody is played on a zurna (a kind of oboe), the accompaniment on a davul (bass drum) which is played with a club-headed stick in the right hand an a thin cane in the left

The presence of Bulgarian rhythm in the Rumanian material could probably be explained by Bulgarian influence, but hardly could its presence in the Turkish and Turkestan material. The material available for comparison is still too scanty for us to be able to state whether this kind of rhythm originated in Bulgaria and spread from there, or whether its birthplace was elsewhere, on some Turkish territory. For the present all we know is that it is best known and most widespread on Bulgarian soil. For this reason, even if it should some day be discovered that its origin is not Bulgarian, we may rightly call it Bulgarian rhythm. After all, we owe it to the Bulgarians that we have ever come to know it at all. It is greatly to the credit of the Bulgarian musical scholars that they noticed this phenomenon at all, and despite their inadequate means were able to notate it quite well. It is true the Bulgarian upper classes and the peasantry are much nearer to each other than, for instance, among us Hungarians, so that it was not difficult for the trained Bulgarian musician to notice this rhythm which he had been brought up on and had never lost touch with. But this fact in no way diminishes the great significance of their achievement.

It would be interesting to speculate whether these Bulgarian rhythms grew out of normal rhythms, and as a consequence of what psychological processes they developed. When a famous musician among us first heard melodies in Bulgarian rhythm, he cried out: 'What! are the Bulgarians all lame, that their songs have these limping rhythms?' It is a good joke, but hardly an adequate psychological explanation, even if the majority of Bulgarians were really lame.

Let us look once more at the rhythm of the Ruchenitza: 2+2+3/16. The superficial listener will evaluate this rhythm either as 3/8 or as 2/4. If we derive it from 3/8, then we must establish an augmentation by a sixteenth-note; if from 2/4, then a diminution by the same note value. I favour the former explanation, and as the Bulgarians' own rhythmic definition suggests, they too seem to be of this opinion.

My feeling is that this extension of the note value is no other than the translation of a dynamic stress into terms of duration. For it is as a stress, or a substitute for a stress, that the note that is lengthened by a sixteenth value is experienced.

We can discuss this question only in general terms, for we do not know, for instance, even the choreography of the dances in Bulgarian rhythm; nor do we know whether the dance movements coincide with the principal beats or perhaps contradict them.

Finally, as far as the educational value of Bulgarian rhythms is concerned, this I believe to be beyond doubt. It would be advisable to take up such rhythmic problems from the very beginning of music study. At first, when the pupil's technical ability is still elementary, perhaps only in clapping, drumming, and conducting. Then later should come the playing, and above all the singing, of simpler works in these rhythms. Raina Katzarova, the excellent Bulgarian scholar of folk music, has written a school book called Christmas Songs, in which, besides songs in normal 'Western' rhythms, we find songs in 5/16, 7/16, and 9/16.

Example 9

Tuk - sme ču - li i raz - bra - li, ko - la - de le če i - ma -te mal - ko mom - če ko - la - de le.

Bulgarian Christmas folk song, collected and arranged for children's chorus by Raina Katzarova

The counting of such exceptionally short sixteenth values is, of course, out of the question; there is no language in which the simple numbers can be pronounced at such fast tempo. She recommends, instead of such counting, use of the syllables 'ti' and 'ri'; for example, the pupils would say 'ti-ri' for an eighth-note and 'ti-ri-ri' for a dotted one. In my opinion the syllables 'm-ta' would also be suitable. But it might also be possible to substitute certain gestures for counting. What results the use of this book has had in Bulgaria I do not know. There, of course, the situation is appreciably easier than with us, for instance; most Bulgarian pupils have this kind of rhythm in their blood

If pupils studying music were to grow familiar with Bulgarian rhythms in childhood, it would not happen that qualified orchestral players would gape at much simpler rhythmic formulas than these, as if one had placed—at the very least—Arabic writing before them.