Barbarians ‘R’ Us: Béla Bartók, “Allegro Barbaro” (1911) and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “The Barbarian” (1970)

The time for gentleness and dilettantism is past.  What are needed now are barbarians.
—André Gide in 1911[1]

The original “barbarians” were Goths attacking Romans . . . or wait, was it Huns attacking Goths?  Or, before that, Gauls?  Or the Romans themselves?  Or the Hebrews?  Well, let’s make it Goths or Huns massing on the banks of the Danube so that we’re in the general area where Hungarian modernist Béla Bartók wrote “Allegro Barbaro” in 1911.

Bartók is perhaps the gutsiest of the great composers who injected spiky Eastern European folk music into the bloodstream of Western art music a century ago. In its 1911 context, the solo piano piece “Allegro Barbaro” (“barbarous fast movement”) is a shocker, a rude invasion across the Danube all over again.

“Allegro Barbaro” (played by Jenö Jandó)

It’s as if this barbarian pianist doesn’t know our rules of music and ignorantly breaks them.  Right away we’re in a weird mode for the melody (that is, not the familiar major or minor scale) and just about the first thing you hear is a descent from an F-sharp minor chord to an E minor chord and back (that’s what they’d be if we were in a major/minor world), which sounds weird too and makes a don’t-give-a-damn-for-you statement.

Yet barbarians express themselves with their own modes and harmony and rhythms; they have their own forms one can get used to.   To keep the edge of freedom and wild force,  Bartók frequently breaks the flow of “Allegro Barbaro” in a peremptory way to scare us a little with the barbarian’s potential for violence.  The irregular-seeming cadences ending the major phrases and sections catch you by surprise or make you wait a bit for each return to the attack.  (If there’s a pattern to this, you hadn’t been informed what it is.)

The dynamics are jagged and shocking as well.  Notice all the accent marks and the sff (which means “suddenly way loud”) above these lines of the score.

The “barbarian” quality is essentially rude, I think, like “punk,” yet differs from “punk” by involving a conscious comparison and even a mixture with the “civilized.”  We are ambivalently watching the Goths or Huns come across the river; they are joining us.  This is clearly going on both in the Bartók piece and in Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s opening blast for their version of progressive rock, “The Barbarian.”

“The Barbarian”

Isn’t it remarkable how “Allegro Barbaro” has been smoothed out by ELP?  Now it’s in much more regular time, even plodding in the heavy sections.  The dynamics, though nicely varied in the quieter section, sound more normal.  One might have thought that importing “classical” material would add a layer of civilization to rock barbarism, but it’s the other way around:  the really barbaric edge comes in the challenging melody and harmony carried over in Bartók’s notes from 1911, not in the blaring B-3 or fuzz bass or drums.  Again, it’s when the F-sharp minor chord thuds down to the ugly E minor (at the beginning of the clip) that you know civilization’s in trouble.

I hasten to say, I hugely enjoy ELP’s arrangement.  It sounds more fully realized and is more melodically beautiful than the original Bartók.  But this comes at the cost of giving up much of Bartók’s volatility and strangeness, which we need to disturb ourselves with from time to time.


[1] Quoting C. L. Philippe, according to Elaine Rusinko in “Acmeism, Post-Symbolism, and Henri Bergson,” Slavic Review 41 (Autumn 1982), p. 494 n. 7.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Identities, Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Barbarians ‘R’ Us: Béla Bartók, “Allegro Barbaro” (1911) and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “The Barbarian” (1970)

  1. Elise Smith says:

    I find Bartok more shocking and unsettled (thus unsettling), like the clashing chaos of invasion, but the rhythm of EL&P gives a sense of the inexorable nature of that invasion: nothing you can do can stop the onslaught.

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