Bartók’s variations of The Romanian Christmas Carols




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Starting in 1907, Béla Bartók (1881-1945) begins to collect Romanian folk music. His interest in this type of music is not just an ethnological one, as he uses it also as a starting point for some of his works. Thus, the specific rhythms, meters or scales of Romanian folk music can be found both in the major works of Béla Bartók, like Cantata Profana (1930), and in the smaller pieces such as his arrangements for piano or voice and piano. The Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano is one of the works in which Béla Bartók uses Romanian folk music, Romanian Christmas songs in particular, as a base for the musical discourse. As in some other cases of his arrangements of folk melodies, Bartók uses variation technique in The Romanian Christmas Carols. Romanian carols act as “themes” for the variations in The Romanian Christmas Carols. The specific characteristics of the songs used influence the overall structure of the work. The analysis of this structure constitutes the subject of this paper.


The Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano consists of two series of ten songs each. Each song is constituted of several variations of a different colinda.[1] Thus, there are twenty colinde that Bartók uses as themes, making The Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano a work composed of twenty sets of variations on twenty different themes. Each song is a set of variations. While the colinda - the theme itself - is not exposed in the song, all variations keep the theme unchanged. In this way, Bartók keeps each variation corresponding to the stanza structure of the original colinda.[2] It is accompaniment, range, dynamic, and tempo markings that differ between the variations. Some of these elements will be examined throughout this paper. But as they do not contribute in an essential manner to the musical discourse created by Bartók, the question that arises is this: what is the real function of the variations in this work? In the attempt to understand Béla Bartók’s intention in using variation technique in The Romanian Christmas Carols, a closer look at the original themes and the resulting piano score is necessary.

1. Béla Bartók and the Romanian folk music


First of all, what are the Romanian Christmas carols and why did Béla Bartók choose them as a basis for his works? In 1905, Bartók decided that he should collect folk songs in order to have access to essential and valuable musical elements that folk music already proved to possess.[3] Thus, in 1907, when he was collecting Hungarian tunes in the Hungarian communities of Transylvania, he also encountered some Romanians and notated a few of their folk songs by ear. When analyzing some of these tunes, Bartók discovered that three of the Romanian melodies were in the Phrygian folk mode.[4] The Hungarian folk music that Bartók encountered did not use the Phrygian folk mode after the middle of the 19th century. Bartók, surprised that Romanians still used it, decided to extend his collecting tours to the Romanian community in Transylvania.[5] As a result of many trips and efforts to reach Romanian communities, Bartók’s Romanian collection contains approximately 3500 musical pieces.[6] His efforts were recognized by the Romanian Academy, despite the political problems between Hungary and Romania at the time.[7]


2. Characteristics of the colinde


Romanian Christmas carols are sung by groups of people who tour the community during the winter season celebrations. The subject of the lyrics can be of a historical, mythical or religious nature. During his Transylvanian tours, Béla Bartók encountered many types of songs elaborating various historical and mythical legends as well as the Creation story in Genesis.[8] Even though Béla Bartók collected other types of Romanian folk songs as well,[9] he considered colinde to be the most important, musically.[10]


There are certain characteristics that Bartók took into account when discussing the musical value of colinde. First, there is the use of scales. The most characteristic scale in Romanian folk music is C-D-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C. It consists of a lydian tetrachord and a mixolydian one, basically comprising all harmonics in a harmonic series - see example 1:[11]

Ex. 1: Romanian mode

This juxtaposition of folk modes was one of the basic characteristics that Bartók considered to be the Romanian sound.[12]  Also, while in the Hungarian folk melodies the finalis note is always the first degree of the scale, the finalis of certain colinde is on the second degree, which may suggest a half-cadence at the end of the piece.[13] Secondly, there is the specific rhythm. The characteristic rhythm of colinde is the so-called “syllabic giusto,” a system based on the interchange of two units of duration, one short and one long, whose relations to each other are 1:2 or 2:1 respectively.[14] Béla Bartók was the first one to discover Romanian colinde that use a rhythm related to the syllabic giusto, but in which the relation between the two units of duration is actually of 2:3 or 3:2 respectively.[15] Bartók considered this rhythmical occurrence the most convincing counter argument to the claim that repeated changes of time are unnatural.[16] All these characteristics are used in The Romanian Christmas Carols variations as essential elements of the overall idea of Bartók’s musical discourse.


3. Analysis of The Romanian Christmas Carols


Béla Bartók identified three manners of working with folk music material. The composer can use authentic folk melodies, unchanged or slightly modified, and provide them with accompaniment, emphasizing either the original melody or the accompaniment. He can also invent melodies imitating folk music, or finally he can simply use the musical essence of folk music in his work. Without any doubt, The Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano follows the first strategy, with an emphasis on the original folk pieces. [17] The colinde used in this work were collected between 1909 and 1917.[18] Bartók composed The Romanian Christmas Carols in 1915, with an original edition published in 1918. Bartók himself played them for the first time in October 1922, in Cluj, Transylvania.[19]


3.a. Theme and variations


As already mentioned, each song of the two series is based on a colinda theme. Bartók does not modify the theme within the variations, although it should be mentioned that the original theme presented in the list with the original songs attached at the beginning of the score is sometimes a simplified version of the original song. Example 2.1 shows colinda II-4 as it was originally collected by Béla Bartók: [20]


Ex. 2.1: Rumanian Folk Music (vol. 4), example 55, bars 1-3.



Almost all ornaments and singing markings are omitted from the “theme” version of this colinda, as example 2.2 shows:[21]


Ex. 2.2: Romanian Christmas Carols, II-4 original theme, bars 1-3.



And this is how the first variation of this piece looks in Bartók’s score:


Ex. 2.3: Romanian Christmas Carols, II-4, bars 1-3.



These examples show that Bartók’s intention was to keep the essence of each song, with an emphasis on scale-related sound and rhythm, rather than offering an instrumental version of the performance practice used in the singing of these pieces.


Each song has a certain number of variations, apparently determined by the role of the piece within the musical discourse of each series. Thus, a so-called bridge section will have only two variations (e.g. I-2, II-2), while a more important piece can have as many as five variations (I-8). Each song, except I-10 (which has only one variation and a coda), has either two (I-2; I-4; I-6; II-2) or a multiple of two variations (II-6, II-10), three variations (I-1; I-3; I-5; I-7; I-9, II-3-5; II-7-9), or their sum (2+3: I-8). A closer look at Table 1 reveals not only a certain consistency in the number of variations for each song throughout the two series, but also that their order seems to follow a certain pattern. Thus, in the first seven songs of Series I there is a continuous alternation of two and three variations.  Also, even in Series II, which is more liberally organized than Series I, we can consider to a certain extent a pattern of alternating pairs of two with pairs of three variations (starting with II-2).


Table 1: Number of variations.


Series I            Series II


1. 3                 1. 3

2. 2                 2. 2

3. 3                 3. 2

4. 2                 4. 3

5. 3                 5. 3

6. 2                 6. 4 + 2*

7. 3                 7. 3

8. 5                 8. 3

9. 3                 9. 3

10.1               10. 4

*The second series of variations for II-6 follows after II-7.


3.b. Rhythm and meter


Following the aforementioned observations, one can argue that there is a connection between the alternating number of variations and the 2:3-3:2 rhythmic pattern discovered by Bartók, pattern characteristic to Romanian colinde. His interest in reflecting this specific characteristic of the original themes is also reflected in the meter of the chosen colinde. More than half of the selected themes are multimetrical. Bartók uses different notational methods,[22] either indicating the meter in the measure they represent, as in I-1:


Ex. 3.1: Romanian Christmas Carols, I-1 original theme, bars 1-3.


or in the first measure, for alternating patterns: I-3 - see example 3.2; or irregular metric pulse that occurs within the measure: I-7 - see example 3.3.


Ex. 3.2: Romanian Christmas Carols, I-3 original theme, bar 1.




Ex. 3.3: Romanian Christmas Carols, I-7 original theme, bar 1.



Because of this irregular rhythmic pattern Bartók did not consider canonic imitation as an appropriate variation technique in this work. There is no imitation throughout the series until the final section where Bartók uses a complete canon, but even here the bar-lines for the two staves do not coincide (see example 4).[23]


Ex. 4: Romanian Christmas Carols, II-10, bars 13-16.



Even if the metric pattern prevents Bartók from developing certain compositional technique within the variations, the accompaniment is used to emphasize the frequent time change and irregular rhythm. In Series I, indicated already as being more strictly organized, regular meter occurs only at I-5 and I-9. While I-5 has a stabilizing function in the middle of the series, and rhythm, accompaniment and harmony create a more “classical” sound, the regular meter of I-9 is broken by the use of syncopation:


Ex. 5: Romanian Christmas Carols, I-9, bars 1-2.



However, it is not the same with the regular metric pieces in Series II (II-4: 6/8; II-5: 2/4; II-7: 2/4; II-8: 2/4), where the accompaniment follows the beats regularly. Again, Bartók uses a different approach to the themes than he did in Series I.


3.c. Structure of the series


Still, there are similarities and connections between the structures of the two series. Each series is continuous. The ten components of each are intended to be played without pause, with each piece leading into the next. This is a characteristic also borrowed from the colinde tradition. Series of colinde are usually sung continuously, as a time saving and dynamic element. Bartók uses the same technique for the treatment of the chosen colinde. As a result of this technique, each series can be regarded as a whole. The dynamic of the pieces inside the series is similar: introduction, bridge section, two groups of connected pieces interrupted by a stabilizing, more “classical” style piece, and ending pieces. A closer look at the description in Table 2 reveals also the contrast between correspondent pieces in the two series. Thus, Series I has a fast introduction, Series II has a slow one; the accompaniment for piece I-8 is the most dense in the whole work, while the one for II-8 has minimal accompaniment; the end of Series I is a short, one variation piece, a variation itself of I-9, while the end of the Series II and of the work The Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano is extensively developed, comprising even the unique canonic imitation.



Table 2: Series structure.


Series I                                                             Series II

fast introduction (1)                                            slow introduction (1)

bridge piece (2)                                                  bridge piece (2)

connected pieces (3-4)                                       connected pieces (3-4)

stabilizing 2/4 (5)                                               stabilizing 2/4 (5)

connected pieces (6-7)                                       connected pieces (6-7)

developed section (8)                                          minimal accompaniment section(8)

syncopated 2/4 section (9)                                  pre-ending faster section (9)

ending short piece, v. of 9 (10)                             ending extended piece (10)


            The harmonic treatment is also part of the connection between the songs. While the original melodies are set on G as finalis, Béla Bartók’s versions have different finalis notes (see Table 3).


Table 3: Finalis movement.


Series I: F#-G-D-A-G-E-E-G-G-F

Series II: G-D-B-D-D-D-D-F#-F-C


In order to realize this dynamic, Bartók transposes most of the songs, reaching to tonalities with no, one or two sharps/flats (except II-8, which has five sharps). As most of the modes used in the original songs are minor modes (see Table 4.), Bartók starts each series with a minor sound, and, with the exception of a short major sound in both bridges (I-2; II-2 - G major key signature and sound), continues in minor to the end of each series where he concludes in a major sound. For a parallel between the original modes and the key signature used in Series I see Table 4:


Table 4:


Series I: original modes            Series I: key signatures/tonalities


1. Romanian                             1. B minor

2. Mixolydian                            2. G major (modulates to E minor)

3. Dorian                                   3. E minor

4. Romanian                              4. E minor

5. Eolian                                   5. G minor

6. Dorian                                   6. A minor

7. Dorian                                   7. B minor

8. Dorian                                   8. E minor

9. Romanian                              9. E minor

10.Ionian                                   10. F major


There are several methods that Bartók uses to make the connections between the pieces. Example 6 shows how the harmonic material makes the connection between two pieces:


Ex. 6: Romanian Christmas Carols, I-4, bars 20-23; I-5, bars 1-4.


The end of I-4 features E flat announcing the G minor in I-5. Also, in the third bar of I-5, the natural E reminds one of the previous sound.

 Soprano or bass line is another connecting method as in I-2 to I-3 (see example 7), and II-1 to II-2 (see example 8):


Ex. 7: Romanian Christmas Carols, I-2, bar 14; I-3, bar 1.



Ex. 8: Romanian Christmas Carols, II-1, bar 24; II-2, bars 1-2.



Short bridges are also used (I-7 to I-8):


Ex. 9: Romanian Christmas Carols, I-7, bars 13-16; I-8, bars 1-4.



Motivic connection seems to have influenced Bartók in choosing these particular colinde as themes for his work. Thus, while songs I-2&3, I-7, II-1, I-3 share the same melodic pattern at the beginning of the song (type G-A-B-A-G), songs I-4, II-4, II-6 and II-9 share a different one (type G-G-A/F-G).[24]


As the overall sonority of The Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano is far from being a major/minor type one, the classical music listener relies on these connecting elements to grasp the piece as a whole. These connections reinforce the dynamic of each series and support the structure (see Table 2 above). Considering the harmonic material used by Bartók, each series can be regarded as comprising four distinct units of musical discourse, as follows: 1-2/ 3-4-5// 6-7/ 8-9-10. Songs 1-2 (introduction and bridge with a slightly major sound) lead to a developed section in minor sound (3-4), harmonically resolved in song 5, followed by another developed section in minor sound, resolved in the last section (8-10) which concludes in a clear major sound.


3.d. Form and tempo


Form, tempo and dynamic markings have their contribution to the overall structure of the two series. All original melodies have either six or eight syllables in their text and have a three or four line form, with the exception of II-4, which has an AA’ form structure (see Table 5). A closer look to the order of the songs in relation to their form shows that coupled pieces share the same formal structure:[25]


Table 5:  Form.


Series I            Series II


1. ABAB           1. ABA

2. ABA              2. ABA

3. ABA              3. ABA

4. ABA              4. AA’

5. ABCD           5. ABA

6. ABCD           6. ABC

7. ABCB           7. ABC

8. AABC           8. ABC

9. AABC           9. ABA

10. AABC          10.ABA


Thus, I-3 & 4 are in ABA form, I-9 & 10 have a AABC form, II-6 & 7 have an ABC form, and II-9 & 10 have an ABA form. In closer relation to this form is the actual nature of the songs. For example, I-9 & 10 are originally versions of the same colinda (115d and 155a in Béla Bartók’s catalogue). This is also valid for II-6 & 7 (12j and 12r in Bartók’s catalogue). Also I-3 and II-3 are versions of the same song (10a and 10b in the catalogue).[26]


The order of the songs in relation to their form, as well as the use of different versions of the same song show Bartók’s interest in creating a certain dynamic pattern within the two series. This is also reinforced by the tempo, which follows the function of each song. While there is a contrast between the beginning of Series I and the beginning of Series II (1-3), the rest of the songs are treated similarly in both series, with a slower median section (4-7), but emphasizing the stabilizing piece (5), and ending in a faster tempo (8-10). (see Table 6).


Table 6:  Tempo


Series I                         Series II


1. Allegro                      1. Molto moderato

2. Allegro                      2. Moderato

3. Allegro                      3. Andante

4. Andante                    4. Andante

5. Allegro moderato       5. Moderato

6. Andante                    6. Andante

7. Andante                    7. Andante

8. Allegretto                  8. Allegro

9. Allegro                      9. Allegretto

10. Piu allegro               10. Allegro




The above analysis shows that The Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano is not a classical “theme and variations” piece. As opposed to classical type variations, Béla Bartók does not use only one theme as a starting point. What he does is to employ variation technique in the treatment of several themes. Even so, the actual variations do not change the melody or the rhythm of the original theme. The result is a series of groups of variations on different themes that are kept unchanged within the variations.


However, important characteristics of classical type variations are to be found in The Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano. Each of the two series is created to be played continuously, as in the classical continuous variations. As a result, transposition of the original theme and harmonic treatment are used to connect the songs. The order of the songs plays an important role, influencing the overall structure of each series. The grouping of the songs, the harmonic development, the rhythm and the tempo create a certain dynamic pattern that balances slow with fast movements, minor with major sound, and regular with irregular rhythm. Altogether, Bartók writes a well organized and dynamic piece, musically balanced, which enriches the Romanian sound and rhythm of the colinde without actually changing any of their characteristics.





Alexandru, Tiberiu. Romanian Folk Music. Bucharest: Musical Publishing House, 1980.

Bartók, Béla. Rumanian Folk Music (vol. 4). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975.

Bartók, Béla. Rumanian Christmas Carols Collected and Arranged for Piano. Wien: Universal Edition A.G., 1995.

Braddell, Rory. The Mounting of a Jewel. The Marriage between Composer and Ethnomusicologist in Béla Bartók’s Creative Musical Output (Accessed November 21, 2005),

Stevens, Halsey. The Life and Music of Béla Bartók. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Suchoff, Benjamin. Béla Bartók. Life and Work. Lanham/Maryland/London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001.

Ujfalussy, Jozsef. Béla Bartók. Boston: Crescendo Publishing Company, 1971.

Yeomans, David. “Background and Analysis of Bartók’s Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano.” In Bartók’s Perspectives. Ed. by Elliott Antokoletz, Victoria Fischer, & Benjamin Suchoff, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 185-195.



[1] Romanian word for Christmas carol; plural - colinde.

[2] David Yeomans, “Background and Analysis of Bartók’s Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano,” in Bartók’s Perspectives, ed. by Elliott Antokoletz, Victoria Fischer, & Benjamin Suchoff (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 192.

[3] Jozsef Ujfalussy, Béla Bartók (Boston: Crescendo Publishing Company, 1971), 60.

[4] Benjamin Suchoff, Béla Bartók. Life and Work (Lanham/Maryland/London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001), 63.

[5] Benjamin Suchoff, Béla Bartók. Life and Work (Lanham/Maryland/London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001), 64.

[6] Ibid., 66.

[7] Ibid., 70.

[8] Jozsef Ujfalussy, Béla Bartók (Boston: Crescendo Publishing Company, 1971), 23.

[9] Béla Bartók classified his Romanian collection materials in five categories: colinde, laments, other ritual  songs (e.g. wedding), dance songs, and songs not related to special occasions (e.g, doine, hore). See David Yeomans, “Background and Analysis of Bartók’s Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano,” in Bartók’s Perspectives, ed. by Elliott Antokoletz, Victoria Fischer, & Benjamin Suchoff (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 186.

[10] Ibid., 187.

[11] Rory Braddell, The Mounting of a Jewel (Accessed 21 November 2005),, Chapter 5, Ex. 5.17.

[12] Benjamin Suchoff, Béla Bartók. Life and Work (Lanham/Maryland/London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001), 66.

[13] David Yeomans, “Background and Analysis of Bartók’s Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano,” in Bartók’s Perspectives, ed. by Elliott Antokoletz, Victoria Fischer, & Benjamin Suchoff (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 192.

[14] Tiberiu Alexandru, Romanian Folk Music (Bucharest: Musical Publishing House, 1980), 13.

[15] Ibid.

[16] David Yeomans, “Background and Analysis of Bartók’s Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano,” in Bartók’s Perspectives, ed. by Elliott Antokoletz, Victoria Fischer, & Benjamin Suchoff (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 193.

[17] Halsey Stevens, The Life and Music of Béla Bartók (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 129.

[18] Ibid., 123.

[19] Ibid., 331.

[20] Béla Bartók, Rumanian Folk Music (vol. 4) (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975), p. 92, example 55.

[21] Béla Bartók, Rumanian Christmas Carols Collected and Arranged for Piano (Wien: Universal Edition A.G., 1995). All following musical examples are from the same source.

[22] David Yeomans, “Background and Analysis of Bartók’s Romanian Christmas Carols for Piano,” in Bartók’s Perspectives, ed. by Elliott Antokoletz, Victoria Fischer, & Benjamin Suchoff (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 193.

[23] Halsey Stevens, The Life and Music of Béla Bartók (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 123.

[24] My description of the patterns, disregarding the accidentals involved.

[25] See Table 3 in Béla Bartók, Rumanian Folk Music (vol. 4) (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975), 23.

[26] Idem, pp. 172-173, p. 57 & p. 60.