Bartok is significant not only for his compositions but for his contribution to the field of ethnomusicology. He spent considerable time and energy going into the countryside to record the folk music of specific regions in eastern Europe. His study of these folk traditions greatly influenced his composition as he increasingly incorporated the scales and rhythms he studied in the countryside into his own concert music. Though he was influenced by both Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and like them was forced by conflict in Europe to move to the United States, he stated that his music remained tonal. This, of course, would be tonality in a loose sense as he often built his music using scales derived from folk idioms rather than the major and minor scales of tonal music. Nevertheless, we hear in Bartok’s music a mixture of modernist dissonance and nationalist elements.
Béla Viktor János Bartók (March 25, 1881–September 26, 1945) was a Hungarian composer and pianist. He is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century; he and Liszt are regarded as Hungary’s greatest composers. Through his collection and analytical study of folk music, he was one of the founders of comparative musicology, which later became ethnomusicology.
Childhood and Early Years (1881–98)
Béla Bartók was born in the small Banatian town of Nagyszentmiklós in the Kingdom of Hungary, Austria-Hungary (since 1920 Sânnicolau Mare, Romania) on March 25, 1881. Bartók’s family reflected some of the ethno-cultural diversities of the country. His father, Béla Sr., considered himself thoroughly Hungarian, because on his father’s side the Bartók family was a Hungarian lower noble family, originating from Borsod county (Móser 2006a, 44; Bartók 1981, 13), though his mother, Paula (born Paula Voit), had German as a mother tongue, but was ethnically of “mixed Hungarian” ancestry (Bayley 2001, 16) of Danube Swabian origin. Among her closest forefathers there were families with such names as Polereczky (Magyarized Polish orSlovak) and Fegyveres (Magyar).
Béla displayed notable musical talent very early in life: according to his mother, he could distinguish between different dance rhythms that she played on the piano before he learned to speak in complete sentences. By the age of four he was able to play 40 pieces on the piano and his mother began formally teaching him the next year.
Béla was a small and sickly child and suffered from severe eczema until the age of 5. In 1888, when he was seven, his father (the director of an agricultural school) died suddenly. Béla’s mother then took him and his sister, Erzsébet, to live in Nagyszőlős (today Vinogradiv, Ukraine) and then toPozsony (German: Pressburg, today Bratislava, Slovakia). In Pozsony, Béla gave his first public recital at age 11 to a warm critical reception. Among the pieces he played was his own first composition, written two years previously: a short piece called “The Course of the Danube.” Shortly thereafter László Erkel accepted him as a pupil.
Early Musical Career (1899–1908)
From 1899 to 1903, Bartók studied piano under István Thomán, a former student of Franz Liszt, and composition under János Koessler at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. There he met Zoltán Kodály, who influenced him greatly and became his lifelong friend and colleague. In 1903, Bartók wrote his first major orchestral work,Kossuth, a symphonic poem which honored Lajos Kossuth, hero of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.
The music of Richard Strauss, whom he met in 1902 at the Budapest premiere of Also sprach Zarathustra,strongly influenced his early work. When visiting a holiday resort in the summer of 1904, Bartók overheard a young nanny, Lidi Dósa from Kibéd in Transylvania, sing folk songs to the children in her care. This sparked his lifelong dedication to folk music.
From 1907, he also began to be influenced by the French composer Claude Debussy, whose compositions Kodály had brought back from Paris. Bartók’s large-scale orchestral works were still in the style of Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss, but he wrote a number of small piano pieces which showed his growing interest in folk music. The first piece to show clear signs of this new interest is the String Quartet No. 1 in A minor (1908), which contains folk-like elements.
In 1907, Bartók began teaching as a piano professor at the Royal Academy. This position freed him from touring Europe as a pianist and enabled him to work in Hungary. Among his notable students were Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, György Sándor, Ernő Balogh, and Lili Kraus. After Bartók moved to the United States, he taught Jack Beeson and Violet Archer.
In 1908, he and Kodály traveled into the countryside to collect and research old Magyar folk melodies. Their growing interest in folk music coincided with a contemporary social interest in traditional national culture. They made some surprising discoveries. Magyar folk music had previously been categorised as Gypsy music. The classic example is Franz Liszt’s famous Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano, which he based on popular art songs performed by Romani bands of the time. In contrast, Bartók and Kodály discovered that the old Magyar folk melodies were based on pentatonic scales, similar to those in Asian folk traditions, such as those of Central Asia, Anatolia and Siberia.
Bartók and Kodály quickly set about incorporating elements of such Magyar peasant music into their compositions. They both frequently quoted folk song melodies verbatim and wrote pieces derived entirely from authentic songs. An example is his two volumes entitled For Children for solo piano, containing 80 folk tunes to which he wrote accompaniment. Bartók’s style in his art music compositions was a synthesis of folk music, classicism, and modernism. His melodic and harmonic sense was profoundly influenced by the folk music of Hungary, Romania, and other nations. He was especially fond of the asymmetrical dance rhythms and pungent harmonies found in Bulgarian music. Most of his early compositions offer a blend of nationalist and late Romanticism elements.
Middle Years and Career (1909–39)
In 1909 at the age of 28, Bartók married Márta Ziegler (1893–1967), aged 16. Their son, Béla III, was born on August 22, 1910. After nearly 15 years together, Bartók divorced Márta in June 1923.
Two months after his divorce, he married Ditta Pásztory (1903–1982), a piano student, ten days after proposing to her. She was aged 19, he 42. Their son, Péter, was born in 1924.
In 1911, Bartók wrote what was to be his only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, dedicated to Márta. He entered it for a prize by the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission, but they rejected his work as not fit for the stage. In 1917 Bartók revised the score for the 1918 première, and rewrote the ending. Following the 1919 revolution, he was pressured by the new Soviet government to remove the name of the librettist Béla Balázs from the opera, as he was blacklisted and had left the country for Vienna. Bluebeard’s Castle received only one revival, in 1936, before Bartók emigrated. For the remainder of his life, although he was passionately devoted to Hungary, its people and its culture, he never felt much loyalty to the government or its official establishments.
Folk Music and Composition
After his disappointment over the Fine Arts Commission competition, Bartók wrote little for two or three years, preferring to concentrate on collecting and arranging folk music. He collected first in the Carpathian Basin (then the Kingdom of Hungary), where he notated Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian, and Bulgarian folk music. He also collected in Moldavia, Wallachia, and (in 1913) Algeria. The outbreak of World War I forced him to stop the expeditions; and he returned to composing, writing the ballet The Wooden Prince (1914–16) and the String Quartet No. 2 in (1915–17), both influenced by Debussy.
Raised as a Roman Catholic, by his early adulthood Bartók had become an atheist. He believed that the existence of God could not be determined and was unnecessary. He later became attracted to Unitarianism and publicly converted to the Unitarian faith in 1916. As an adult, his son later became president of the Hungarian Unitarian Church.
Bartók wrote another ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin influenced by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, as well as Richard Strauss. A modern story of prostitution, robbery, and murder, it was started in 1918, but not performed until 1926 because of its sexual content. He next wrote his two violin sonatas (written in 1921 and 1922 respectively), which are harmonically and structurally some of his most complex pieces.
In 1927–28, Bartók wrote his Third and Fourth String Quartets, after which his compositions demonstrated his mature style. Notable examples of this period are Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and Divertimento for String Orchestra BB 118 (1939). The Fifth String Quartet was composed in 1934, and the Sixth String Quartet (his last) in 1939.
In 1936 he travelled to Turkey to collect and study folk music. He worked in collaboration with Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun mostly around Adana.
World War II and Last Years in America (1940–45)
In 1940, as the European political situation worsened after the outbreak of World War II, Bartók was increasingly tempted to flee Hungary. He was strongly opposed to the Nazis and Hungary’s siding with Germany. After the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, Bartók refused to give concerts in Germany and broke away from his publisher there. His anti-fascist political views caused him a great deal of trouble with the establishment in Hungary. Having first sent his manuscripts out of the country, Bartók reluctantly emigrated to the U.S. with his wife Ditta in October that year. They settled in New York City. After joining them in 1942, their son, Péter Bartók, enlisted in the United States Navy where he served in the Pacific during the remainder of the war and later settled in Florida where he became a recording and sound engineer. His oldest son, Béla Bartók, III, remained in Hungary where he survived the war and later worked as a railroad official until his retirement in the early 1980s.
Although he became an American citizen in 1945, shortly before his death, Bartók never became fully at home in the USA. He initially found it difficult to compose. Although well known in America as a pianist, ethnomusicologist and teacher, he was not well known as a composer. There was little American interest in his music during his final years. He and his wife Ditta gave some concerts, although demand for them was low. Bartók, who had made some recordings in Hungary, also recorded for Columbia Records after he came to the US; many of these recordings (some with Bartók’s own spoken introductions) were later issued on LP and CD (Bartók 1994, 1995a, 1995b, 2003, 2007, 2008).
Supported by a research fellowship from Columbia University, for several years, Bartók and Ditta worked on a large collection of Serbian and Croatian folk songs in Columbia’s libraries. Bartók’s economic difficulties during his first years in America were mitigated by publication royalties, teaching and performance tours. While his finances were always precarious, he did not live and die in poverty as was the common myth. He had enough friends and supporters to ensure that there was sufficient money and work available for him to live on. Bartók was a proud man and did not easily accept charity. Despite being short on cash at times, he often refused money that his friends offered him out of their own pockets. Although he was not a member of the ASCAP, the society paid for any medical care he needed during his last two years. Bartók reluctantly accepted this.
The first symptoms of his health problems began late in 1940, when his right shoulder began to show signs of stiffening. In 1942, symptoms increased and he started having bouts of fever, but no underlying disease was diagnosed, in spite of medical examinations. Finally, in April 1944, leukemia was diagnosed, but by this time, little could be done.
As his body slowly failed, Bartók found more creative energy, and he produced a final set of masterpieces, partly thanks to the violinist Joseph Szigeti and the conductor Fritz Reiner (Reiner had been Bartók’s friend and champion since his days as Bartók’s student at the Royal Academy). Bartók’s last work might well have been the String Quartet No. 6 but for Serge Koussevitzky’s commission for the Concerto for Orchestra. Koussevitsky’s Boston Symphony Orchestra premièred the work in December 1944 to highly positive reviews. The Concerto for Orchestra quickly became Bartók’s most popular work, although he did not live to see its full impact. In 1944, he was also commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin to write a Sonata for Solo Violin. In 1945, Bartók composed his Piano Concerto No. 3, a graceful and almost neo-classical work, as a surprise 42nd birthday present for Ditta, but he died just over a month before her birthday, with the scoring not quite finished. He had sketched his Viola Concerto, but had barely started the scoring at his death.
Béla Bartók died at age 64 in a hospital in New York City from complications of leukemia (specifically, of secondary polycythemia) on September 26, 1945. His funeral was attended by only ten people. Among them were his wife Ditta, their son Péter, and his pianist friend György Sándor.
Bartók’s body was initially interred in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. During the final year of communist Hungary in the late 1980s, the Hungarian government, along with his two sons, Béla III and Péter, requested that his remains be exhumed and transferred back to Budapest for burial, where Hungary arranged a state funeral for him on July 7, 1988. He was reinterred at Budapest’s Farkasréti Cemetery, next to the remains of Ditta, who died in 1982, the year after his centenary.
The Third Piano Concerto was nearly finished at his death. For his Viola Concerto, Bartók had completed only the viola part and sketches of the orchestral part. Both works were later completed by his pupil, Tibor Serly. György Sándor was the soloist in the first performance of the Third Piano Concerto on February 8, 1946. Ditta Pásztory-Bartók later played and recorded it. The Viola Concerto was revised and polished in the 1990s by Bartók’s son, Peter; this version may be closer to what Bartók intended.
Concurrently, Peter Bartók, in association with Nelson Dellamaggiore, worked to re-print and revise past editions of the Third Piano Concerto.
Bartók’s music reflects two trends that dramatically changed the sound of music in the 20th century: the breakdown of the diatonic system of harmony that had served composers for the previous two hundred years; and the revival of nationalism as a source for musical inspiration, a trend that began with Mikhail Glinka and Antonín Dvořák in the last half of the 19th century. In his search for new forms of tonality, Bartók turned to Hungarian folk music, as well as to other folk music of the Carpathian Basin and even of Algeria and Turkey; in so doing he became influential in that stream of modernism which exploited indigenous music and techniques.
One characteristic style of music is his Night music, which he used mostly in slow movements of multi-movement ensemble or orchestral compositions in his mature period. It is characterised by “eerie dissonances providing a backdrop to sounds of nature and lonely melodies.” An example is the third movement (Adagio) of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.
His music can be grouped roughly in accordance with the different periods in his life.
Youth: Late-Romanticism (1890–1902)
The works of his youth are of a late-Romantic style. Between 1890 and 1894 (nine to 13 years of age) he wrote 31 pieces with corresponding opus numbers. He started numbering his works anew with “opus 1” in 1894 with his first large scale work, a piano sonata. Up to 1902, Bartók wrote in total 74 works which can be considered in Romantic style. Most of these early compositions are either scored for piano solo or include a piano. Additionally, there is some chamber music for strings.
New influences (1903–11)
Under the influence of Richard Strauss, Bartók composed in 1903 Kossuth, a symphonic poem in ten tableaux. In 1904 followed his Rhapsody for piano and orchestra which he numbered opus 1 again, marking it himself as the start of a new era in his music. An even more important occurrence of this year was his overhearing the eighteen-year-old nanny Lidi Dósa from Transylvania sing folk songs, sparking Bartók’s lifelong dedication to folk music. When criticised for not composing his own melodies Bartók pointed out that Molière and Shakespeare mostly based their plays on well-known stories too. Regarding the incorporation of folk music into art music he said:
The question is, what are the ways in which peasant music is taken over and becomes transmuted into modern music? We may, for instance, take over a peasant melody unchanged or only slightly varied, write an accompaniment to it and possibly some opening and concluding phrases. This kind of work would show a certain analogy with Bach’s treatment of chorales. . . . Another method . . . is the following: the composer does not make use of a real peasant melody but invents his own imitation of such melodies. There is no true difference between this method and the one described above. . . . There is yet a third way. . . . Neither peasant melodies nor imitations of peasant melodies can be found in his music, but it is pervaded by the atmosphere of peasant music. In this case we may say, he has completely absorbed the idiom of peasant music which has become his musical mother tongue.
Bartók became first acquainted with Debussy’s music in 1907 and regarded his music highly. In an interview in 1939 Bartók said
Debussy’s great service to music was to reawaken among all musicians an awareness of harmony and its possibilities. In that, he was just as important as Beethoven, who revealed to us the possibilities of progressive form, or as Bach, who showed us the transcendent significance of counterpoint. Now, what I am always asking myself is this: is it possible to make a synthesis of these three great masters, a living synthesis that will be valid for our time?
Debussy’s influence is present in the Fourteen Bagatelles (1908). These made Ferruccio Busoni exclaim “At last something truly new!” Until 1911, Bartók composed widely differing works which ranged from adherence to romantic-style, to folk song arrangements and to his modernist operaBluebeard’s Castle. The negative reception of his work led him to focus on folk music research after 1911 and abandon composition with the exception of folk music arrangements.
New Inspiration and Experimentation (1916–21)
His pessimistic attitude towards composing was lifted by the stormy and inspiring contact with Klára Gombossy in the summer of 1915. This interesting episode in Bartók’s life remained hidden until it was researched by Denijs Dille between 1979 and 1989. Bartók started composing again, including the Suite for piano opus 14 (1916), and The Miraculous Mandarin (1918) and he completed The Wooden Prince (1917).
Bartók felt the result of World War I as a personal tragedy. Many regions he loved were severed from Hungary: Transylvania, the Banatwhere he was born, and Pozsony where his mother lived. Additionally, the political relations between Hungary and the other successor states to the Austro-Hungarian empire prohibited his folk music research outside of Hungary. Bartók also wrote the noteworthy Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs in 1920, and the sunny Dance Suite in 1923, the year of his second marriage.
“Synthesis of East and West” (1926–45)
In 1926, Bartók needed a significant piece for piano and orchestra with which he could tour in Europe and America. In the preparation for writing his First Piano Concerto, he wrote his Sonata, Out of Doors, and Nine Little Pieces, all for solo piano. He increasingly found his own voice in his maturity. The style of his last period—named “Synthesis of East and West”—is hard to define let alone to put under one term. In his mature period, Bartók wrote relatively few works but most of them are large-scale compositions for large settings. Only his voice works have programmatic titles and his late works often adhere to classical forms.
Among his masterworks are all the six string quartets (1908, 1917, 1927, 1928, 1934, and 1939), the Cantata Profana (1930, Bartók declared that this was the work he felt and professed to be his most personal “credo,” the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), the Concerto for Orchestra (1943) and the Third Piano Concerto (1945).
Bartók also made a lasting contribution to the literature for younger students: for his son Péter’s music lessons, he composed Mikrokosmos, a six-volume collection of graded piano pieces.
Paul Wilson lists as the most prominent characteristics of Bartók’s music from late 1920s onwards the influence of the Carpathian basin and European art music, and his changing attitude toward (and use of) tonality, but without the use of the traditional harmonic functions associated with major and minor scales.
Although Bartók claimed in his writings that his music was always tonal, he rarely uses the chords or scales of tonality, and so the descriptive resources of tonal theory are of limited use. George Perle (1955) and Elliott Antokoletz (1984) focus on alternative methods of signaling tonal centers, via axes of inversional symmetry. Others view Bartók’s axes of symmetry in terms of atonal analytic protocols. Richard Cohn argues that inversional symmetry is often a byproduct of another atonal procedure, the formation of chords from transpositionally related dyads. Atonal pitch-class theory also furnishes the resources for exploring polymodal chromaticism, projected sets, privileged patterns, and large set types used as source sets such as the equal tempered twelve tone aggregate, octatonic scale (and alpha chord), the diatonic and heptatonia secunda seven-note scales, and less often the whole tone scale and the primary pentatonic collection.
He rarely used the simple aggregate actively to shape musical structure, though there are notable examples such as the second theme from the first movement of his Second Violin Concerto, commenting that he “wanted to show Schoenberg that one can use all twelve tones and still remain tonal.” More thoroughly, in the first eight measures of the last movement of his Second Quartet, all notes gradually gather with the twelfth (G♭) sounding for the first time on the last beat of measure 8, marking the end of the first section. The aggregate is partitioned in the opening of the Third String Quartet with C♯–D–D♯–E in the accompaniment (strings) while the remaining pitch classes are used in the melody (violin 1) and more often as 7–35 (diatonic or “white-key” collection) and 5–35 (pentatonic or “black-key” collection) such as in no. 6 of the Eight Improvisations. There, the primary theme is on the black keys in the left hand, while the right accompanies with triads from the white keys. In measures 50–51 in the third movement of the Fourth Quartet, the first violin and cello play black-key chords, while the second violin and viola play stepwise diatonic lines. On the other hand, from as early as the Suite for piano, Op. 14 (1914), he occasionally employed a form of serialism based on compound interval cycles, some of which are maximally distributed, multi-aggregate cycles.
Ernő Lendvai (1971) analyses Bartók’s works as being based on two opposing tonal systems, that of the acoustic scale and the axis system, as well as using the golden section as a structural principle.
Milton Babbitt, in his 1949 critique of Bartók’s string quartets, criticized Bartók for using tonality and non tonal methods unique to each piece. Babbitt noted that “Bartók’s solution was a specific one, it cannot be duplicated.” Bartók’s use of “two organizational principles”—tonality for large scale relationships and the piece-specific method for moment to moment thematic elements—was a problem for Babbitt, who worried that the “highly attenuated tonality” requires extreme non-harmonic methods to create a feeling of closure.
Catalogues and opus numbers
The cataloguing of Bartók’s works is somewhat complex. Bartók assigned opus numbers to his works three times, the last of these series ending with the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, Op. 21 in 1921. He ended this practice because of the difficulty of distinguishing between original works and ethnographic arrangements, and between major and minor works. Since his death, three attempts—two full and one partial—have been made at cataloguing. The first, and still most widely used, is András Szőllősy’s chronological Sz. numbers, from 1 to 121. Denijs Dille subsequently reorganised the juvenilia (Sz. 1–25) thematically, as DD numbers 1 to 77. The most recent catalogue is that of László Somfai; this is a chronological index with works identified by BB numbers 1 to 129, incorporating corrections based on the Béla Bartók Thematic Catalogue.
Please listen to the following audio files.
Sonata for two pianos and percussion, first movement (excerpt)
This segment of Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion features pedal glissandos during a timpani roll.
Concerto for Orchestra (excerpt)
In this passage from the Intermezzo interrotto movement of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, the timpanist plays a chromatic bass line, which requires using the pedal to change pitches.