Béla Bartók

(25 March 1881 - 26 September 1945)

Béla Bartók is one of the chief figures in Hungarian art music. Not only was he a prolific composer, but also a very distinguished ethnomusicologist, pianist and teacher. A founding figure of 20th century Hungarian musical culture, he is most remembered for his later works which are highly influenced by the folk music of Hungarian, Romanian and Slovak peasants.

Bartók was born to a headmaster and a teacher, in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, which is now part of Romania. Both his parents were capable amateur musicians, encouraging their son with dance, drumming and when he was old enough, the piano. By the age of four, he showed definite skill and a year later, started more formal piano training. The death of Bartók’s father when the young Béla was just 7 caused the family to moved house frequently for his mother to find suitable work. After moving five times, they finally settled in Pozsony, Hungary (now Bratislava, Slovakia) in 1894, where Bartók attended a German-language grammar school.

Bartók’s first musical compositions consisted of dance pieces: waltzes, landlers, mazurkas and polkas. His first set of 31 piano compositions (1890-94) were programmatic, such A Duna Folyása (The Course of the Danube) and A Budapesti Tornaverseny (Gymnastic Contest in Budapest) and some early attempts of sonatina form and theme-and-variation form.


I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing.

Artist Picture

Bartók studied at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest where he met Zoltán Kodály in 1905, who became a lifelong friend and colleague and – although  one year his junior – was a huge source of inspiration for Bartók. Together the two men travelled to the countryside in 1908 to research Magyar folk music – the first of many such projects for Bartók. Up to this point, Bartók had been trying to emulate Brahms, Strauss and Liszt, with stylized Hungarian themes drawing from Liszt’s more patriotic works. He found the need for stronger individuality and at the same time to delve deeper into his native music. Kodály had completed a doctoral dissertation in the stanzaic structure of Hungarian folksong. What Bartók lacked in ethnomusicological knowledge, he made up for with exemplary aural perception, impressive practical music skills and a profound enthusiasm for folk music. Bartók and Kodály developed a symbiotic relationship as critics of each others’ work.


In art there are only fast or slow developments. Essentially it is a matter of evolution, not revolution.

Bartók travelled to the countryside of Romania as well as to Transylvania in 1906 and 1907 where he viewed the native music as a ‘natural phenomenon’. He feared that if this music was not collected in its original form, the influx of ‘imitation folksongs’ and ‘light music’ would render Hungarian and Romanian music extinct. Bartók’s Transylvanian journey crystallised his ideas for the future: that his music would be markedly based on folk music. He saw folk music as a goldmine, introducing endless possibilities for rhythmic, melodic, formal and textural models. Bartók’s first Violin Concerto was composed during this period, inspired by his love for with the violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom he was in a passionate relationship. The concerto contains the ‘Geyer’ motif that can also be perceived in his later works. The concerto was completed on 5 February 1908 and a week later, their relationship ended. Stefi Geyer decided not to perform it.

In 1909, Bartók married 16-year-old Márta Ziegler and their son Béla III was born in August 2010. Bartók’s First String Quartet op. 7 from the same year is a remarkable work that shows Bartók’s musical transition, displaying late-Romanticism, yet the fast second and finale movements are brimming with his new-found folk style. It was premiered on 19 March 1910 by the exuberant Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet who later premiered Bartok’s 2nd and 4th quartets.

The following year, Bartók composed his one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle, dedicated to his young wife. In a letter to her, referring to the opera, he humbly wrote: “Now I know that I will never hear it in this life. You asked me to play it for you—I am afraid I would not be able to get through it. Still I'll try so that we may mourn it together.” It draws on the themes of jealousy, obsession and eternal darkness. After being edited various times, it was finally premiered in 24 May 1918 in Budapest.

He made an ethnomusicological field trip to North Africa in 1913 which had an important impact: in Algeria, was particularly impressed by the changeability of the scales and the narrower range of tones than he had become accustomed to hearing in Eastern Europe. Bartók’s Second String Quartet op. 17 was composed during World War I. Its middle movement, the Allegro capriccioso draws inspiration from his North African trip, displayed by its drumming accompaniment and strong embellishments. The two outer movements are, in contrast, more subdued.

His Romanian Folk Dances, originally for solo piano, have been widely performed in a variety of different instrumentations: violin and piano, clarinet and piano as well as their orchestrated form, which Bartók himself arranged in 1917. His many Rhapsodies for violin and for piano remain staples in the vast repertoire.

The political situation in his midst no doubt had an effect on his output: the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and new national borders led to national tensions, making future ethnomusicological trips almost impossible. Apart from a trip to Turkey in 1936, Bartók did not undertake any more fieldwork.

Despite this turbulence, Bartók wrote a very successful pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin op. 19. The work describes a prostitute and her clients, the last one being the mandarin. Although the over-arching theme is human love, The Miraculous Mandarin was deemed 'unsavoury' and was withdrawn after its 1926 premiere.

Later in life, Bartók moved to United States. Bartók's 1938 Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano were commissioned by the clarinettist Benny Goodman. The violinist Joseph Szigeti had originally written to Bartók to commission a short piece of 6 or 7 minutes, but the result was a more substantial 20-minute work in 3 movements, consisting of intricate references to Hungarian and Romanian dance melodies. Szigeti, Goodman and Bartók first performed the final version of Contrasts at Carnegie Hall on 21 April 1940 and soon after, recorded it for Columbia records. 

The score of Bartók’s Violin Sonata BB 124 is dated the 14 March 1944. The sonata was commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin and was written as a homage to Bach’s Solo Sonata in C. Bartók had been inspired to write it after having recently heard excellent performances of his Violin Concerto by Menuhin and various others in New York. The Violin Sonata uses Baroque imitation in the first movement, Tempo di ciaccona, while the Presto finale contains quarter tone passages. In Menuhin’s posthumous edition of this sonata, semi tonal alternatives can be found.

Bartók’s later works, especially his orchestral and chamber music were fast accepted into the concert repertoire during his own lifetime. His Concerto for Orchestra was composed using art-music and folk-music components that are less intertwined with each other and in a noticeably less symmetrical form than previous pieces. It was first performed in Boston on 1 December 1944. It was his ethnomusicological fascinations with the details in the music and the subtle use of various forms that gives his music its creative strength.

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