Béla Viktor János Bartók (March 25, 1881–September 26, 1945) was a Hungarian composer and pianist, considered to be one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. Through his collection and analytical study of folk music, he was one of the founders of ethnomusicology.
Béla was a small and sickly child. He suffered from a painful chronic rash until the age of five (Gillies 1990, 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, Erzsebet, to live in Nagyszőlős (today Vinogradiv, Ukraine), and then to Pozsony (German: Pressburg, today Bratislava, Slovakia). In Pozsony, Béla gave his first public recital at age eleven 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" (de Toth 1999). Shortly thereafter László Erkel accepted him as a pupil.
He studied piano under István Thoman, a former student of Franz Liszt, and composition under János Koessler at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest from 1899 to 1903. 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 at the Budapest premiere of Also sprach Zarathustra in 1902, was the most significant influence on his early work. When visiting a holiday resort in the summer of 1904, Bartók overheard the eighteen-year-old nanny Lidi Dósa from Kibéd in Maros-Torda in Transylvania sing folk songs to the children under her care. This sparked his life long dedication to folk music. From 1907 his music also began to be influenced by 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 also around this time he wrote a number of small piano pieces which show 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 has folk-like elements in it.
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 stay in Hungary. Among his notable students were Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, György Sándor, Ernő Balogh, Lili Kraus, and, after Bartók moved to the United States, Jack Beeson and Violet Archer.
In 1908, inspired by both their own interest in folk music and by the contemporary resurgence of interest in traditional national culture, he and Kodály undertook an expedition into the countryside to collect and research old Magyar folk melodies. Their findings came as a surprise: Magyar folk music had previously been categorised as Gypsy music. The classic example of this misconception is Franz Liszt's famous Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano, which were based on popular art-songs performed by Gypsy bands of the time. In contrast, the old Magyar folk melodies discovered by Bartók and Kodály bore little resemblance to the popular music performed by these Gypsy bands. Instead, they found that many of the folk-songs are based on pentatonic scales similar to those in Oriental folk traditions, such as those of Central Asia and Siberia.
Bartók and Kodály quickly set about incorporating elements of real Magyar peasant music into their compositions. Both Bartók and Kodály frequently quoted folk songs verbatim and wrote pieces derived entirely from authentic folk melodies, for instance Bartók's two volumes of 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. Bartók's melodic and harmonic sense was profoundly influenced by the folk music of Hungary, Romania, and many other nations, and he was especially fond of the asymmetrical dance rhythms and pungent harmonies found in Bulgarian music. Most of Béla's early compositions offer a blend of nationalist and late Romanticism elements.
In 1909, Bartók married Márta Ziegler. Their son, Béla II, was born in 1910. In 1911, Bartók wrote what was to be his only opera, Bluebeard's Castle, dedicated to Márta. He entered it for a prize awarded by the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission, which rejected it out of hand as un-stageworthy (Leafstedt 1999). In 1917 Bartók revised the score in preparation for the 1918 première, for which he rewrote the ending. Following the 1919 revolution, he was pressured by the government to remove the name of the blacklisted librettist Béla Balázs (by then a refugee in Vienna) from the opera. 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 its government or its official establishments.
After his disappointment over the Fine Arts Commission prize, Bartók wrote little for two or three years, preferring to concentrate on collecting and arranging folk music. He collected first in the Carpathian Basin (the then Kingdom of Hungary), where he notated Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian and Bulgarian folk music. He also collected in Moldavia, Wallachia and in 1913 in Algeria. However, the outbreak of World War I forced him to stop these expeditions, and he returned to composing, writing the ballet The Wooden Prince in 1914–16 and the String Quartet No. 2 in 1915–17, both influenced by Debussy. It was The Wooden Prince which gave him some degree of international fame.
Raised as a Roman Catholic, Bartók had by his early adulthood become an atheist, and considered the existence of God as undecidable and unnecessary. He later became attracted to Unitarianism, and publicly converted to the Unitarian faith in 1916. His son later became president of the Hungarian Unitarian Church (Hughes 1999–2007).
He subsequently worked on another ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin influenced by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, as well as Richard Strauss, following this up with his two violin sonatas (written in 1921 and 1922 respectively) which are harmonically and structurally some of the most complex pieces he wrote. The Miraculous Mandarin, a sordid modern story of prostitution, robbery, and murder, was started in 1918, but not performed until 1926 because of its sexual content. He wrote his third and fourth string quartets in 1927–28, after which his compositions demonstrate his mature style. Notable examples of this period are Divertimento for strings (1939) and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). The String Quartet No. 5 (1934) is written in somewhat more traditional style. Bartók wrote his sixth and last string quartet in 1939, the sadness of which has been related to the death of Bartók’s mother and the looming war in Europe.
Bartók divorced Márta in 1923, and married a piano student, Ditta Pásztory. His second son, Péter, was born in 1924.
In 1936 he traveled to Turkey to collect and study folk music.
Bartók never became fully at home in the U.S. 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, and there was little interest in his music during his final years. He and his wife Ditta gave concerts. For several years, supported by a research grant, they worked on a large collection of Serbo-Croatian folk songs. Bartók's difficulties during his first years in the US were mitigated by publication royalties, teaching, and performance tours. While their finances were always precarious, it is a myth that he lived and died in poverty and neglect. There were enough supporters to ensure that there was sufficient money and work available for him to live on. Bartók generally refused outright charity. Though he was not a member of ASCAP, the society paid for any medical care he needed in his last two years and Bartók accepted this.
The first symptoms of his leukemia began in 1940, when his right shoulder began to show signs of stiffening. In 1942 symptoms increased, and he started having bouts of fever, but the disease was not diagnosed in spite of medical examinations. Finally, in April 1944, leukemia was diagnosed, but by this time little could be done. As his body failed, Bartók's creative energy reawakened 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 Koussevitsky's commission for the Concerto for Orchestra. Koussevitsky's Boston Symphony Orchestra premièred the work in December 1944 to highly positive reviews. Concerto for Orchestra quickly became Bartók's most popular work, although he did not live to see its full impact. He was also commissioned in 1944 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, and he began work on his Viola Concerto. He had not completed the scoring at his death.
Bartók died in New York from leukemia (specifically, of secondary polycythemia) on September 26, 1945 at age 64. His funeral was attended by only ten people, including his friend the pianist György Sándor (anon. 2006). Bartok's body was initially interred in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, but during the final year of communist Hungary in the late 1980s, his remains were transferred to Budapest for a state funeral on July 7, 1988 with interment in Budapest's Farkasréti Cemetery.
He left his Third Piano Concerto almost finished at his death. For the Viola Concerto he only left rough notes. Both works were later completed by his pupil, Tibor Serly, but the Viola Concerto was never generally accepted as part of the Bartók canon. György Sándor was the soloist in the first performance of the Third Piano Concerto on February 8, 1946. The Viola Concerto was revised and polished in the 1990s by Peter Bartók, and this version is considered to be closer to what Bartók may have intended.
There is a statue of Béla Bartók in Brussels, Belgium near the central train station in a public square, Spanjeplein-Place d'Espagne. Another statue stands in London, opposite South Kensington Underground Station. Still another is in front of one of the houses that Bartók owned in the hills above Budapest, which is now a museum.
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 (Griffiths, 7); 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 (Einstein, 332). 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; and in so doing he became influential in that stream of modernism which exploited indigenous music and techniques (Botstein, 6).
His music can be grouped roughly in accordance with the different periods in his life.
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 1931/1976, 341–44.)
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? (Moreux 1953, 92)Debussy's influence is present in the Fourteen Bagatelles (1908). These made Ferruccio Busoni exclaim ‘At last something truly new!’ (Bartók, 1948, 2:83). Until 1911, Bartók composed widely differing works which ranged from adherence to romantic-style, to folk song arrangements and to his modernist opera Bluebeard’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 (Gillies 1993, 404 and Stevens 1964, 47-49).
Bartók felt the result of the First World War as a personal tragedy (Stevens 1993, 3). Many regions he loved were severed from Hungary: Transylvania, the Banat where he was born, and Pozsony where his mother lived. Additionally, the hostile attitude towards Hungary of many successor states to the Austro-Hungarian empire largely prohibited his folk music research. Thrown largely onto himself, he experimented with extreme compositional practices. The summit is the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1. This last piece with an opus number (21) lacks clear melodies and almost lacks tonality. With the noteworthy Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs (1920), Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 (1922) and the sunny Dance Suite (1923, year of his second marriage), we have summed up all Bartók’s works of 1919–25.
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", Szabolcsi 1974, 186), 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. It remains popular with piano teachers today.
Bartók is an influential modernist and his music used or may be analysed as containing various modernist techniques such as atonality, bitonality, attenuated harmonic function, 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 seconda seven-note scales, and less often the whole tone scale and the primary pentatonic collection (Wilson 1992, 24–29).
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" (Gillies 1990, 185). 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 (Wilson 1992, 25). 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 (Gollin 2007).
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" (Babbitt 1949, 385). 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 (Babbitt 1949, 377–78).
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" (Schneider 2006, 84). The third movement of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (Adagio) (which is used in the suspense film The Shining) is an example of Night music style.