Béla Bartók (March 25, 1881 - September 26, 1945) was
a composer, pianist and collector of East European folk music. Bartók
was one of the founders of the field of ethnomusicology, the study of
folk music and the music of non-Western cultures.
Bartók grew up in the Greater Hungary of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire which was partitioned by the Treaty of Trianon after World War
I. His birthplace, Nagyszentmiklós (Great St Nicholas), became
Sânnicolau Mare, Romania. After his father died in 1888, Béla's
mother, Paula, took her family to live in Vinogradiv (Hungarian: Nagyszöllös,
now in Ukraine), and then to Prešporok (Hungarian: Pozsony, now
Bratislava) in her native Slovakia. When Czechoslovakia was created
in 1918 Béla and his mother found themselves on opposite sides
of a border.
He later studied
piano under István Thoman and composition under János
Koessler at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. There he met Zoltán
Kodály and together they collected folk music from the region.
This was to have a major impact on his style. Previously, Bartók's
idea of Hungarian folk music was derived from the gypsy melodies to
be found in the works of Franz Liszt, and in 1903 Bartók had
written a large orchestral work, Kossuth, which honored Lajos Kossuth,
hero of the Hungarian revolution of 1848, incorporated such gypsy melodies.
Magyar peasant folk song, not the gypsie music of Liszt, which Bartók
regarded as true Hungarian folk music, he began to incorporate folk
songs into his own compositions and write original folk-like tunes,
as well as frequently using folksy rhythmic figures.
It was the
music of Richard Strauss, which he met at the Budapest premiere of Also
sprach Zarathustra in 1902, that had most influence.
This new style
emerged over the next few years. Bartók was building a career
for himself as a pianist, when in 1907 he landed a job as piano professor
at the Royal Academy. This allowed him to stay in Hungary rather than
having to tour Europe as a pianist, and also allowed him to collect
more folk songs, notably in Transylvania. Meanwhile his music was beginning
to be influenced by this activity and by the music of Claude Debussy
that Kodály had brought back from Paris. His large scale orchestral
works were still in the manner of Johannes Brahms or Richard Strauss,
but he wrote a number of small piano pieces which show his growing interest
in folk music. Probably the first piece to show clear signs of this
new interest is the String Quartet No. 1 (1908), which has several folk-like
elements in it.
In 1909 Bartók
married Márta Ziegler . Their son, Béla Jr., was born
In 1911, Bartók
wrote what was to be his only opera, Bluebeard's Castle, dedicated to
his wife, Márta. He entered it for a prize awarded by the Hungarian
Fine Arts Commission, but they said it was unplayable, and rejected
it out of hand. The opera remained unperformed until 1918, when Bartók
was pressured by the government to remove the name of the librettist,
Béla Balázs, from the program on account of his political
views. Bartók refused, and eventually withdrew the work. For
the rest of his life, Bartók did not feel greatly attached to
the government or institutions of Hungary, although his love affair
with its folk music continued.
disappointment over the Fine Arts Commission prize, Bartók wrote
very little for two or three years, preferring to concentrate on folk
music collecting and arranging (in Central Europe, the Balkans and Turkey).
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. It was The Wooden Prince
which gave him some degree of international fame.
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 which are harmonically and structurally
some of the most complex pieces he wrote. He wrote his third and fourth
string quartets, regarded as some of the finest string quartets ever
written, in 1927-28, after which his harmonic language began to become
simpler. The String Quartet No. 5 (1934) is somewhat more traditional
from this point of view. Bartók wrote his sixth and last string
quartet in 1939.
Mandarin was started in 1918, but not performed until 1926 because of
its sexual content: a sordid modern story of prostitution, robbery,
divorced Márta in 1923, and married a piano student, Ditta Pásztory
. His second son, Péter, was born in 1924. For Péter's
music lessons Bartók began composing a six-volume collection
of graded piano pieces, Mikrokosmos ,which is popular to piano students
today. It was to be the last piece he wrote in Europe.
In 1940, after
the outbreak of World War II,and the European political situation worsened,
Bartók was increasingly tempted to flee Hungary.
was strongly opposed to the Nazis. After they came into power in Germany,
he refused to concertize there and switched away from his German publisher.
And his liberal views (as mentioned with the ballet compositions, Bluebeard's
Castle and The Miraculous Mandarin ) caused him a great deal of trouble
from right-wingers in Hungary.
sent his manuscripts out of the country, Bartók reluctantly moved
to the USA with Ditta Pásztory. Péter Bartók joined
them in 1942 and later enlisted in the United States Navy. Béla
Bartók, Jr. remained in Hungary.
did not feel comfortable in the US, and found it very difficult to write.
As well, he wasn't well known in America and there was little interest
in his music. He and his wife Ditta would give concerts; and for a while,
they had a research grant to work on a collection of Yugoslav folksongs,
but their finances were precarious, as was Bartók's health.
His last work
might well have been the String Quartet No. 6, were it not for Serge
Koussevitsky commissioning him to write the Concerto for Orchestra (Bartók's
most popular work, which was to ease his financial burdens). He was
also commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin to write Sonata for Solo Violin.
This seemed to reawaken his interest in composing, and he went on to
write his Piano Concerto No. 3, an airy and almost neo-classical work,
and begin work on his Viola Concerto.
Bartók died in New York in the United States from leukemia. He
left the viola concerto unfinished at his death, which was later completed
by his pupil, Tibor Serly.
He was interred
in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, but after the fall
of Hungarian communism in 1988, his remains were transferred to Budapest,
Hungary for a state funeral on July 7, 1988 with interment in Budapest's