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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Béla Bartók

It's common for people to look at European art music in the early 20th century as being divided into two major streams: those who followed Schoenberg and became serial composers, and those who followed Stravinsky (either the modernist Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring or the later, neo-Classical Stravinsky of Pulcinella and Dumbarton Oaks).

To these two mighty influences I - and many others - would add a third, although this composer left no "school" of composition which others followed. His music was, by and large, influenced by his researches into folk music traditions, but he also wrote works with modernist and at times even neo-Classical characteristics. To the Austrian Schoenberg and the Russian Stravinsky we must add the Hungarian Béla Bartók, a composer whose life and music deserve our close attention. Béla Bartók is our subject in this post.

Born on 25 March 1881 in a part of Hungary which is now part of Romania, Béla Bartók grew up in a household which encouraged his musical talents. Both his parents were teachers and amateur musicians, and by the time he was four he had shown enough talent at the piano for him to start lessons with his mother.

Bartók's first compositions date from the 1890s, a large collection of small piano pieces mostly in dance forms such as waltzes, mazurkas and polkas. There were also programmatic works, like The Course of the Danube, a work he included in his first public recital in 1892 when he was eleven.

It was clear right from the start that Bartók was becoming a gifted pianist. The urge to compose was also evident during his school days, with the production of a number of chamber works in the mid-1890s, including a violin sonata, a string quartet and a piano quintet. Later, in 1898, he produced a piano quartet and another string quartet which Malcolm Gillies, the respected international authority on Bartók and author of the Grove article on the composer, describes as "remarkably mature".

Béla Bartók (1899)

In 1899 Bartók was offered a place at both the Vienna and Budapest Conservatories, and despite the international fame of Vienna, he opted for Budapest. He began his studies there in September 1899 when he was 18, and was granted advanced standing in both piano and composition. Budapest at the time was a vibrant city, the sixth-largest in Europe, and he made the most of the orchestral and operatic experiences on offer there. But despite writing a few works which took him beyond chamber music - a song for soprano and orchestra, for example - his desire to compose waned between 1899 and 1902.

The Budapest premiere of Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, according to Bartók's own autobiography, roused him out of this malaise. In response to this he composed a symphony in E flat, but he wasn't happy with the result and only ever orchestrated one movement, the Scherzo.

Even though Bartók had been slow in developing further as a composer, his skills as a pianist continued to develop, and his virtuosity at the keyboard continued to enhance his reputation as a performer.

In 1903 it was another Strauss work - Ein Heldenleben - which inspired Bartók to compose again for orchestra. The result was the symphonic poem Kossuth. This was an expression of his early Hungarian nationalist feelings, and pays homage to Lajos Kossuth, who led an unsuccessful Hungarian War of Independence from Austria in the 1840s. Kossuth marks the true beginning of Bartók's career as a composer. It was premiered in Budapest in 1904. [listen]

Vastagh: Lajos Kossuth

Bartók's life as composer and virtuoso pianist were now intertwined and for some years he travelled widely, giving concerts and composing. In 1906 he joined the staff of the Budapest Academy (known from 1925 as the Liszt Academy) and from this time he performed much less. His performing career was more or less replaced with a new obsession: folk music.

Bartók had already shown that he could emulate the popular, superficial Hungarian style (the so-called “gypsy” style that Liszt evoked in his Hungarian Rhapsodies); Bartók's own piano Rhapsody, and the Scherzo for piano and orchestra (both written in 1904) demonstrate this perfectly. But by the end of that year, he had a new direction. He heard a Transylvanian maid singing a folk song in an adjoining room and noted it down. He wrote to his sister, "Now I have a new plan: to collect the finest Hungarian folk songs and to raise them, adding the best possible piano accompaniments, to the level of art song".

The folksong influence also starts to make itself felt in Bartók's purely instrumental works. The second suite for small orchestra was written in two bursts. The first three movements date from 1905 and the Hungarian influences there are of the more generic, Romantic kind. But the last movement, written in 1907, looks forward to the more ethnically-fascinated, earthy and "modern" Bartók that was to come. [listen]

Bartók found a kindred spirit in his compatriot Zoltan Kodály, whom he met in 1905. They both taught at the Academy in Budapest and both believed passionately in the need to collect, study and preserve folk songs. In 1906 they issued a joint "appeal to the Hungarian people" to support "a complete collection of folksongs, gathered with scholarly exactitude". This virtually impossible task - how can a living culture ever be captured “complete”? - was nevertheless the guiding mantra of their ethnomusicological passions. Bartók regarded the rural peasants as the ideal means of conveying the pure musical instincts of the nation.

From 1906 he started to collect Slovak folk music, and before long he was gathering Romanian, Ruthenian, Serbian and Bulgarian melodies. The music of Transylvania was a particular passion, and as he collected his folk material from the people who still sang it as part of a living culture, he started to classify, describe and transcribe the material for future study.

Bartók (fourth from the left) recording folk music in 1908

Most importantly, folk idioms - scales, rhythms, structures - began to influence Bartók's own music, whether it was strictly connected with authentic folk material or not.

The major work from this period was the work now known as Bartók's first violin concerto. It was completed in 1908 and was directly born out of his love for the violinist Stefi Geyer. It was originally intended to have three movements, each depicting a different aspect of Geyer's character. The first movement opens with the outline of a major seventh chord - D, F sharp, A, C sharp - which has since become known as the "Geyer motif". [listen]

As it turned out Bartók decided to leave the work in two movements and not develop his ideas for the third. A week after the concerto was finished, Geyer ended their relationship and chose not to play the piece. When no other violinists showed any interest in it, Bartók combined some of the first movement with an orchestral version of one of the Fourteen Bagatelles of 1908 (which also used the Geyer motif). This resulted in the work which became known as the Two Portraits. Bartók never heard the first violin concerto performed, and it wasn't published until after his death.

The works which followed the concerto often had an element of the grotesque, and this often in association with the Geyer motif. (Read into that what you will.) The Fourteen Bagatelles for piano were described by Ferruccio Busoni as "at last, something new". Here Bartók strips back the accretions of Romanticism and, under the influence of his beloved folk music, creates music which is sparer and leaner than before. Malcolm Gilles succinctly points out that "the Fourteen Bagatelles laid down a blueprint both for Bartók's new musical language and his new, leaner approach to keyboard writing". [listen]

The German publishers Breitkopf & Härtel rejected the Fourteen Bagatelles for publication, saying that they were "too difficult and too modern for the public". But the Budapest publisher Rozsnyai published some of Bartók's subsequent pieces. These included the massive arrangements of folksongs for piano called For Children. Here we see another strand of Bartók's mind emerging, that of the gifted teacher. This was already in evidence in his work at the Budapest Academy; now he turned his mind to acquainting young pianists with the beauties of folk music. For Children is an enormous publication, with more than eighty pieces. [listen]

That Bartók had a sense of humour is evident in the Three Burlesques which were begun in 1908. The first was dedicated to his student Márta Ziegler, and in an early draft he allowed her to select one of a number of titles for the piece: "Anger because of an interrupted visit", Rondoletto à capriccioso, "Vengeance is sweet", or "Play it if you can". It was eventually called "Quarrel". [listen]

Márta Ziegler and Bartók married in 1909; their son Béla, named after his father, was born in 1910. They were married for fifteen years, during which time she assisted her husband tirelessly as copyist, translator and companion on his folksong collecting expeditions.

Márta Ziegler and Béla Bartók

Bartók's folksong researches produced folk-inspired works throughout his career. In 1910 they led to the creation of the Four Old Hungarian Folksongs for unaccompanied male chorus. In these folksong arrangements, he takes the basic melody as heard "in the field", and sets it in a formal environment. Sometimes it was a piano or orchestral accompaniment; here it's set in a close-harmony, chordal style for the four vocal parts of the male choir. [listen]

At exactly the same time, Bartók produced the first of his mature string quartets, beginning the series of six quartets which would become one of the most important bodies of work in the chamber music repertoire. It draws on many inspirations but it holds together beautifully. The way the music develops through the piece was described by Kodály as a "return to life", culminating in a finale which looks towards the abrupt, folk-inspired style of Bartók's later chamber and orchestral finales. [listen]

Zoltan Kodály (1930s)

The first quartet was premiered in March 1910, which coincided with an increasing recognition of Bartók as composer as much as pianist. He performed his own music - as well as works by Kodály and other young composers - in his concerts, works which attracted the description of them as "young barbarians" by a Hungarian critic. Taking the insult as a badge of honour, Bartók produced one of his most famous piano works in reply: the Allegro barbaro of 1911. [listen]

The period 1910-12 drew from Bartók some of his most important early works involving orchestra. The Two Pictures were joined by the Four Orchestral Pieces, works which show the strong influence of Debussy. Debussy is also the starting point in Bartók's first work for the theatre, the one-act opera Bluebeard's Castle. In Bluebeard, Bartók takes Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande (completed a decade before) and rethinks its principles from a Hungarian point of view. Wagner and Strauss also exert an influence, but Bartók's masterful characterisation of the two singers, and the extraordinary orchestration, make this work one his greatest achievements. [listen]

Bartók submitted Bluebeard's Castle in two Budapest opera competitions in 1911 and 1912, but it was regarded as unperformable. It remained unheard for the time being.

In 1912 Bartók largely withdrew from public musical life. His radical views were seen as out of step with the mainstream. Europe's slide towards the first world war exacerbated his feelings of isolation and in 1913 he produced no works apart from a set of teaching pieces. His researches into folk music, though, continued unabated. Around this time he developed a distinct passion for Romanian folk music, and even claimed it was superior to Hungarian folk music because it was more primitive and isolated, thereby more pure and less tainted by outside influences. Among his many Romanian-inspired works from this period are the Six Romanian Folk Dances, originally for piano but perhaps better known today in the 1925 arrangement for violin and piano by Zoltán Székely, an arrangement of which Bartók approved. [listen]

In 1914 Bartók was holidaying in France when the first world war started. Back in Hungary his folk music collecting was severely curtailed at first by Russian incursions into Hungarian territory. Deemed unfit for military service he undertook, with Kodály, the task of collecting folksongs from soldiers, and these researches eventually led to a patriotic concert in January 1918.

Meanwhile, the situation in Hungary was more stable after 1915, which made some song collecting excursions possible in nearby regions. 1915 is described as Bartók's "Romanian Year". In addition to the Six Romanian Folk Dances, he produced a number of works, including the piano Sonatina [listen], which were inspired by Romanian and Transylvanian folk music. The second string quartet also dates from this period, being written between 1914 and 1917.

Up to this point in his career, Bartók's mature vocal works for choir or solo voice and piano had all been folksong arrangements. But in 1916 he stepped outside this world to produce his only mature songs in the art song or Lieder sense of the term. Two sets of five songs (Bartók called them his opus 15 and 16) set poetry of varying quality, with the second set utilising the words of the progressive Hungarian poet Endre Ady. Here Bartók shows his awareness of the German Lieder tradition in setting texts which deal with isolation and loss. [listen]

Bartók composed very little for the theatre, but the three stage works he produced are all important works. Bluebeard's Castle we have already mentioned, but perhaps his major work of the war period was the ballet The Wooden Prince. This was commissioned by the Budapest Opera in 1913 but it wasn't until 1917 that he managed to finish it. It was premiered in May 1917 and - to Bartók's surprise - was hugely successful. This success led to the company finally giving Bluebeard's Castle its belated premiere the following year.

The Wooden Prince is cast as a large-scale symphonic poem in three parts. Lasting about an hour it is a major achievement. [listen]

By the end of the first world war, Bartók, like most Europeans, was a changed man. He had struggled to have his music accepted, even within his native Hungary, but during the war he had finally had some major successes.

In his piano and vocal works, Bartók had often drawn on his extensive field work in recording and notating folk music from across Hungary and its neighbouring regions, but the end of the first world war saw Hungary enter difficult times; Austria-Hungary was, after all, on the losing side. Bartók also caught the Spanish flu during the epidemic of October 1918. The new national boundaries of Hungary after the war saw the country deprived of the very areas in which Bartók had found the most interesting folk material, and this saw him virtually end his career as a collector of folk music. Over the remainder of his life he categorised and analysed his collection, which by this stage numbered about 10,000 melodies. Hungary's political instability after the war added to the tensions, so it's perhaps not surprising that amid the post-war turmoil he entered a darker, Expressionist phase. The Three Etudes for piano, written in 1918, mark the start of this period. [listen]

But the Etudes were merely the prelude for a major work. In this period Bartók created one of his most violent and confronting scores, the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. This was the third and last score Bartók composed for the theatre and even to this day it remains his most controversial. Not only is the music more violent and Expressionist than anything he'd created to that point, but its story involving pimps, seduction, violence and murder led to it being banned in Cologne after it was premiered there in 1926. In Bartók's lifetime the music was more usually performed in its incomplete concert suite form rather than staged as a ballet. It wasn't staged in Budapest until after the composer's death. [listen]

Béla Bartók (1927)

The violence and darkness of these works indicates that Bartók was, like many of his contemporaries, heading towards a completely atonal style (that is, abandoning conventional harmony and writing in a style without traditional key and harmony). He himself believed this and discussed the concept in an essay published in 1920. How this might have clashed in his own mind with his interest in folk music is perhaps indicated in a piano work written the same year, the eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs. In these Bartók seems to connect the essentially tonal world of folk music with his new direction away from conventional tonality. At first Bartók stated that these two disparate worlds - tonal folk song and atonality - could coexist. He wrote, "The opposition of the two tendencies reveals all the more clearly the individual properties of each, while the effect of the whole becomes all the more powerful". [listen]

Yet by the end of the 1920s, Bartók was claiming that folk music and atonality were incompatible. Furthermore, in later years Bartók looked back at the seemingly atonal works of the early 1920s and tried to maintain that they had a veiled tonality at their roots. The two violin sonatas, written in 1921 and 1922, are a case in point. They combine elements of folk music and atonality but as Malcolm Gillies points out in Grove, one could hardly say that these works are in any real "key", despite Bartók's claims. They also have very little to do with traditional sonata structures, as well, but that doesn't stop them being beautiful works of art. [listen]

From the end of the first world war until the mid 1920s Bartók's energies were focused more on his folk song work and his performing career than composing. The continued classification and publication of his folk song researches, in collaboration with Zoltan Kodály, helped to establish Bartók's formidable reputation as an ethnomusicologist. And after a number of years not performing in public, his career as a pianist was reborn at this time. Both these fields of endeavour helped to spread his reputation throughout Europe and beyond, especially as he frequently performed his own works in his recitals.

New works, though, weren't added right away; Bartók was initially content to perform his existing piano music and other works. His only composition of 1923 was an orchestral one, the Dance Suite. This marked a return to a more conservative approach - melodies and accompaniments worked together rather than in opposition - and the Hungarian folk world is the suite's core inspiration. Within a few years the Dance Suite became one of Bartók's most popular works. Between 1925 and 1927 it received more than 60 performances in Europe and America. [listen]

It was at this time that Bartók's marriage to Márta Ziegler suddenly ended. In August 1923 he married Ditta Pásztory and dedicated to her his next work, a set of songs called Village Scenes. [listen] Their texts deal with marriage, love and babies and the couple had a son, Péter, in 1924. Four visits to Italy in the mid-20s stirred Bartók's long-standing interest in Baroque keyboard music. He made his own arrangements of works by a number of Baroque composers for his own recitals, and eleven of these were published. This, coupled with a number of other stimuli (including hearing Stravinsky's concerto for piano and wind) led Bartók into what is often referred to now as his "piano year". In the second half of 1926 he composed the piano sonata, two collections of piano pieces - one called Out of Doors and the other called Nine Little Piano Pieces - and the first piano concerto.

Béla Bartók and Ditta Pásztory with their son, Peter

Out of Doors contains one of the first expressions of Bartók's later trademark "night music" sounds, which would find its fullest expression in later years in the fourth quartet, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and the Concerto for Orchestra. The first piano concerto combines elements of Bartók's barbaric and neo-Baroque styles, and the inspiration of Stravinsky's concerto for piano and wind is evident; Bartók doesn't use the strings at all in the concerto's middle movement.

The work was regarded then as very difficult for both performers and audiences, but it's an indication of Bartók's own skills as a pianist, considering he wrote it for himself to play. [listen]

In 1927 and 28 Bartók turned his attention to creating chamber music. The third and fourth string quartets were written at this time, with the third being an astonishingly innovative work. The traditional four movements of the string quartet are compressed into a single movement lasting about a quarter of an hour, and the work is full of dazzling string effects such as glissando, pizzicato, col legno (hitting the strings with the wood of the bow), sul tasto (bowing over the fingerboard, away from the bridge), sul ponticello (bowing up against the bridge) and other techniques. [listen]

As well as writing the fourth quartet in 1928 - a work which is also a virtual compendium of string playing techniques - Bartók also wrote in that year the two Rhapsodies for violin and piano. Bartók frequently gave recitals with violinists and these works were tailor-made for such performances. He later orchestrated them and they follow the traditional form of such rhapsodies as known in the works of Liszt: a slow introductory section (lassú) followed by a virtuosic fast section (friss). [listen]

Piano music, chamber music... now at the end of the 20s Bartók turned his attention to vocal music. The Twenty Hungarian Folksongs for voice and piano (1929) preceded a major work for choir and orchestra, the Cantata profana (subtitled "The Nine Enchanted Stags") of 1930. Bartók himself adapted the original text - in Romanian - to create a work for tenor, baritone, chorus and orchestra. In writing out the final copy of the score he substituted a Hungarian translation, and on a musical level, the work mark's Bartók's return to music which is demonstrably more tonal. [listen]

In 1931 Bartók turned 50 and he received accolades and honours from across Europe to mark the event. Budapest, though, remained largely unresponsive to his music and none of Bartók's major works in the remaining 15 years of his life received their premieres in the Hungarian capital.

In October 1931 Bartók completed the second piano concerto, a work which shows he clearly remembered the issues which bedevilled the first with its bristling difficulties and uncompromising angst. The second concerto also reflects the change in Bartók's style, with a more conservative approach to harmony, but the debt to Stravinsky is still evident. [listen]

The 1930s saw the creation, over several years, of Bartók's largest work in terms of length: Mikrokosmos. This "miniature world" is a monument of music education and includes pieces which Bartók wrote as early as 1926. By 1939 it had grown into six volumes comprising 152 progressively graded works for piano students. Folk music is at the core of the collection, as one might expect, but techniques such as imitation, inversion and canon, and technical exercises in everything required for playing the piano are dealt with as well. Mikrokosmos takes the pianist from being a beginner... [listen] a moderate player, then an advanced one, and on to being of a professional standard. [listen]

In 1934 Bartók was given a full-time position as an ethnomusicologist at the Budapest Academy of Sciences, a position he held for six years. With Kodály and a team of researchers he continued and developed his study of Hungarian folk music. In the late 30s his performing career also developed with increased international appearances. With his new wife Ditta, who was a fine pianist, he developed a new professional partnership. In January 1938 they together gave the premiere of one of Bartók's most important and popular works, the Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion. [listen]

But the period 1934-39 saw Bartók create some of his most enduring masterpieces. The period begins with the fifth string quartet and ends with the sixth, two of the most important chamber works of the 20th century. But a commission from Paul Sacher and the Basle Chamber Orchestra led to the creation in 1936 of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. This work shows Bartók absolutely at the peak of his powers, seamlessly blending folk music with absolute music, working the complex textures of piano, celesta, harp, percussion and double string orchestra into a powerful and gripping work. [listen]

Close on the heels of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta came Bartók's second violin concerto. Given the fact that his 1908 violin concerto for Stefi Geyer had not been published and was not performed in Bartók's lifetime, the violin concerto completed in 1938 was for many years simply called "Bartók's violin concerto". But the earlier work is now officially restored to the canon and called number one, so the latter work is now called number two.

Again, Bartók shows his mastery of combining disparate elements, and in this work the idea of variation is paramount. The second concerto is also rather long for a violin concerto, lasting around forty minutes. It's a major work in every sense of the term. [listen]

The Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion was premiered in the same year, 1938, and while Bartók latter arranged it as an orchestral work with two solo piano parts, the original version is one of his most vital additions to the piano chamber music repertoire.

From the end of 1939 until 1943, Bartók composed no new music. Extreme right wing politics affected Hungary as much as other parts of Europe in the 30s and his ethnomusicological work was attacked on absurd political grounds by zealots of varying political persuasions. Bartók considered relocating to the USA but felt obliged to stay in Hungary to care for his aging mother. Her death in 1939 made his desire to leave a possibility.

In 1940 undertook a concert tour of the USA and on his return to Hungary made plans to permanently leave his homeland for America. Bartók and his wife left Hungary near the end of 1940 and the composer lived in the United States for his few remaining years.

Béla Bartók

Bartók found a mixed reception for him and his music in America. He undertook regular concert tours but turned down offers of permanent teaching posts. He had a small number of private students. Increasing ill-health led to his hospitalisation in 1943, and initial diagnoses of lung and blood disorders eventually developed into a diagnosis of leukaemia.

Bartók's final works were written during this last illness. The most famous of these is the Concerto for Orchestra [listen], written to fulfil a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. The other major late works - amazing creations considering the composer's ill health - were the sonata for solo violin (written for Yehudi Menuhin) [listen], the third piano concerto (written for his wife, Ditta) [listen], and the viola concerto (written for William Primrose) [listen].

The viola concerto was unfinished at the time of Bartók's death and completed by others, but this hasn't stopped it, and all the other works of Bartók's American years, becoming a standard part of the repertoire.

Béla Bartók died in New York on 26 September 1945; he was 64. While the Concerto for Orchestra in particular was a huge hit from its first performances in 1943, Bartók didn't live to see the amazing growth in the popularity of his music generally which took place after the second world war as Hungarian conductors and instrumentalists took his music around the world. Today the music of the 20th century is unthinkable without that of Béla Bartók, a fitting tribute to this amazing creative genius.

It's important that I acknowledge the article on Bartók in Grove Online, written by the eminent Bartók specialist Malcolm Gillies, as the principal source for this article on the composer.

The Hungarian 1,000 forint banknote, in use between 1983 and 1992, featuring a picture of Bartók

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in June, 2012.

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Jun 18, 2023

Mr. Abbott’s article, “The Life and Music of Bela Bartok” is informative, engaging, factual, and very well written. Having been a student and friend of fellow Hungarian composer, Miklos Rozsa, I maintain an avid interest in the authentic Hungarian folk music idiom.

Daniel Robbins, Ph.D.

Composer, pianist, orchestrator, and author

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