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What you should know about Béla Bartók

Delve into the life and history of Béla Bartók, composer and ethnomusicologist, who had a dedication to collecting and transcribing folk music and dances.


By Andrew Mellor

4-minute read

Béla Bartók sitting down

Born: 25 March 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare in Romania)

Died: 26 September 1945, New York, US

Contemporaries: Igor Stravinsky, Percy Grainger, Jerome Kern, George Butterworth

Recommended Listening: Mikrokosmos, Concerto for Orchestra, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste

Who was Béla Bartók?

Béla Bartók was one of a handful of early 20-century composers who recognised how indigenous folk music could fuel a new sort of progressive concert music. He was born in an area of Europe rich in peasant culture, but was soon set on a path of intense musical training in the classical tradition.

Bartók was initially taught the piano by his mother. The family moved to Pressburg (now Bratislava) and in 1899 their son enrolled at what is now the Liszt Academy in Budapest, where he would eventually replace its piano professor István Thoman.

By the 1910s, Bartók had become increasingly interested in collecting and transcribing folk tunes and dances from Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Yugoslavia and even Turkey and North Africa. He did so, with rare dedication, for decades. These melodies and rhythms lit the fire of inspiration within Bartók, who started to conceive music that fused their characteristic elements with the highly developed musical language of the day. His works managed to unite these two contrasting worlds with rare conviction and universality of feeling, in music of striking power and focus.

By the 1940s Bartók was a well-known figure, not least as a performing pianist. He left for America after Hungary aligned itself with Hitler during the Second World War. The composer struggled in the US, securing a professorship but few commissions or performing engagements, until he was thrown a creative lifeline by a fellow émigré. At the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conductor Serge Koussevitsky commissioned a string of Bartók’s late masterpieces including the signature Concerto for Orchestra. Bartók died in New York less than a month after the war had ended.

What is Bartók’s well-known music?

Concerto for Orchestra – this score from 1944 has the composer’s fingerprints all over it, threading folk dances and melodies through colourful and virtuosic orchestral textures.

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste – the distinctive atmosphere of this piece was brought to a wider audience by the movie The Shining.

The Miraculous Mandarin – the orchestral score for this ballet is among Bartók’s most-played. It provoked protests when first heard in 1926 for wedding raw music to a shocking story of murder, horror and sexual abuse. It is an example of Bartók using unvarnished, descriptive music to depict sleaze and violence.

Among many other works, Bartók also wrote three piano concertos, two violin concertos and a concerto for viola. The piano concertos are citric and sharp-edged. The string concertos, in particular, allowed Bartók to use elements of folk music in a formal context, thus renewing both. Most of his music, however, was for either solo piano or string quartet.

Watch: The Miraculous Mandarin

What is Bartók’s legacy?

Bartók’s legacy was felt immediately. Dozens of composers followed his example, researching folk music and using their findings to create progressive concert music that spoke of a nation.

That process continues, as a new wave of musical nationalism has led contemporary composers back to folk music yet again – perhaps most strikingly in some Baltic and Nordic countries. Still, Bartók is cited as an inspiration.

Why is Bartók’s music is still played and enjoyed? Perhaps because its complexity thrills, while its folksiness continues to reflect real life. Bartók brings us a heady mix of sexual charge, raw confrontation and outlandish fantasy. He had a flair for supercharging all those things with a symphony orchestra. The technical reality is music of exacting precision and polish that few composers get near.

Bartók, Kodály and Hungary

Bartók’s work collecting folk songs was stimulated and aided by his working friendship with Zoltán Kodály. Together, using wax cylinders, the two composers collected hundreds of field recordings of folk songs.

For both composers, the material they harvested served as the material for their music. Kodály went a little further. He set about kick-starting a new nationalist musical movement in Hungary that he hoped would result in the re-drawing of the country’s musical education system along folk-musical lines.

Bartók and Kodály were born just two years apart and remained close. But while Kodály was too deep into his nationalist project to quit a Hungary tethered to Nazi Germany, Bartók felt compelled to leave on principle. In his will, Bartók requested that no street or square in Budapest be named after him until the names of Hitler and Mussolini had been expunged from every street sign in the city.

Listen: Divertimento

Composer profile by Andrew Mellor

Bartók in Concert

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