Béla Viktor János Bartók (/ˈbeɪlə ˈbɑːrtɒk/; Hungarian: Bartók Béla, pronounced [ˈbɒrtoːk ˈbeːlɒ]; 25 March 1881 – 26 September 1945) was a Hungarian composer, pianist, and ethnomusicologist. He is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century; he and Franz Liszt are regarded as Hungary’s greatest composers (Gillies 2001). Through his collection and analytical study of folk music, he was one of the founders of comparative musicology, which later became ethnomusicology.
Childhood and early years (1881–98)
Bartók was born in the Banatian town of Nagyszentmiklós in the Kingdom of Hungary (present-day Sânnicolau Mare, Romania) on 25 March 1881. On his father’s side, the Bartók family was a Hungarian lower noble family, originating from Borsodszirák, Borsod. (Móser 2006a, 44) His paternal grandmother was a Catholic of Bunjevci origin, but considered herself Hungarian (Szekernyés 2017). Bartók’s father was also named Béla. Bartók’s mother, Paula (née Voit), had ethnic German roots but spoke Hungarian fluently (Hooker 2001, 16). A native of Turócszentmárton (present-day Martin, Slovakia) (Cooper 2015, 6), she also had Hungarian and Slavic ancestry.
Béla displayed notable musical talent very early in life: according to his mother, he could distinguish between different dance rhythms that she played on the piano before he learned to speak in complete sentences (Gillies 1990, 6). By the age of four he was able to play 40 pieces on the piano and his mother began formally teaching him the next year.
Béla was a sickly child and suffered from severe eczema until the age of five (Gillies 1990, 5), as a result of an inoculation with a faulty smallpox vaccine, with his facial disfigurement causing him to avoid people (Suchoff 2001, 15). In 1888, when he was seven, his father, the director of an agricultural school, died suddenly. His mother then took Béla and his sister, Erzsébet, to live in Nagyszőlős (present-day Vynohradiv, Ukraine) and then in Pozsony (present-day Bratislava, Slovakia). Béla gave his first public recital aged 11 in Nagyszőlős, to positive critical reception (Griffiths 1988,). 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 (Stevens 1964, 8).
Early musical career (1899–1908)
From 1899 to 1903, Bartók studied piano under István Thomán, a former student of Franz Liszt, and composition under János Koessler at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest (Anon. 2018). There he met Zoltán Kodály, who made a strong impression on him and became a lifelong friend and colleague (Rockwell 1982). In 1903, Bartók wrote his first major orchestral work, Kossuth, a symphonic poem which honored Lajos Kossuth, hero of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 (Stevens 2018).
The music of Richard Strauss, whom he met in 1902 at the Budapest premiere of Also sprach Zarathustra, strongly influenced his early work (Wilhelm 1989, 73). When visiting a holiday resort in the summer of 1904, Bartók overheard a young nanny, Lidi Dósa from Kibéd in Transylvania, sing folk songs to the children in her care. This sparked his lifelong dedication to folk music (Kory 2007).
From 1907, he also began to be influenced by the French composer 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 he wrote a number of small piano pieces which showed 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 contains folk-like elements (Rodda 1990–2018). He began teaching as a piano professor at the Royal Academy (Anon. 1945a). This position freed him from touring Europe as a pianist and enabled him to work in Hungary. Among his notable students were Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, György Sándor, Ernő Balogh, and Lili Kraus. After Bartók moved to the United States, he taught Jack Beeson and Violet Archer.
In 1908, he and Kodály traveled into the countryside to collect and research old Magyar folk melodies. Their growing interest in folk music coincided with a contemporary social interest in traditional national culture. They made some surprising discoveries. Magyar folk music had previously been categorised as Gypsy music. The classic example is Franz Liszt’s famous Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano, which he based on popular art songs performed by Romani bands of the time. In contrast, Bartók and Kodály discovered that the old Magyar folk melodies were based on pentatonic scales, similar to those in Asian folk traditions, such as those of Central Asia, Anatolia and Siberia.
Bartók and Kodály quickly set about incorporating elements of such Magyar peasant music into their compositions. They both frequently quoted folk song melodies verbatim and wrote pieces derived entirely from authentic songs. An example is his two volumes entitled 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. His melodic and harmonic sense was profoundly influenced by the folk music of Hungary, Romania, and other nations. He was especially fond of the asymmetrical dance rhythms and pungent harmonies found in Bulgarian music. Most of his early compositions offer a blend of nationalist and late Romanticism elements.
Middle years and career (1909–39)
In 1909, at the age of 28, Bartók married Márta Ziegler (1893–1967), aged 16. Their son, Béla Bartók III, was born the next year. After nearly 15 years together, Bartók divorced Márta in June 1923. Two months after his divorce, he married Ditta Pásztory (1903–1982), a piano student, ten days after proposing to her. She was aged 19, he 42. Their son, Péter, was born in 1924 (Hughes 2007, 22).
Raised as a Catholic, by his early adulthood Bartók had become an atheist. He later became attracted to Unitarianism and publicly converted to the Unitarian faith in 1916. Although Bartók was not conventionally religious, according to his son Béla Bartók III, “he was a nature lover: he always mentioned the miraculous order of nature with great reverence.” As an adult, Béla III later became lay president of the Hungarian Unitarian Church (Hughes 2001).
In 1911, Bartók wrote what was to be his only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, dedicated to Márta. He entered it for a prize by the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission, but they rejected his work as not fit for the stage (Chalmers 1995, 93). In 1917 Bartók revised the score for the 1918 première, and rewrote the ending. Following the 1919 revolution in which he actively participated, he was pressured by the Horthy regime to remove the name of librettist Béla Balázs from the opera, as Balázs was of Jewish origin, was blacklisted, and had left the country for Vienna. Bluebeard’s Castle received only one revival, in 1936, before Bartók emigrated. For the remainder of his life, although passionately devoted to Hungary, its people and its culture, he never felt much loyalty to the government or its official establishments.
Folk Music and Composition
After his disappointment over the Fine Arts Commission competition, Bartók wrote little for two or three years, preferring to concentrate on collecting and arranging folk music. He found the phonograph an essential tool for collecting folk music for its accuracy, objectivity, and manipulability (Bartók 1976, 14). He collected first in the Carpathian Basin (then the Kingdom of Hungary), where he notated Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, and Bulgarian folk music. He also collected in Moldavia, Wallachia, and (in 1913) Algeria. The outbreak of World War I forced him to stop the expeditions, but he returned to composing with a ballet called The Wooden Prince (1914–16) and the String Quartet No. 2 in (1915–17), both influenced by Debussy.
Bartók’s libretto for The Miraculous Mandarin, another ballet, was influenced by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss. Though started in 1918, the story of prostitution, robbery, and murder was not performed on the stage until 1926 because of its sexual content. He next wrote his two violin sonatas (written in 1921 and 1922, respectively), which are harmonically and structurally some of his most complex pieces.
In 1927–28, Bartók wrote his Third and Fourth String Quartets, after which his compositions demonstrated his mature style. Notable examples of this period are Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and Divertimento for String Orchestra (1939). The Fifth String Quartet was composed in 1934, and the Sixth String Quartet (his last) in 1939. In 1936 he travelled to Turkey to collect and study Turkish folk music. He worked in collaboration with Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun mostly around Adana (Özgentürk 2008; Sipos 2000).