Bela Viktor Janos Bartok was a famous Hungarian composer and pianist. He is considered to be one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. He shares the honor as Hungary’s greatest composer with Franz Liszt. He was a child prodigy with great musical skills, which his mother recognized very early on. She gave him his initial lessons and encouraged his skills. Bartok was not only a composer and pianist; he was a great learner as well. He was such a great music enthusiast that he spent a considerable time of his life researching on traditional and folk music, not only in his homeland, but also in different parts of the world. He had conducted several analytical studies of folk music, and is regarded as one of the founders of ethnomusicology. Bartok had composed several piano pieces, some ballets, and one opera. Read on to know more about this legend and his contributions to music.
Bela Bartok’s Childhood and Early Life
Béla Bartók was born in the Banatian town of Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, on March 25, 1881, to a family, which reflected some of the ethno-cultural diversities prevalent in Hungary at that time. His father, Bela Sr., came from a Hungarian lower noble family and so, considered himself a thorough Hungarian. His mother Paula had a mixed Hungarian origin whose mother tongue was German but was quite fluent in Hungarian.
Bartok displayed his love for music when he was only a child. It is said that even before he started talking, he could distinguish between different tunes of dance rhythms his mother played on the piano. He learnt to play more than 40 pieces on the piano by the age of four, so, his family decided to give him formal lessons. His mother was his first teacher who started teaching him when he was five years old. Bartok suffered from severe eczema till the age of five and he was small, thin and always sick. When Bartok was seven years old, in 1888, he lost his father. His mother then took him and his sister, Erzsebet, to Nagyszõlõs, which is now known as Vinogradiv, in Ukraine. Then they moved to Pozsony, which is now known as Bratislava, in Slovakia. Here, at the age of eleven, Bartok gave his first public performance, playing a short piece called “The course of the Danube”, which was highly appreciated by the audience. Soon after his first performance, he started learning piano from the renowned pianist and conductor, László Erkel.
Early Career And Influence
Bartok joined piano classes under István Thomán, from 1899 to 1903. At the same time, he learned composition under János Koessler at the Royal Academy of Music. It was at the Academy that he met Zoltán Kodály, who became his colleague and friend. Kodaly was also a major influence on his life and music.
Bartok completed his first major orchestral work called “Kossuth” in 1903. This was a symphonic poem written in honor of Lajos Kossuth, a Hungarian revolutionary hero. His earlier works were greatly influenced by Richard Strauss, a great German composer (composer of the famous tone poem “Also sprach Zarathustra”) whom Bartok met in 1902, at the Budapest premiere of the poem. In 1904, while on a summer vacation at a resort, in Kibéd, in the Transylvania region of Romania, Bartok overheard a young nanny singing folk songs to the children in her care. He was very much impressed and this incidence kindled his life-long dedication to folk music.
Bartok came across the works of the famous French composer Claude Debussy and this too had a huge influence on him. His compositions had been greatly influenced by the styles of Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss till then. His growing interest in folk music was evident in the short piano pieces that he composed, most notably, the “String Quartet No. 1” in A minor, which had clear signs of folk-like music.
In 1907, Bartok embarked on a teaching career at the Royal Academy as a Piano Professor. This helped him to remain in Hungary and work there. He had some talented students like Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, György Sándor, Ernõ Balogh and Lili Kraus. Other famous students were Jack Beeson and Violet Archer, whom he taught when he went to America.
Bartok wanted to learn more about old Magyar folk melodies, so, in 1908, he, along with Kodaly, traveled throughout the Hungarian countryside to collect materials for research. Their deep interest in folk music gradually added other elements like interest in traditional national culture, which ended in a great discovery. They found that Magyar folk music, which had previously been categorized as Gypsy music, was altogether different. They found that Magyar folk music is based on pentatonic scales, similar to those in Asian folk traditions, found in regions like Central Asia and Siberia.
From then on Bartok and Kodaly started incorporating Magyar peasant music into their compositions. They became so proficient in this that they could quote the melodies verbatim and composed pieces derived from authentic songs, which are best illustrated in his two volumes of “For Children” for solo piano, which contained 80 folk tunes. Bartok’s style of music was much distinct from others as it contained folk music, classicism, and modernism. He had great melodic and harmonic sense, which exhibited elements of Hungarian and Romanian folk music and he was also fond of the asymmetrical dance rhythms and harmonies found in the music of Bulgaria.
Bartok wrote only one opera, “Bluebeard’s Castle”, in 1911, and dedicated it to his first wife Marta. He submitted this work for the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission Award but it got rejected. He first revised the work in 1917, so that it could be premiered in 1918. After the revolution in 1919, the new Soviet government of his country forced him to remove the name of the librettist Bela Balazs from the opera because that person was blacklisted and had fled to Vienna. “Bluebeard's Castle” was revised again 1936, before Bartok left the country. He was very passionate about Hungary but throughout his life, he never liked the government or the official establishments there.
He was very disappointed when “Bluebeard’s Castle” was rejected by the Fine Arts Commission, so, he didn’t work for the next two to three years. He utilized this time in collecting and arranging folk music. He visited the Carpathian Basin and collected Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian and Bulgarian folk music extending to Moldavia, Wallachia and Algeria but the outbreak of World War II stopped him from continuing further. He then started composing and spent the time writing a ballet “The Wooden Prince” and “String Quartet No. 2”. He composed both these works from 1914 to 1917.
Influenced by famous composers like Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss, Bartok wrote another ballet, “The Miraculous Mandarin”. He then completed two sonatas, one in 1921 and the other in 1922. These works were harmonically and structurally the most complex among his works. The ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin” is based on intense subjects like prostitution, robbery, and murder. Though written in 1918, it was not staged until 1926 because of the nature of its content.
Bartok wrote his third and fourth string quartets from 1927–28. His compositions developed a mature style after this. His notable works after 1928 are “Music for Strings”, “Percussion and Celesta” (1936) and “Divertimento for String Orchestra BB 118” (1939), “String Quartet No. 5” (1934), and “String Quartet No. 6” (1939), which would be his last string quartet. During this period he had also travelled to Turkey to research on Turkish folk music and there he had an opportunity to work with the Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun.
World War II And Later Life
The outbreak of the Second World War worsened the political situation in Europe in 1940 and Bartok planned to flee his native country. He didn’t support his country’s tilt towards Germany as he was bitterly opposed to the Nazis. When Hitler’s Nazi Party came to power, Bartok refused to perform and publish his works in Germany. He maintained strong anti-fascist views and expressed his views openly. This made it almost impossible for him to lead a trouble free life in Hungary. So, he left for the U.S with his second wife Ditta Pásztory and settled in New York City. His son Peter Bartok joined US Navy and served in the Pacific during the rest of the war whereas his oldest son, Bela Bartok, Jr. stayed back in Hungary.
Bartok was too busy with his research engagements and this restricted him from composing. However, he was renowned in America as a pianist and a teacher but could not gain fame as a composer. His wife Ditta was also a pianist and the couple together gave concerts in America.
Bartok received a research fellowship from the Columbia University to work on Serbian and Croatian folk songs, of which the University had a large collection. Ditta supported Bartok in this research. He suffered from economic difficulties during his first years in America but later benefitted from publication royalties, teaching and performance tours. Contrary to the popular belief, Bartok had enough supporters and back up to ensure monetary assistance. He had a proud nature, which restricted him from asking for charity. He often refused the help offered by his friends although he suffered from weak financial conditions. However, he accepted the ASCAP society’s offer to pay for his medical needs. Although he was not a member of the ASCAP, the society paid for any medical care that he needed during his last two years.
Bartok’s health started deteriorating in 1940 and he noticed that his right shoulder is increasingly becoming stiff. This was followed by bouts of fever and only in 1944 did subsequent medical examinations diagnosed that he had Leukemia. But by then the cancer was at an advanced stage. Though his body was weak, his creative energy was strong as ever. He enlisted the help of violinist Joseph Szigeti and the conductor Fritz Reiner and composed the “String Quartet No.6”, which is to be his last completed work. Though he began work on “Viola Concerto”, he could not complete it.
Personal Life And Death
Bartok married Marta Ziegler in 1909. They had a son Bela Bartok Jr. who was born in 1910. Sadly, this relationship came to an end in 1923. He then married Ditta Pasztory, who was his piano student. She gave birth to a son Peter Bartok in 1924. Bartok was an agonist though he was raised in a strict Roman Catholic atmosphere. According to him, God’s existence cannot be determined and it is unnecessary. Being attracted to Unitarianism, he joined Unitarian faith in 1916 and later on, his son became the president of the Hungarian Unitarian Church.
Bartok took his last breath on 26September 1945, in New York. Despite being a famous composer, only ten people attended his funeral including wife Ditta, their son Peter and his pianist friend György Sándor. His body was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, in Hartsdale, New York. In late 1980, when Hungary was no longer under the Nazi or Communist regime, the government requested the U.S that his remains be disinterred and brought to Budapest for burial. Thus, on 7July 1988, his body was buried in Hungary, at Budapest’s Farkasréti Cemetery where the government arranged a state funeral. The unfinished works of Bartok—the “Third Piano Concerto” was later completed by his student Tibor Serly.
- Rhapsody for Piano (1904)
- Violin Concerto (1908)
- 14 Bagatelles (1908)
- Two Pictures (1910)
- Allegro Barbaro (1911)
- Bluebeard's Castle (1911)
- The Wooden Prince (1914-1916)
- Romanian Christmas Carols (1915)
- 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs (1918)
- The Miraculous Mandarin (1918-1924)
- The Dance Suite (1923)
- Piano Sonata (1926)
- Out of Doors (1926)
- Cantata Profana (1930)
- Two Pianos and Percussion (1937)
- Divertimento (1939)
- Divertimento for String Orchestra (1939)
- Two Piano Concerto (1940)
Legacy And Honors
- A statue of Bela Bartok was unveiled in Brussels, Belgium.
- A statue of Bela Bartok stands outside Malvern Court, south of South Kensington, London.
- A statue of Bella Bartok is installed in front of one of his houses in Budapest, which has now been converted into a museum.