Childhood & Early Life
Béla Bartók was born on 25 March 1881, in the small Banatian town of Nagyszentmiklós in the Kingdom of Hungary. His father was the director of an agricultural school.
He had mixed ancestry; on his father’s side he belonged to a Hungarian lower noble family while on his mother’s side, he was of ethnic German lineage.
He exhibited remarkable musical talent from early childhood. By the age of four, he could play 40 different pieces on the piano and at five he began taking formal lessons in music.
He was also a frail and ailing child, often suffering from severe eczema. In 1888 at the tender age of seven, he lost his father. Soon after, his mother took him and his sister, Erzsébet to live in Nagyszőlős and later to Pozsony.
His first public performance was at the age of eleven in Nagyszőlős; his recital was well appreciated. He played several pieces including one of his own compositions, ‘The Course of the Danube’, written at the age of nine.
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From 1899 to 1903, he trained at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, learning piano under the competent guidance of István Thomán and composition under János Koessler. At the Academy, he befriended Zoltán Kodály, who motivated him significantly and became his lifetime friend and co-worker.
In 1903, he composed his first major orchestral work, ‘Kossuth’, a symphonic poem which honoured Lajos Kossuth, hero of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.
He met Richard Strauss in 1902 at Budapest and his music strongly influenced Bartok’s early works. From 1907 onwards, he drew inspiration from the French composer Claude Debussy. Later, the works of the 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, and the modernists Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg also influenced him deeply.
In 1907, he became a piano professor at the Royal Academy. Some of his notable students were Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, György Sándor, Ernő Balogh, and Lili Kraus.
Alongside teaching, he continued composing music. Apart from major orchestral works inspired by Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss, he also composed several small piano pieces which had influences of folk music. The first such example is the String Quartet No. 1 in A minor (1908).
In 1908 along with Kodály, he took a trip to the rural areas to collect and explore old Magyar folk music, a form of Gypsy music. The duo realized that the melodies were based on pentatonic scales, similar to those in Asian folk traditions. Soon, they adopted the elements of such folk music into their compositions.
In 1911 he wrote his only opera, ‘Bluebeard's Castle’, dedicated to his then-wife Márta. He entered it for a competition conducted by the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission, but it got rejected much to his disappointment.
He wrote very less for the next two or three years, preferring to focus on collecting and arranging folk music. He collected notes from Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Bulgarian, Moldavian, Wallachian, and Algerian folk music.
The outbreak of World War I compelled him to discontinue the tours and he returned to composing, writing the ballet ‘The Wooden Prince’ (1914–16) and the ‘String Quartet No. 2’ (1915–17), both influenced by Debussy.
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In 1917, he revised the score and rewrote the ending of ‘Bluebeard's Castle’. In 1921 and 1922, he wrote two violin sonatas which are harmonically and structurally some of his most difficult pieces.
In the following decade, he composed ‘The Third and Fourth String Quartets’ (1927–28), ‘Cantata Profana’ (1930),‘The Fifth String Quartet’ (1934), ‘Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta’ (1936),‘Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion’ (1937) ‘Divertimento for String Orchestra’ (1939), and the ‘The Sixth String Quartet’ (1939).
During the same period he also expanded his activities as a concert pianist, playing in many of the countries of Western Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union.
In 1936, he travelled to Turkey to collect and study folk music. There he worked in collaboration with the Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun.
In the build-up to the World War II and the increasing Nazi terror in the late 1930s, he chose to leave Hungary and immigrated to the United States. Nevertheless, he remained loyal to Hungary and its people and culture. Settling in New York City, he became an American citizen by 1945.
In the US, he was appointment as a research assistant in music at Columbia University, New York City. This helped him to continue working with folk music, especially a large collection of Serbian and Croatian folk songs. Publication royalties, teaching and performance tours with his wife, pianist Ditta Pásztory gradually alleviated the economic crisis he found himself in during his initial years in the US.
His health deteriorated in the early 1940s.With help from violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner, he produced a final set of masterpieces. His ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ (1943) was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky. It premièred in December 1944 to highly positive reviews.
In 1944, he was also commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin to compose a ‘Sonata for Violin Solo’. In 1945, he began composing his ‘Piano Concerto No. 3’, a beautiful neo-classical work as a surprise 42nd birthday present for Ditta. Unfortunately, it remained unfinished because of his untimely death.
Bela Bartók was deeply influenced by Debussy's music and this is clearly evident in the ‘Fourteen Bagatelles’ (1908). Till 1911, he composed various pieces that had elements of the romantic-style and folk melodies. He also composed his modernist opera ‘Bluebeard's Castle’ around this time.
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He was also inspired by Klára Gombossy to compose the ‘Suite for piano opus 14’ (1916), and ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’ (1918). Meanwhile, he also completed ‘The Wooden Prince’ (1917).
Among his masterworks are the six String Quartets, the ‘Cantata Profana’, the ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta’, the ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, and the ‘Third Piano Concerto.’
To aid younger students and help his son Péter with his music lessons, he also wrote the book ‘Mikrokosmos’, a six-volume collection of graded piano pieces.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1909 at the age of 28, Bela Bartók married 16 years old Márta Ziegler. Their son, Béla III was born the next year. The couple divorced in June 1923.
In 1923, he married a 19 year old piano student, Ditta Pásztory. Their son, Péter was born in 1924.
Bela Bartók was brought up as a Roman Catholic and by his early adulthood he became an atheist. He later converted to the Unitarian faith in 1916.
From 1940 onwards, he became increasingly ill. Gradually, the symptoms aggravated, coupled with bouts of fever. In April 1944, Leukaemia was diagnosed and it was too late for a cure.
He died on 26 September 1945 at the age of 64 in a New York City hospital. His funeral was attended by a handful of people. His body was initially interred in Ferncliff Cemetery, New York. Later in 1988, Hungary arranged a state funeral for him and he was reinterred at Budapest's Farkasréti Cemetery, next to the remains of his wife Ditta who died in 1982.
In Bartók’s memory, his statues have been erected in Brussels, London, and Budapest. His bust and plaque is located at his last residence in New York City and also in Ankara, Turkey.
His statue in bronze is present in the front lobby of the Royal Conservatory of Music, Ontario, Canada. Another statue stands near the River Seine in the public park at Square Béla Bartók in Paris, France.