Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sânnicolaul-Mare, Romania), on March 25, 1881. His father was director of a government agricultural school, his mother, a teacher and pianist.

She gave Béla his first piano lesson on his fifth birthday; his great gifts as pianist soon became evident, and at the age of 9 he began to compose. After the death of his father they moved to Nagyvárad, Beszterce and Pozsony. He studied piano with László Erkel at Pozsony and composition and piano with János Koessler at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest.

His first major composition was the symphonic poem Kossuth (1903). Three years later his first work based upon Hungarian peasant music was published: the Twenty Hungarian Folksongs, produced in collaboration with Zoltán Kodály. In 1907 Bartók became professor of piano at the Academy of Music. His tenure lasted nearly 30 years, being interrupted occasionally for folk-song research and concert tours. His first wife, Márta Ziegler, and second wife, Ditta Pásztory, were both his piano pupils. He never taught composition, fearing that to do so might endanger his own creative work.

Important Bartók works composed between 1907 and 1922 include the opera Bluebeard's Castle (1911), the First and Second String Quartets (1909, 1918), the ballet The Wooden Prince (1914-1916), the two Violin and Piano Sonatas (1921-1922), and the pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin (1918-1919). After World War I Bartók intensified his career as a concert pianist. He gave the first performances of his first two Piano Concertos (1927, 1930-1931). He tra­veled widely in Europe and in 1927 he made his first United States tour, performing a number of his own works to mixed critical reception. Significant compositions of that period include the Two Rhapsodies for violin and piano (1928), the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets (1928, 1934), the Cantata profana (1930), and the earliest books of Mikrokosmos, which is a series of 153 progressive pieces for piano on which Bartók worked from 1926 to 1939. Bartók's artistic intent at that point in his career is excellently summarized in his essay "The Influence of Peasant Music on Modern Music" (1931). He stated emphatically that the composer "has a right to use musical material from all sources. What he has judged suitable for his purpose has become through the very use his mental property... The question of origins can only be interesting from the point of view of musical documentation." The highest form of folk-influenced music, Bartók believed, is that in which the folk atmosphere has been completely assimilated. He described such music as follows: "Neither peasant music nor imitations of peasant melodies can be found in his [the composer's] music, but it is pervaded by the atmosphere of peasant music. In this case we may say he has completely absorbed the idiom of peasant music which has become his musical mother tongue."

The political situation of Hungary became more and more unsettled in the mid-1930s. During this period Bartók produced important works: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936), Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), Contrasts for violin, clarinet, and piano (1938), the Violin Concerto (1937-1938), and the Sixth String Quartet (1939). When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, he realized he would have to leave Hungary soon. After the death of his mother in 1939 his last tie was broken.The following year Bartók and his wife settled in New York City. He was given a temporary appointment at Columbia University, transcribing the records of Serbo-Croatian folk songs in the Parry Collection, which lasted through 1942. Bartók's persistent ill health and resultant inability to perform publicly or to take another position left his financial situation precarious. Fortunately he received important commissions, and assistance from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. The Concerto for Orchestra (1943) was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, the solo Violin Sonata (1944) by Yehudi Menuhin, and the Viola Concerto (1945) by William Primrose. (The last-named work remained unfinished; it was completed by Tibor Serly, one of Bartók's pupils.) Bartók worked on his Third Piano Concerto, which he composed for his wife, until a few days before his death. The last 17 measures were still incomplete when he died of leukemia on Sept. 26, 1945.

Spotlight on Bartok

Béla Bartók (1881–1945) has been the most frequently performed of the “classical modernist” composers for more than sixty years. His orchestral, concerto, chamber, and piano works appear in the repertoires of well-known performers and ensembles in his own country, and around the world. The catalogue of Editio Musica Budapest features his early works, including ambitious compositions such as the symphonic poem Kossuth, Rhapsody op. 1 and Scherzo op. 2 for piano and orchestra (1903–5), and early masterworks like the 14 bagatelles for piano, the 1st String Quartet, and the Two Pictures for orchestra (1908–10). 

After completing his studies at the Budapest academy of music, Bartók’s primary influence was the music of Richard Strauss which is apparent in Kossuth (1903), his first completed orchestral piece. Written at the age of 22, it commemorates the unsuccessful war of independence, fought by the Hungarian nobility against the House of Habsburg in 1848–49, and its leader, Lajos Kossuth. This symphonic poem, replete with a romantic patriotism, was performed only twice in the composer’s lifetime – first in Budapest and then in Manchester in 1904.

Rhapsody op. 1 was composed in 1904 for solo piano, and then expanded slightly and given an orchestral accompaniment in the following year. Its slow–fast structure and Hungarian verbunkos style hearken back to Liszt’s rhapsodies, while also anticipating his own two violin rhapsodies of 1928 and his Contrasts of 1938. As a pianist, Bartók kept Rhapsody in his repertoire throughout the 1920s.

In contrast, Scherzo op. 2, also composed in 1904 and arranged for piano and orchestra in 1905, was never performed in the composer’s lifetime. The work has a long, slow introduction, followed by a ternary fast section with a piano solo in the middle. The strongly varied, demonic recapitulation, on the other hand, gives the main role to the orchestra. Although this half-hour composition represents the romantic, Hungarian style of the young Bartók, it introduces the “diabolic scherzo” movement which reappears throughout his life’s work.

Two Pictures op. 10, composed in 1910, marks a later stage in Bartók’s stylistic development – a period of integration of Debussy and of Eastern European (Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian) folk music. The colorful score – in accordance with Bartók’s favorite formal scheme – pairs a slow and a fast movement. “In Full Flower” presents a pastoral scene, while “Village Dance” is a lively clapping and stamping dance.

At the request of his Vienna publisher Universal Edition, in the early 1930s Bartók decided to compile accessible and easily played suites from his earlier works thereby creating one of his most popular scores: Hungarian Pictures (1931) an orchestral compilation made from five short piano pieces of 1908–10. This ten-minute cycle links such popular pieces as “An Evening in the Village” and “Bear Dance” from the Ten Easy Piano Pieces, “Slightly Tipsy” from the Three Burlesques, “Swineherd’s Dance” from the piano cycle For Children.

Márton Kerékfy