Bela Bartok was born in the small Banatian town of Nagyszentmiklos in the Kingdom of Hungary, Austria-Hungary (since 1920 Sannicolau Mare, Romania) on March 25, 1881. Bartok had a diverse ancestry. On his father's side, the Bartok family was a Hungarian lower noble family, originating from Borsodszirak, Borsod county (Moser 2006a, 44). Although, his father's mother was of a Roman Catholic Serbian family (Bayley 2001, 16). Bela Bartok's mother, Paula (born Paula Voit), was an ethnic German, though she spoke Hungarian fluently (Bayley 2001, 16).
Bela 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.
Bela was a small and sickly child and suffered from severe eczema until the age of 5 (Gillies 1990, 5). In 1888, when he was seven, his father (the director of an agricultural school) died suddenly. Bela's mother then took him and his sister, Erzsebet, to live in Nagyszolos (today Vinogradiv, Ukraine) and then to Pozsony (German: Pressburg, today Bratislava, Slovakia). In Pozsony, Bela gave his first public recital at age 11 to a warm critical reception. 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 Laszlo Erkel accepted him as a pupil.
From 1899 to 1903, Bartok studied piano under Istvan Thoman, a former student of Franz Liszt, and composition under Janos Koessler at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. There he met Zoltan Kodaly, who influenced him greatly and became his lifelong friend and colleague. In 1903, Bartok wrote his first major orchestral work, Kossuth, a symphonic poem which honored Lajos Kossuth, hero of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.
The music of Richard Strauss, whom he met in 1902 at the Budapest premiere of Also sprach Zarathustra, strongly influenced his early work. When visiting a holiday resort in the summer of 1904, Bartok overheard a young nanny, Lidi Dosa from Kibed in Transylvania, sing folk songs to the children in her care. This sparked his lifelong dedication to folk music.
From 1907, he also began to be influenced by the French composer Claude Debussy, whose compositions Kodaly had brought back from Paris. Bartok'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.
In 1907, Bartok began teaching as a piano professor at the Royal Academy. 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, Gyorgy Sandor, Erno Balogh, and Lili Kraus. After Bartok moved to the United States, he taught Jack Beeson and Violet Archer.
In 1908, he and Kodaly 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, Bartok and Kodaly 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.
Bartok and Kodaly 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. Bartok'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.
In 1909 at the age of 28, Bartok married Marta Ziegler (1893–1967), aged 16. Their son, Bela III, was born on August 22, 1910. After nearly 15 years together, Bartok divorced Marta in June 1923.
Two months after his divorce, he married Ditta Pasztory (1903–1982), a piano student, ten days after proposing to her. She was aged 19, he 42. Their son, Peter, was born in 1924.
In 1911, Bartok wrote what was to be his only opera, Bluebeard's Castle, dedicated to Marta. 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 Bartok revised the score for the 1918 premiere, and rewrote the ending. Following the 1919 revolution, he was pressured by the new Soviet government to remove the name of the librettist Bela Balazs from the opera (Chalmers 1995, 123), as he was blacklisted and had left the country for Vienna. Bluebeard's Castle received only one revival, in 1936, before Bartok emigrated. For the remainder of his life, although he was passionately devoted to Hungary, its people and its culture, he never felt much loyalty to the government or its official establishments.
After his disappointment over the Fine Arts Commission competition, Bartok wrote little for two or three years, preferring to concentrate on collecting and arranging folk music. He collected first in the Carpathian Basin (then the Kingdom of Hungary), where he notated Hungarian, Slovakian, 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; and he returned to composing, writing the ballet The Wooden Prince (1914–16) and the String Quartet No. 2 in (1915–17), both influenced by Debussy.
Raised as a Roman Catholic, by his early adulthood Bartok had become an atheist. He believed that the existence of God could not be determined and was unnecessary. He later became attracted to Unitarianism and publicly converted to the Unitarian faith in 1916. As an adult, his son later became president of the Hungarian Unitarian Church (Hughes 1999–2007).
Bartok wrote another ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin influenced by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, as well as Richard Strauss. A modern story of prostitution, robbery, and murder, it was started in 1918, but not performed 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, Bartok 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 BB 118 (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 folk music. He worked in collaboration with Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun mostly around Adana (Ozgenturk 2008; Sipos 2000).
In 1940, as the European political situation worsened after the outbreak of World War II, Bartok was increasingly tempted to flee Hungary. He was strongly opposed to the Nazis and Hungary's siding with Germany. After the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, Bartok refused to give concerts in Germany and broke away from his publisher there. His anti-fascist political views caused him a great deal of trouble with the establishment in Hungary. Having first sent his manuscripts out of the country, Bartok reluctantly emigrated to the U.S. with his wife Ditta in October that year. They settled in New York City. After joining them in 1942, their son, Peter Bartok, enlisted in the United States Navy where he served in the Pacific during the remainder of the war and later settled in Florida where he became a recording and sound engineer. His oldest son, Bela Bartok III, remained in Hungary where he survived the war and later worked as a railroad official until his retirement in the early 1980s.
Although he became an American citizen in 1945, shortly before his death (Gagne 2012, 28), Bartok never became fully at home in the USA. He initially found it difficult to compose. Although well known in America as a pianist, ethnomusicologist and teacher, he was not well known as a composer. There was little American interest in his music during his final years. He and his wife Ditta gave some concerts, although demand for them was low. Bartok, who had made some recordings in Hungary, also recorded for Columbia Records after he came to the US; many of these recordings (some with Bartok's own spoken introductions) were later issued on LP and CD (Bartok 1994, 1995a, 1995b, 2003, 2007, 2008).
Supported by a research fellowship from Columbia University, for several years, Bartok and Ditta worked on a large collection of Serbian and Croatian folk songs in Columbia's libraries. Bartok's economic difficulties during his first years in America were mitigated by publication royalties, teaching and performance tours. While his finances were always precarious, he did not live and die in poverty as was the common myth. He had enough friends and supporters to ensure that there was sufficient money and work available for him to live on. Bartok was a proud man and did not easily accept charity. Despite being short on cash at times, he often refused money that his friends offered him out of their own pockets. Although he was not a member of the ASCAP, the society paid for any medical care he needed during his last two years. Bartok reluctantly accepted this (Chalmers 1995, 196–203).
The first symptoms of his health problems began late in 1940, when his right shoulder began to show signs of stiffening. In 1942, symptoms increased and he started having bouts of fever, but no underlying disease was diagnosed, in spite of medical examinations. Finally, in April 1944, leukemia was diagnosed, but by this time, little could be done (Chalmers 1995, 202–207).
As his body slowly failed, Bartok found more creative energy, and he produced a final set of masterpieces, partly thanks to the violinist Joseph Szigeti and the conductor Fritz Reiner (Reiner had been Bartok's friend and champion since his days as Bartok's student at the Royal Academy). Bartok's last work might well have been the String Quartet No. 6 but for Serge Koussevitzky's commission for the Concerto for Orchestra. Koussevitsky's Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered the work in December 1944 to highly positive reviews. The Concerto for Orchestra quickly became Bartok's most popular work, although he did not live to see its full impact. In 1944, he was also commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin to write a Sonata for Solo Violin. In 1945, Bartok composed his Piano Concerto No. 3, a graceful and almost neo-classical work, as a surprise 42nd birthday present for Ditta, but he died just over a month before her birthday, with the scoring not quite finished. He had sketched his Viola Concerto, but had barely started the scoring at his death.
Bela Bartok died at age 64 in a hospital in New York City from complications of leukemia (specifically, of secondary polycythemia) on September 26, 1945. His funeral was attended by only ten people. Among them were his wife Ditta, their son Peter, and his pianist friend Gyorgy Sandor (Anon. 2006).
Bartok's body was initially interred in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. During the final year of communist Hungary in the late 1980s, the Hungarian government, along with his two sons, Bela III and Peter, requested that his remains be exhumed and transferred back to Budapest for burial, where Hungary arranged a state funeral for him on July 7, 1988. He was reinterred at Budapest's Farkasreti Cemetery, next to the remains of Ditta, who died in 1982, the year after his centenary (Chalmers 1995, 214).
The Third Piano Concerto was nearly finished at his death. For his Viola Concerto, Bartok had completed only the viola part and sketches of the orchestral part. Both works were later completed by his pupil Tibor Serly. Gyorgy Sandor was the soloist in the first performance of the Third Piano Concerto on February 8, 1946. Ditta Pasztory-Bartok later played and recorded it. The Viola Concerto was revised and published in the 1990s by Bartok's son, Peter; this version may be closer to what Bartok intended (Chalmers 1995, 210).
Concurrently, Peter Bartok, in association with Argentinian musician Nelson Dellamaggiore, worked to reprint and revise past editions of the Third Piano Concerto (Somfai 1996).A statue of Bartok stands in Brussels, Belgium near the central train station in a public square, Spanjeplein-Place d'Espagne (Anon. 2014; Dicaire 2010, 145)
A statue stands outside Malvern Court, south of South Kensington Underground Station, and just north of 7 Sydney Place, where he stayed when performing in London. An English Heritage blue plaque, unveiled in 1997, now commemorates Bartok at 7 Sydney Place (Anon. n.d.(a); Jones 2012).
A statue of him was installed in front of the house in which Bartok spent his last eight years in Hungary, at Csalan ut 29, in the hills above Budapest. It is now operated as the Bela Bartok Memorial House (Bartok Bela Emlekhaz) (Tudzin 2010).
A bust and plaque located at his last residence, in New York City at 309 W. 57th Street, inscribed: "The Great Hungarian Composer / Bela Bartok / (1881–1945) / Made His Home In This House / During the Last Year of His Life".
A bust of him is located in the front yard of Ankara State Conservatory, Ankara, Turkey right next to the bust of Ahmet Adnan Saygun.
A bronze statue of Bartok, sculpted by Imre Varga in 2005, stands in the front lobby of the Royal Conservatory of Music, 273 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
A statue of Bartok, sculpted by Imre Varga, stands near the River Seine in the public park at Square Bela Bartok, 26 Place de Brazzaville, in Paris, France (Anon. n.d.(b)).
Also to be noted, in the same park, a sculptural transcription of the composer's research on tonal harmony, the fountain/sculpture Cristaux designed by Jean-Yves Lechevallier in 1980.
An expressionist sculpture by Hungarian sculptor Andras Beck in Square Henri-Collet, Paris 16th.
A statue of him also stands in Targu Mures city centre.
Bartok's music reflects two trends that dramatically changed the sound of music in the 20th century: the breakdown of the diatonic system of harmony that had served composers for the previous two hundred years (Griffiths 1978, 7); and the revival of nationalism as a source for musical inspiration, a trend that began with Mikhail Glinka and Antonin Dvorak in the last half of the 19th century (Einstein 1947, 332). In his search for new forms of tonality, Bartok turned to Hungarian folk music, as well as to other folk music of the Carpathian Basin and even of Algeria and Turkey; in so doing he became influential in that stream of modernism which exploited indigenous music and techniques (Botstein [n.d.], §6).
One characteristic style of music is his Night music, which he used mostly in slow movements of multi-movement ensemble or orchestral compositions in his mature period. It is characterised by "eerie dissonances providing a backdrop to sounds of nature and lonely melodies" (Schneider 2006, 84). An example is the third movement (Adagio) of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.
His music can be grouped roughly in accordance with the different periods in his life.
The works of his youth are of a late-Romantic style. Between 1890 and 1894 (nine to 13 years of age) he wrote 31 pieces with corresponding opus numbers. He started numbering his works anew with "opus 1" in 1894 with his first large scale work, a piano sonata. Up to 1902, Bartok wrote in total 74 works which can be considered in Romantic style. Most of these early compositions are either scored for piano solo or include a piano. Additionally, there is some chamber music for strings.
Under the influence of Richard Strauss—among other works Also sprach Zarathustra (Stevens 1993, 15–17), Bartok composed in 1903 Kossuth, a symphonic poem in ten tableaux. In 1904 followed his Rhapsody for piano and orchestra which he numbered opus 1 again, marking it himself as the start of a new era in his music. An even more important occurrence of this year was his overhearing the eighteen-year-old nanny Lidi Dosa from Transylvania sing folk songs, sparking Bartok's lifelong dedication to folk music (Stevens 1993, 22). When criticised for not composing his own melodies Bartok pointed out that Moliere and Shakespeare mostly based their plays on well-known stories too. Regarding the incorporation of folk music into art music he said:
The question is, what are the ways in which peasant music is taken over and becomes transmuted into modern music? We may, for instance, take over a peasant melody unchanged or only slightly varied, write an accompaniment to it and possibly some opening and concluding phrases. This kind of work would show a certain analogy with Bach's treatment of chorales. ... Another method ... is the following: the composer does not make use of a real peasant melody but invents his own imitation of such melodies. There is no true difference between this method and the one described above. ... There is yet a third way ... Neither peasant melodies nor imitations of peasant melodies can be found in his 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. (Bartok 1931/1976, 341–44)
Bartok became first acquainted with Debussy's music in 1907 and regarded his music highly. In an interview in 1939 Bartok said
Debussy's great service to music was to reawaken among all musicians an awareness of harmony and its possibilities. In that, he was just as important as Beethoven, who revealed to us the possibilities of progressive form, or as Bach, who showed us the transcendent significance of counterpoint. Now, what I am always asking myself is this: is it possible to make a synthesis of these three great masters, a living synthesis that will be valid for our time? (Moreux 1953, 92)
Debussy's influence is present in the Fourteen Bagatelles (1908). These made Ferruccio Busoni exclaim 'At last something truly new!' (Bartok 1948, 2:83). Until 1911, Bartok composed widely differing works which ranged from adherence to romantic-style, to folk song arrangements and to his modernist opera Bluebeard's Castle. The negative reception of his work led him to focus on folk music research after 1911 and abandon composition with the exception of folk music arrangements (Gillies 1993, 404; Stevens 1964, 47–49).
His pessimistic attitude towards composing was lifted by the stormy and inspiring contact with Klara Gombossy in the summer of 1915 (Gillies 1993, 405). This interesting episode in Bartok's life remained hidden until it was researched by Denijs Dille between 1979 and 1989 (Dille 1990, 257–77). Bartok started composing again, including the Suite for piano opus 14 (1916), and The Miraculous Mandarin (1918) and he completed The Wooden Prince (1917).
Bartok felt the result of World War I as a personal tragedy (Stevens 1993, 3). Many regions he loved were severed from Hungary: Transylvania, the Banat where he was born, and Pozsony where his mother lived. Additionally, the political relations between Hungary and the other successor states to the Austro-Hungarian empire prohibited his folk music research outside of Hungary (Somfai 1996, 18). Bartok also wrote the noteworthy Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs in 1920, and the sunny Dance Suite in 1923, the year of his second marriage.
In 1926, Bartok needed a significant piece for piano and orchestra with which he could tour in Europe and America. In the preparation for writing his First Piano Concerto, he wrote his Sonata, Out of Doors, and Nine Little Pieces, all for solo piano (Gillies 1993, 173). He increasingly found his own voice in his maturity. The style of his last period—named "Synthesis of East and West" (Gillies 1993, 189)—is hard to define let alone to put under one term. In his mature period, Bartok wrote relatively few works but most of them are large-scale compositions for large settings. Only his voice works have programmatic titles and his late works often adhere to classical forms.
Among his masterworks are all the six string quartets (1908, 1917, 1927, 1928, 1934, and 1939), the Cantata Profana (1930, Bartok declared that this was the work he felt and professed to be his most personal "credo" (Szabolcsi 1974, 186), the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), the Concerto for Orchestra (1943) and the Third Piano Concerto (1945).
Bartok also made a lasting contribution to the literature for younger students: for his son Peter's music lessons, he composed Mikrokosmos, a six-volume collection of graded piano pieces.
Paul Wilson lists as the most prominent characteristics of Bartok's music from late 1920s onwards the influence of the Carpathian basin and European art music, and his changing attitude toward (and use of) tonality, but without the use of the traditional harmonic functions associated with major and minor scales (Wilson 1992, 2–4).
Although Bartok claimed in his writings that his music was always tonal, he rarely uses the chords or scales of tonality, and so the descriptive resources of tonal theory are of limited use. George Perle (1955) and Elliott Antokoletz (1984) focus on alternative methods of signaling tonal centers, via axes of inversional symmetry. Others view Bartok's axes of symmetry in terms of atonal analytic protocols. Richard Cohn (1988) argues that inversional symmetry is often a byproduct of another atonal procedure, the formation of chords from transpositionally related dyads. Atonal pitch-class theory also furnishes the resources for exploring polymodal chromaticism, projected sets, privileged patterns, and large set types used as source sets such as the equal tempered twelve tone aggregate, octatonic scale (and alpha chord), the diatonic and heptatonia secunda seven-note scales, and less often the whole tone scale and the primary pentatonic collection (Wilson 1992, 24–29).
He rarely used the simple aggregate actively to shape musical structure, though there are notable examples such as the second theme from the first movement of his Second Violin Concerto, commenting that he "wanted to show Schoenberg that one can use all twelve tones and still remain tonal" (Gillies 1990, 185). More thoroughly, in the first eight measures of the last movement of his Second Quartet, all notes gradually gather with the twelfth (G♭) sounding for the first time on the last beat of measure 8, marking the end of the first section. The aggregate is partitioned in the opening of the Third String Quartet with C♯–D–D♯–E in the accompaniment (strings) while the remaining pitch classes are used in the melody (violin 1) and more often as 7–35 (diatonic or "white-key" collection) and 5–35 (pentatonic or "black-key" collection) such as in no. 6 of the Eight Improvisations. There, the primary theme is on the black keys in the left hand, while the right accompanies with triads from the white keys. In measures 50–51 in the third movement of the Fourth Quartet, the first violin and cello play black-key chords, while the second violin and viola play stepwise diatonic lines (Wilson 1992, 25). On the other hand, from as early as the Suite for piano, Op. 14 (1914), he occasionally employed a form of serialism based on compound interval cycles, some of which are maximally distributed, multi-aggregate cycles (Martins 2004; Gollin 2007).
Erno Lendvai (1971) analyses Bartok's works as being based on two opposing tonal systems, that of the acoustic scale and the axis system, as well as using the golden section as a structural principle.
Milton Babbitt, in his 1949 critique of Bartok's string quartets, criticized Bartok for using tonality and non tonal methods unique to each piece. Babbitt noted that "Bartok's solution was a specific one, it cannot be duplicated" (Babbitt 1949, 385). Bartok's use of "two organizational principles"—tonality for large scale relationships and the piece-specific method for moment to moment thematic elements—was a problem for Babbitt, who worried that the "highly attenuated tonality" requires extreme non-harmonic methods to create a feeling of closure (Babbitt 1949, 377–78).
The cataloguing of Bartok's works is somewhat complex. Bartok assigned opus numbers to his works three times, the last of these series ending with the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, Op. 21 in 1921. He ended this practice because of the difficulty of distinguishing between original works and ethnographic arrangements, and between major and minor works. Since his death, three attempts—two full and one partial—have been made at cataloguing. The first, and still most widely used, is Andras Szollosy's chronological Sz. numbers, from 1 to 121. Denijs Dille subsequently reorganised the juvenilia (Sz. 1–25) thematically, as DD numbers 1 to 77. The most recent catalogue is that of Laszlo Somfai; this is a chronological index with works identified by BB numbers 1 to 129, incorporating corrections based on the Bela Bartok Thematic Catalogue.Bartok, Bela. 1994. Bartok at the Piano. Hungaroton 12326. 6-CD set.
Bartok, Bela. 1995a. Bartok Plays Bartok – Bartok at the Piano 1929–41. Pearl 9166. CD recording.
Bartok, Bela. 1995b. Bartok Recordings from Private Collections. Hungaroton 12334. CD recording.
Bartok, Bela. 2003. Bartok Plays Bartok. Pearl 179. CD recording.
Bartok, Bela. 2007. Bartok: Contrasts, Mikrokosmos. Membran/Documents 223546. CD recording.
Bartok, Bela. 2008. Bartok Plays Bartok. Urania 340. CD recording.