Bela Bartók, born in 1881 into a Hungarian musical family, was something of a prodigy, who began composing at the age of ten. Unlike most of his peers, Bartók embarked on a study of ethnomusicology, after his graduation from the Royal Academy of Music, resulting in the composition of his symphonic poem Kossuth at the age of 22.
The folk music of Hungary was characteristic of the music of Bartók, and he blended it completely to create a distinct individual style. In his own words…”Many people think it is a comparatively easy task to write a composition on found folk tunes…This way of thinking is completely erroneous. To handle folk tunes is one of the most difficult tasks; equally difficult, if not more so, than to write a major original composition. If we keep in mind that borrowing a tune means being bound by its individual peculiarity, we shall understand one part of the difficulty. Another is created by the special character of folk tune. We must penetrate it, feel it, and bring out its sharp contours by the appropriate setting…It must be a work of inspiration just as much as any other composition.”
Romanian Folk Dances
A multi-faceted personality, Bartok was regarded as a composer, performer, educator, and ethnomusicologist and emerged as one of the acclaimed musicians of the 20th century; and his major musical works include orchestral works, string quartets, piano solos, several stage works, a cantata, and a number of settings of folk songs for voice and piano.
Bartok’s first numbered quartet at age 27, from among a series of six string quartets, had little folk influence, but the successive five quartets display a stylistic development and a fusion of traditional tonality. Bartók may well be best remembered for his six-string quartets because these works represent a summation of his compositional style and development.
At the age of 30, Bartók wrote his only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, followed by a ballet, The Wooden Prince and a pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin.
Notably, Bartok’s works were influenced not only by Hungarian folk music, but his distinctive musical idiom leveraged various elements from varied sources. This can be witnessed in masterpieces such as Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and the Concerto for Orchestra.
The novel application of rhythm and folk music infused his works with an experience rarely seen earlier, such as Allegro barbaro and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. And of course the piano collection, Mikrokosmos.
The political climate in Hungary forced him to go to America with his wife in 1940. Soon thereafter, he contracted leukaemia and died in New York in 1945. Bartok left behind a number of unrealized projects, including a Seventh String Quartet; and two major works, the Viola Concerto and the Piano Concerto No. 3.
During his lifetime, the music of Béla Bartók was not popularly performed outside of Hungary. But within two decades or so after his death, many of his compositions, including the string quartets and the Concerto for Orchestra entered the standard concert repertory; and more importantly, many of Bartók’s works were being included among the classics of Western music.
Piano Concerto No. 3 (excerpt)
The importance of his work is now recognized in four major areas of music—ethnomusicology, performance, composition and pedagogy. As an ethnomusicologist, Bartok pioneered the fusion of folk music with attention to its historical and sociological implications.
Undoubtedly, he should be credited with laying the foundations for the study of comparative musical folklore in Hungary; coupled with the publication of numerous studies on Hungarian and Romanian folk music. In the role of a pianist, he gave concerts in Europe and the United States, disseminating Hungarian music.
Most notably, Bartok the unmatchable composer, integrated the essence of Hungarian and related folk music with traditional music to achieve a nationalistic and deeply personal style. And as an ardent teacher, Bela Bartok helped train generations of pianists, locally and globally.