The world of music is rich in names that contribute to its development. Some of the musicians simply pass by; others leave a remarkable trace in music history. The composer whose biography, works, and contribution to the music the current paper is concerned with is one of those whose significance for the music development one cannot underestimate.
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Bela Bartok is one of the greatest Hungarian composers who became famous all over the world for his musical chef-oeuvres. Bela Bartok is considered to be one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century. His passion for ethnomusicology gave way to the themes, modes, and rhythmic patterns associated
with Hungarian music and other traditional folk music. He rendered his love for the native country and high respect for other nations through his distinctive and individual style of music that has found acclaim in the world. Bartok’s style is marked by the synthesis of the influence of Hungarian and traditional folk music with contemporary music. This mixture of the styles will always remain a peculiar feature of the composer’s works that we will talk about in the present paper; this is a zest of his works and at the same time a mystery we will try to unravel.
Biography of Bela Bartok
Researchers claim that creative development is always influenced by the events in the life of this or that creative person. As biography and creative activity are closely interconnected, the knowledge of the biographical facts acquires especial importance for the understanding of the author’s works. Therefore, we will start by examining Bela Bartok’s biography.
Bela Viktor Janos Batok was born on 25 March 1888, in the provincial town of Nagyszentmiklos (now called Sinnicolau (Sânmiclăuśul) Mare) that in current times lies in Rumania, just across the borders of Hungary.
Bartok’s father (his name was Bela as well) was a director of one of the numerous agricultural schools in Hungary. This was a training school where modern farming methods were taught by both theory and practice. Bartok’s father was a man of numerous talents and abilities, music among them. When the young Bartok wrote of his father, he described him as “a gifted musician who not only played the piano, and learned to play the cello so that he might play in a little amateur orchestra, but also composed dance pieces.” (Stevens 4) The elder Bartok died on 4 August 1888, when the child was only seven years old; thus it was not the father’s influence on Bela Bartok’s interests in music that led to Bartok’s choosing it as a career.
Bela Bartok’s initial exposure to music came from his mother. She played piano and the boy used to sit and listen to her play. “Paula Bartok recalled that at a year and a half he listened intently to a specific piece, smiling and nodding his head; the next day he brought her to the piano and shook his head until she played the right piece. At three he was given a drum, which he beat in time to his mother’s playing; if she changed the rhythm, he would stop momentarily and then begin again in the new rhythm. A year later he was playing from memory–with one finger–as many as forty songs.” (Stevens 4)
Music was a relief for the child; he suffered from a prominent skin rush that prevented him from mixing with other children. Being extremely embarrassed about his disease Bartok preferred listening to his mother’s play instead of going out and having fun with children of the same age. Music was a constituent part of Bela Bartok’s life from early childhood and this resulted in his demonstration of precocious ability in music at a young age showing signs of his composing ability by the age of nine.
One fact from the composer’s biography needs special attention. At the age of five, the boy developed a bronchial condition. Bartok became a subject of severe treatment indispensable cognition of which was that the boy was not permitted to sit down; he was only allowed to lie supine on the floor or on the ground. Then, it cleared out that the diagnosis made by a provincial doctor wasn’t correct and the ‘cold-water cure’ at Radegund could help the sick boy.
While recovering the boy started his musical training. According to Bartok’s mother’s recollections, the first concert that he heard was given by the amateur orchestra where his father played. This was an orchestra led by a gypsy musician and it was expected to furnish background music as the listeners of the formal concert ate and drank. When the small boy listened to the orchestra, he could not understand how people could eat when the beautiful music was being played. (Stevens 5)
After the death of the head of the family, the mother could hardly make both ends meet on her teacher’s salary. Still, she never gave up and always persisted in supporting Bela Bartok’s continued learning of music. For the next five years, the family moved from place to place, as Paula Bartok tried to obtain the best possible music instruction for Bela Bartok within her means. Finally, they settled in the Hungarian city of Pozsony.
Living in Pozsony Bela Bartok could study playing the piano under the guidance of distinguished teachers. Emo Dohnayi was the first composer under the influence of which the teenage Bela Bartok wrote chamber music copying the style of Brahms. In 1899 Bela Bartok had an opportunity to enroll at the Vienna Conservatory in Austria, which was considered to be one of the most prestigious music schools in Europe, but he chose to follow the footsteps of Emo Dohnayo in the Academy of Music at Budapest.
To some extent, this decision was influenced by the nationalist sentiments that Bela Bartok had. The thing is that at that time Hungary was a part of the Hapsburg Empire, under the rule of Austria. Many Hungarians resented their second-class status under the Austrian rule giving rise to nationalist sentiments. Bela Bartok’s pride in Hungarian ethnicity and culture was reflected in his decision not to take the more prestigious Vienna Conservatory in Austria.
While studying at the Academy of Music Bela Bartok heard the performance of Richard Strauss’s composition Also Sprach Zarathustra. This composition inspired Bela Bartok greatly and made Bartok more enthusiastic about Hungarian nationalism and his performance as a whole. In 1903 Bartok rendered this feeling in his first major work, the symphonic poem, Kossuth that paid homage to Lajos Kossuth, the hero of the Hungarian revolution of 1848.
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After graduating from the Academy of Music Bartok started his career as a concert pianist. He performed in six hundred and thirty concerts that were held in over twenty-two countries.
The year 1904 was crucial for Bartok’s career. He relocated to the Hungarian countryside in order to practice and compose. There, he heard the singing of the folk melody by the Hungarian woman and had a conversation with her. Since then Bartok started to investigate the folk music scattered throughout Hungary. Together with his fellow composer and ethnomusicologist, Zoltan Kodaly, Bartok collected recordings of Hungarian folk music. Along with it, Bartok was also interested in the folk music of Romanians, Slovakians, Serbs, Croatians, Bulgarians, Turks, and North Africans.
In 1907 he was appointed piano instructor at the Budapest Academy. Though Bela Bartok never had a burning desire to work as a teacher, he remained at that post for more than twenty-five years. Bartok’s contributions to the teaching of music are rather significant, they comprise the teaching editions of the works of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven and some pieces of music that Bartok composed for children.
When the First World War broke out Bela Bartok’s multi-ethnic interest caused him a lot of trouble. He was not free in his exploration of Slovakia and Romania any longer as these countries were not a part of Hungary at that time. Also, the situation has worsened as Bela Bartok became a subject of criticism in his native country – he was accused of the lack of patriotism by displaying interest in nations that were hostile to Hungary. His nostalgia for the ethnic diversity that existed at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire caused him to speculate about international brotherhood cutting across all wars and conflicts.
In 1909 Bela Bartok married a young piano student by the name of Marta Zeigler and was blessed with a son through this marriage in 1910. As suddenly as Bela and Marta got married, they were divorced in 1923. Bela immediately remarried another young piano student, Ditta Pasztory. A son whom they named Peter was born to them in 1924.
Bela’s religious beliefs are also worth considering. In 1916 he converted to Unitarianism and regularly attended the Unitarian Church. For some time Bela remained the head of the music committee, but failed in this role, because of his conservative and strict opinion on church music. His perspective was that in church music the only instrument to be used as the organ and no other instrument. Bela Bartok led a lonely life, as his personal philosophy was stoic and pessimistic and he held himself apart from others keeping away from the struggle for material things.
Bartok’s significance as a modern worldwide known composer was established by the beginning of the 1920 s when he published his two violin sonatas and the Dance Suite (1923).
Bela Bartok did not accept the fascist government in Hungary and, therefore, was suspended from the Academy post. He refused an award that came through the Fascist government and in the 1930s refused to perform or have his works broadcast in Nazi Germany. Most of his works produced at this time were commissioned by western countries.
The worsening political situation in Europe towards the end of the 1930s, Bartok’s political leanings, and the death of his mother caused Bela Bartok to consider leaving his loved Hungary. Before his fleeing Bela Bartok wrote:
In recent months I have been buried in certain mechanical work, partly in connection with my American tour; finally, I fell ill (not because of the work, but common influenza), and had to delay the trip… I shall arrive in New York on the 11th; on the 13th is my first (and most important) concert, with Szigeti in Washington. If the ship is delayed, it will be too bad for the concert. But this ship was the last possibility; I had to try. (Stevens 89)
He sent his manuscripts first and then in 1940 he set sail for the United States of America and became an American citizen. The was no delay and the concert was held as expected, the composer played the First Rapsody which was a success, and the Second Sonata that critics found “incomprehensible.” (Stevens 89)
Though Bartok’s life in the United States wasn’t full of pleasant events, he felt happy for the given opportunity to study a collection of Serbo-Croatian folk music at the Columbia University in Washington.
During his stay in the United States, Bela Bartok was found to be suffering from leukemia. To provide to the financial burdens that were troubling Bela Bartok, conductor Fritz Reiner and violinist Josef Szigeti managed to convince conductor Serge Koussevitzky to have his foundation commission Bela Bartok to compose an orchestral piece. This composition is the Concerto for Orchestra completed in 1943 that still remains the most popular piece of composition by Bela Bartok.
On September 26, 1945, Bela Bartok died in a New York hospital with his wife and his son sitting near him. Bela Bartok was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. The collapse of the “iron curtain” between Eastern Europe and the West in 1988, allowed his remains to be transferred and interred in Budapest.
Though these are only a few flashes on Bartok’s biography and they do not render the whole complexity of his work and career, they help us understand the origin of his works better and feel them deeply.
Works of Bela Bartok
According to Paul Wilson, a music theorist and Professor of Music Theory and Composition at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, in the US (1992), the most prominent characteristics of Bartok’s music are the influence of the folk music of rural Hungary, the whole Eastern Europe and the art music of Central and Western Europe, and his changing attitude toward tonality without the use of the traditional harmonic functions. (Wilson 2) These features are characteristic for all types of music that Bartok dedicated all his life to:
- The Concerto for Orchestra – one of the best known Bartok’s orchestral compositions, it is commissioned by Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra;
- The two Violin Concertos – important additions to the solo violin repertoire;
- The three Piano Concerts – moving works of the composer;
- The Romanian Dances – appear in various versions, including one for solo violin and string orchestra, arranged from an original piano composition.
- Music for Strings;
- The Divertimento for Strings;
- Percussion and Celesta.
All of them are frequent parts of Bartok’s concerts.
Though the composer rarely wrote for the theatre, all of his works were a success. They include:
- The opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1918);
- The ballet The Wooden Prince (1917);
- The pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin (1926).
- The Six String Quartets – extend the musical and technical range of the form that Bartok used;
- The 44 Duos for Two Violins – educational compositions;
- The Sonata for Solo Violin – follows the example of J.S. Bach;
- The Contrasts – were written in America for Szigeti, Benny Goodman;
- The Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion – experiments with the varied percussive sonorities of pianos and percussion instruments.
- Mikrokosmos – comprises six books intended to be used for teaching with the last two volumes being applicable for concert use;
- 85 Pieces for Children – are based on folk melodies.
The Concerto for Orchestra
Listening to the Concerto for Orchestra is a fascinating experience. As the music opens, I could hear a somber declamation of the harps and strings in a slow chromatic melody, which is imitated and responded to in tremolo by the violins and flutes followed by motives from the trumpets and the accompanying wind instruments, as the music accelerates into an impressive climax. Each entry is marked by upper and lower notes.
All this appeared to me as an introduction to the main part of the first movement, which starts with an energetic performance from the violins into which are, introduced the vigorous sounds of the trombone followed by a gentle rocking theme of the oboe offering dramatic flourishes. The decibel levels of the first movement are high drawing attention to it.
In comparison, the second movement is at a lower key. As the second movement begins I could hear a side drum tapping out the rhythm of the movement. The bassoons start out as a duet passage. This is followed by a pair of oboes in a duet passage, which is followed by a pair of clarinets involved in a duet passage, and then flutes followed by trumpets in a similar manner. Thus, a pair of each instrument is involved in each section making up five sections in the second movement. The music emanating from these instruments suggests that each of them is thematically different from the other, as in each passage a different interval separates the pair of instruments playing. All this leads up to a choral melody of the brass instruments. The side drum features prominently at the end of the movement again beating out the rhythm.
The third movement is a slow movement, which revolves around three themes and appears to be derived from the first movement. The musical impression of the third movement is haunting and funereal, yet there is a lightness about the third movement. The fascinating element of the third movement is the chilling blend of the wind instruments early on and the descending lines of the flutes later on with a brilliant build-up of tension that left me enthralled in it.
This mournful slow movement appears to be the cornerstone of the Concerto for Orchestra around which the other four movements are hinged, for it is the weightiest of the five movements. The contrast between the third and four movements is marked with the change from the gloomy haunting and funereal experience to the light-hearted experience in the fourth movement.
The more light-hearted fourth movement starts with a folk-like melody that emanating from an oboe and is a reflection of the fascination for folk music that Bela Bartok had. As the strings come into the picture, there is a feeling of a more pastoral subject involved. This placid music is intruded on by the clarinet, which provides a melody that sounds very much like the martial themes, and soon the whole orchestra is engulfed in this martial march theme music.
I wonder if this is suggestive and reflective of the unhappiness that war had brought into the life and work of Bela Bartok and his reply to the popularity of martial themes that were so popular in those times, which Bela Bartok considered as inferior music to his compositions. This may be reflected in Bela Bartok’s use of the barging in of the trite militaristic musical themes, to be later overcome by the simple, honest, and pure melody of Hungarian music. The taking up of the martial tune by the whole orchestra leads into the whole, which is an enjoyable and pleasurable romp by the whole orchestra. It is not long before the initial pastoral melody reasserts itself to provide a more sedate feeling to the music and a gradual end to the fourth movement.
The fifth movement is the final movement in this piece of music. The rarely-heard accelerando that the fifth movement starts with left me with my pulse rising with a desire for more and I was not disappointed. As the music continued, I felt myself looking into a pond of music from the depths of which I felt myself feeling all kinds of intricate inner music sounds I had not experienced before. These intricate music sounds are so haunting that they remain an unforgettable experience. The fourth movement closes with a colorful finale that left me with the musical flavor so distinctly Hungarian lingering in my ears a reminder of the Hungarian roots of the composer of this piece of music.
Bela Bartok stands out among the modern composers and his composition of the Concerto for Orchestra is an example of musical genius. Through the Concerto for Orchestra one not only gets to experience the musical greatness of this great composer but also a touch of Hungarian and folk music that he was so fascinated by.
Cooper, David. “Bela Bartok: Life and Work”. Music and Letters 84.4 (2003): 673-677.
Hasley, Stevens. The Life and Music of Bela Bartok. Third Edition. USA: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Wilson, Paul. The Music of Béla Bartók. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.