"It is no good asking why I wrote a passage as I did. I can only reply that I wrote down what I felt. Let the music speak for itself."
-Bartok speaking against the Schoenberg
When a man walks among giants in his own profession, it is
difficult to be noticed. But when this man takes his profession and
recreates it in a gentle wondrous way, we call this man Béla
Bartók. He composed during the magnificent years of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. His music, though less
modern than his fellow composers, fills the listener with a warm,
gentle feeling that we have come to know as Bartók. However,
he does have a modern style in
his music, and in a few instances, sounds very much like his
companions, but just as quickly as we hear his modern style, the
gentle, soothing tones of his venerable music fill our ears
Béla Bartók graced this world on March 25th, 1881 in a small Transylvanian town called Nagyszentmiklos, which is now in modern day Romania. His mother was a piano teacher, and his father did not live long after Bartók's birth. He began lessons with his mother, who brought up the family after his father's death in 1888. In 1894 Bratislava became their new home. He attended school, studied the piano with Laszlo Erkel and Anton Hyrtl, and composed sonatas and quartets. In 1898 he was accepted by the Vienna Conservatory, but decided rather to attend the Budapest Academy, where he studied the piano as a pupil of Franz Liszt as well as studying composition. He deepened his acquaintance with Richard Wagner during these times, though it was the music of Richard Strauss, who he met at the Budapest premiere, that had most influence. He wrote a symphonic poem, Kossuth, using Strauss's methods combined with Hungarian elements in Liszt's manner.
In 1907, Bartók took a tremendous step by bringing home a young sixteen year-old girl for a lesson. She stayed unusually long, and to the surprise of Bartók's mother, later that evening he told her she would be staying for dinner and that they were married. Later in 1923, he would divorce his wife, Marta, and remarry to another piano student named Ditta Pasztory. Each wife provided one child for the aging Bartók.
As a composer, Bartok took Johannes Brahms as a model, just as his friend Ernst von Dohnányi had. Many musicians have come to say that in Bartók there is a mixture of Strauss and Brahms but something purely Bartók. Later in his life he became very good acquaintances with Zoltán Kodály. Through Kodály, he was introduced to the impressionist Claude Debussy, who enthralled him. After listening to Debussy for the first time, he began work on his first String Quartet. He would add five more to the collection that has come to be known as the New Testament with Beethoven's string quartets being the Old. Nonetheless, his folk style, which he has come to be known for, did not flourish until the early 1910's and in his String Quartet #2. And a decade later, he would publish his String Quartet #3.
Bartók grew older, and his music grew better. Finally in
1940, he was forced to move to New York because of the growing
struggles in Hungary. His declining health and periods of
depression did not slow his compositions of great pieces. These
later compositions include a Concerto for Orchestra and the final
String Quartet #6. The
almost finished Third Piano Concerto was left unfinished when he
died, but would be later finished by a colleague, Tibor Serly. He
died on September 26th, 1945 as a great composer with splashes of
brilliance that few can exceed.
During the late 1910's, Bartók wrote the Wooden Prince. This piece shows the modern side of Bartók as well as the influence of the venerated Stravinsky. Stravinsky's rhythmic variations from his Rite of Spring are displayed in Bartók's Wooden Prince. In Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin, the extremes of tonality as pushed in one of his most daring pieces. Schoenberg was said to have influenced this piece with his experiments with tonality.
The 1920's brought the fame of being the greatest Hungarian composer. The increased revenue that he received allowed him to live and compose in comfort. And now with this added comfort came the brilliant music of the mature Bartók. His first two piano concertos display Bartók's increasing individuality and capabilities. In 1937, Bartók composed his most famous piece, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. In this piece he combined the melodic lines that are considered mainly traditional European with a mysterious modern fugue theme that lifts this piece into the ears of the audience.
Bartók combined various textures and major thematic
development to create a sonorous value of chords in a way that is a
tribute to Western musical heritage. His pieces are all unique and
blended, yet heavily influenced by a myriad of composers. His
Concerto for Orchestra displays his extremely folk style which some
thrilling Gypsy fiddling and compelling lyricism. The later three
movements produce some of the best melodies that Bartók has
His Famous Compositions
Bartók's most notable pieces have already been mentioned.
His Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is perhaps his best
work. His second Violin Concerto is equally invigorating. All three
of his piano concertos are stylistically and technically
challenging. One of his operas in particular, Bluebeard's Castle,
is very famous and for good reason. But many say his best set of
music are the six string quartets that he produced. The String Quartet #2 is part of
The Fifteen Greatest. The
String Quartet #6 in
particular has grown to be part the standard repertoire for many
groups. All six however show the singularity and fusion of
Bartók's greatest ability.
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