Personalities | Béla Bartók | Modern Era | Classical

(Ba’-la Bar’-tok) 1881–1945
Hungarian composer and pianist

Bartók’s earliest works were influenced by Johannes Brahms (1833–97), by Hungary’s famous Liszt and by Richard Strauss, then regarded as the last word in modernism. Bartók’s personal style, though, was formed by his discovery of Debussy and of Hungarian folk music.

The strongly rhythmic, percussive, sharply dissonant music that resulted, earned him a leading position among the European avant-garde. His folk-music studies, partly undertaken from patriotic motives, soon led him towards a passionate internationalism, and he reacted strongly and courageously against Nazi ideas of racial superiority. In 1940 he left Europe for America.

Diverse Influences

The influences of folk music and of Debussy are audible in Bartók’s first mature works: the First String Quartet, numerous volumes of short piano pieces (including For Children, 85 easy pieces for beginners) and his solitary opera, the one-act Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911). He was impressed by the revolutionary rhythmic language and vivid dissonance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913), and sympathetic to Schoenberg’s exploration of music without a sense of key. These influences enriched and expanded his musical language. In the Second and Third String Quartets he approached Schoenbergian atonality, but his awareness of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism and his own study of folk music led him towards inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness.

Structure and Symmetry

In his folk music studies, Bartók had discovered that Hungarian and other folk melodies often build a satisfying sense of structure by not repeating, but constantly varying melodic ideas. This became an important feature of his own music, together with a strong feeling for structure. In several of his works, for example, five movements are arranged symmetrically in an ABCBA pattern, the ‘A’ and ‘B’ sections being transformed reflections of each other, not literal repeats. He also used the ancient proportioning system of the ‘golden mean’ whereby two parts of a work or movement are divided in such a way that the ratio of the length of the shorter to the longer is the same as that of the longer to the whole. In many of his works, partly as a consequence of this, the duration of movements and sections of movements is precisely timed.

Bartók in Exile

When the Nazis promulgated their racial laws, Bartók announced that, despite the fact that most of his income from composition came from Germany, for the purposes of these laws he wished to be considered Jewish. In exile, he lived just long enough to see Hungary liberated from pro-Nazi rule. Some of his later works (the Second Violin Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra) are in a less astringent, warmly lyrical style, but he died (of leukaemia) just as these were beginning to achieve widespread popularity.

Recommended Recording:
Piano Concertos Nos. 1–3, András Schiff, Budapest Festival Orchestra (cond) Iván Fischer (Teldec)

Béla Bartók: Works

Stage works: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, opera (1911); The Wooden Prince, ballet (1917); The Miraculous Mandarin, dance pantomime (1923)...

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