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Béla Bartók (March 25, 1881 - September 26, 1945) was a composer, pianist and collector of East European folk music. Bartók was one of the founders of the field of ethnomusicology.

Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklos, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania). He was taught music by his mother at an early age and he made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of ten. He later studied piano under Istvan Thoman and composition under Hans Koessler at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. There he met Zoltan Kodaly and together they collected folk music from the region. This was to have a major impact on his style. Previously, Bartók's idea of Hungarian folk music was derived from the gypsy melodies to be found in the works of Franz Liszt, and in 1903 Bartok had written a large orchestral work, Kossuth which incorporated such melodies. Upon discovering peasant folk song, which Bartók regarded as true Hungarian folk music, he began to incorporate folk songs into his own compositions and write original folk-like tunes, as well as frequently using folksy rhythmic figures.

This new style emerged over the next few years. Bartók was building a career for himself as a pianist, when in 1907 he landed a job as piano professor at the Royal Academy. This allowed him to stay in Hungary rather than having to tour Europe as a pianist, and also allowed him to collect more folk songs. His large scale orchestral works were still in the manner of Johannes Brahms or Richard Strauss, but he wrote a number of small piano pieces which show his growing interest in folk music. Probably the first piece to show clear signs of this new interest is the String Quartet No. 1 (1908), which has several folksy elements in it.

In 1911, Bartók wrote what was to be his only opera, Bluebeard's Castle. He entered it for a prize awarded by the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission, but they said it was unplayable, and rejected it out of hand. The opera remained unperformed until 1918, when Bartók was pressurised by the government to remove the name of the librettist, Béla Balázs, from the program on account of his political views. Bartók refused, and eventually withdrew the work. For the rest of his life, Bartók did not feel greatly attached to the government or institutions of Hungary, although his love affair with its folk music continued.

After his disappointment over the Fine Arts Commission prize, Bartok wrote very little for two or three years, preferring to concentrate on folk music collecting and arranging. However, the outbreak of World War I forced him to stop these expeditions, and he returned to composing, writing the String Quartet No. 2 and the ballet The Wooden Prince in 1917. It was this ballet which gave him some degree of international fame.

Bartók subsequently worked on another ballet The Miraculous Mandarin and followed this up with his two violin sonatas which are harmonically and structurally some of the most complex pieces he wrote. He wrote his third and fourth string quartets, regarded as some of the finest string quartets ever written, in 1927-28, after which his harmonic language began to become simpler. The fifth string quartet (1934) is somewhat more traditional from this point of view. Bartok wrote his sixth and last string quartet in 1939.

It was to be the last piece he wrote in Europe. In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, Bartók reluctantly moved to the USA. He did not feel comfortable there, and found it very difficult to write. His last work may well have been the string quartet no. 6, were it not for Serge Koussevitsky commissioning him to write the the Concerto for Orchestra. This seemed to reawaken his interesting in composing, and he went on to write his Piano Concerto No. 3, an airy and almost neo-classical work, and begin work on his Viola Concerto.

Béla Bartók died in New York in the United States from leukemia. He left the viola concerto unfinished at his death, which was later completed by his pupil, Tibor Serly.

Important works:

  • six string quartets
  • three violin sonatas
  • three piano concertos
  • two violin concertos
  • one viola concerto
  • Allegro barbaro for piano
  • Mikrokosmos for piano
  • Bluebeard's castle, opera
  • The Miraculous Mandarin, ballet
  • Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion
  • Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
  • Concerto for Orchestra

Along with the folk music of his native Hungary, Béla Bartók (1881-1945) amalgamated influences ranging from Debussy and Mussorgsky to Stravinsky and Schönberg. Yet he remains utterly unique, one of the indisputable masters of the century. Fascinatingly complex rhythms and resonant tone painting characterize his style.

recommended recordings
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, etc / Reiner, Chicago SO
Composer: Béla Bartók
Conductor: Fritz Reiner
Ensemble: Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bmg/Rca Victor - #61504 / August 10, 1993

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Since its release on LP in the mid-1950s, Fritz Reiner's rendition of the Concerto for Orchestra has stood as the standard against which all other recordings of the work are measured. Even after all these years, the recording remains just as convincing and authoritative. Reiner's superb control of his orchestra and of Bart—k's rhythms and textures is still unsurpassed, even by dozens of subsequent conductors in the digital age. Likewise, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta shows just...Read more

Bartók: The 6 String Quartets / Takács Quartet
Composer: Béla Bart—k
Performer: Edward Dusinberre, András [cello] Fejér, et al.
Ensemble: Takács String Quartet
Uni/London Classics - #455297 / January 13, 1998

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If chamber music suggests merely sedate and timid pleasures, let the Takács Quartet guide you through the profound experience that this medium can convey--above all in the hands of a composer as rich in imagination and innovative in temperament as Béla Bartók. In some ways his cycle of string quartets traces not only his personal creative evolution but the deeply tragic zeitgeist of half a century as well. The Takács Quartet plays with an unfaltering sense for the...Read more

Bartók: Duke Bluebeard's Castle / Kertész, Ludwig, Berry
Composer: Béla Bartók
Conductor: István Kertész
Performer: Walter Berry, Christa Ludwig
Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra
Uni/Decca - #466377 / September 14, 1999

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Bartók's lone opera has fared well on disc, and the Kertész is one of the best, even if it lacks the full bite and snap of singers emoting in their native language. Ludwig, a mezzo Judith, is convincing as a loving bride wishing to share her husband's innermost secrets, and Berry is a patient Bluebeard, saddened by her inevitable consignment to oblivion behind the seventh door. They capture the private, intimate horrors at the core of the story. Kertész conducts brilliantly,...Read more

Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin, etc / Boulez, Chicago SO
Composer: Béla Bartók
Conductor: Pierre Boulez
Ensemble: Chicago Symphony Chorus, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Uni/Deutsche Grammophon - #47747 / April 9, 1996

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The Miraculous Mandarin is, along with Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, one of the great expressions of musical savagery, and here the composer illustrates the "urban jungle." The music opens with sounds of traffic and commotion, and it's an expressionist nightmare from that point on. Three men mug a woman and force her to lure men into their den to be robbed in turn. One of them turns out to be a wealthy Chinese man whose passion for the woman is so strong that, despite being stabbed,...Read more

Bartók: Piano Concertos / Bronfman, Salonen, LA Philharmonic
Composer: Béla Bartók
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Performer: Yefim Bronfman
Ensemble: Los Angeles Philharmonic
Sony Classics - #66718 / December 12, 1995

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This is the recording of Bartók's piano concertos the world has been waiting for. Yefim Bronfman conquers not only the tremendous technical difficulties of the music, but also the widely varying moods, from the violence of the First Concerto through the otherworldly calm of the Third. Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic through the extremely difficult orchestral writing without a misstep, contributing his own powerful impulse to the music while seconding Bronfman's ideas. The...Read more

works & recordings

  • Chamber Music
    Trios, Quartets, Quintets

  • Choral
    Secular and sacred choral music. Oratorios, Masses, Partsongs, Hymns, Carols

  • Instrumental
    Sonatas, Suites, Overtures, Minuets, Variations, Transcriptions, Dance Music

  • Orchestra
    Concertos, Symphonies

  • Theatrical Works
    Ballet, Stage, Incidental Music, Film Scores

  • Vocal and Opera
    Opera, Operetta, Song, Lieder, Musical Theater
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