Béla Bartók


(1881- 1945)

I was born on 25 March, 1881, in the town of Nagyszentmiklós that now, together with virtually all of the county of Torontál, belongs to Roumania. I received my very first piano lessons from my mother, when I was in my sixth year. My father, who was the director of an agricultural school, possessed considerable musical talents: he played the piano, he organized an amateur orchestra, he learned to play the cello, so he could participate as a cellist in his own orchestra, and he even composed dance music pieces. I was eight years old when I lost him. After his death my mother struggled to earn our daily bread as a schoolteacher; we first wound up in Nagyszöllős (today on Czechoslovak territory), then in Beszterce, in Transylvania (now on Roumanian territory), and finally, in 1893, in Pozsony [Bratislava], (now on Czechoslovak territory). Since I composed some small piano pieces while still nine years old, and in Nagyszöllős I appeared before the public in 1891 both as a composer and as a pianist, it was very important for us to be able to live in a larger town. In those days the musical life of Pozsony, among rural Hungarian towns, was the most lively and this made it possible that in my fifteenth year I could be taught piano and harmony by László Erkel (the son of Ferenc). On the other hand, I could participate in some, more or less good, opera and orchestral performances. I did not miss chamber music either, so that by the time I reached the age of eighteen, I had become relatively quite well acquainted with the musical literature from Bach to Brahms (although Wagner only up to Tannhauser). Meanwhile I was composing diligently, under the strong influence of Brahms and Dohnányi, who was four years my senior. Of particular influence for me was Dohnányi’s opus 1 (Piano Quintet No.1).

Once I completed high school, the important question arose: at which music academy should I continue my musical studies. In those days at Pozsony the Conservatory of Vienna was regarded as the sole fortress of musical studies. Nevertheless, I chose to follow Dohnányi’s advice and, rather, came to Budapest, where I became the pupil of István Thomán (piano) and János Koessler (composition). I remained here from 1899 all through 1909. Promptly after my arrival I began examining the works of Wagner not yet familiar to me (the Tetralogy, Tristan, the Meistersingers), as well as Liszt’s orchestra compositions. During this period I myself created virtually nothing. Having escaped from the Brahmsian style, I could not find the new road I longed for through either Wagner or Liszt. (I did not yet fully appreciate Liszt’s true significance in the further development of musical art; I saw only the outward appearances in his works). Consequently, for about two years I did no work at all and was recognized at the Music Academy only as a brilliant pianist.

As if by a stroke of lightning, I was elevated out of this stagnation by the first performance of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in Budapest (in 1902). This work, that was received with horror by the musicians here, filled me with the greatest enthusiasm; for once I saw again a direction in which something new was hidden. Promptly, I started studying the scores of Strauss and I began to compose again. There was another circumstance that exerted a decisive influence on my development: those were the times of the familiar nationalistic movement that spread over to the field of the arts. The idea was to create also in music something typically Hungarian. This movement touched me also and directed my attention towards our folk music; or, to put it better, towards what was then regarded as Hungarian folk music.

It was under these various influences that I composed in 1903 a symphonic poem titled “Kossuth”, that was immediately accepted for performance by János Richter, in Manchester (in February, 1904). A violin sonata and a piano quintet were also created around these times. These three works are still unpublished as of today. We may categorize into this period the “Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra” (Opus 1), composed in 1904, that I also entered for the Parisian Rubinstein-award, although without success, in 1905, as well as the first “Suite for Large Orchestra” of 1905.

Aside from this, meanwhile the magic of Richard Strauss became dispersed. A deeper study of Liszt — particularly in his less popular creations, such as the “Années de Pélerinage”, the “Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses”, in the “Faust” symphony, in the “Totentanz” and elsewhere — , after traversing some less admirable trappings, led to the essence of the matter: finally the real significance of this artist became revealed to me. As far as the future development of musical art was concerned, I sensed his works to be of greater significance than, for instance, those of Wagner or Strauss.

Besides, I discovered that the Hungarian songs mistakenly regarded as folk songs — that are in reality more or less trivial merely popular art songs — do not provide much of interest. Consequently I commenced the search in 1905 toward the study of peasant music, that was until then virtually unknown. In this field I was fortunate to find an excellent collaborator in Zoltán Kodály who, thanks to his vision and power of judgment, was on numerous occasions of immeasurable help to me through his warnings and advices in all branches of music.

The study of all this peasant music was of decisive meaning to me, because it opened the door to the liberation from the former tyranny of the major and minor systems. Because the bulk, and also most valuable portion of the collected melodic treasure is based on the old religious scales, that is, on ancient Greek, and even more primitive (specifically pentatonic) scales, while also containing the greatest variety of the most liberated rhythmic patterns and meter changes, in both a kind of rubato, as well as tempo giusto performances. Thus it became proven that the old scales that are no longer used in our art music have not lost their vitality. Their renewed application made possible a new kind of harmonic combinations. The employment of the diatonic scale in this manner led to a liberation from the petrified major and minor systems with the end result that today every step of the chromatic twelve tone system can be freely utilized on its own.

I regarded my appointment in 1907 to the piano department of the Music Academy of Budapest favorable mainly for the reason that it enabled me to settle in Hungary, so that I could continue in the future my folkloristic research. When, also in 1907, at Kodály’s urging, I became acquainted with and started to study Debussy’s compositions, I was amazed to find some pentatonic turns, corresponding to those in our folk music, also playing a great role. We must attribute these, with doubtless certainty, to the influence of some Eastern European — probably Russian — folk music. Similar efforts can be found in the works of Igor Stravinsky. It appears therefore that our age demonstrates the same movement even in geographic locations most distant from each other: refreshment of art music with elements of peasant music that were left untouched in the creations of the latest centuries.

Those of my works, beginning with Opus 4, which intended to express the very concept outlined above, brought about naturally a considerable disagreement. One of the causes of the lack of appreciation may be found in the fact that our newer orchestral works were not rendered perfectly: we had neither competent conductors, nor suitable orchestras. When the fight became very pointed, a number of young musicians, including Kodály and myself, sought to establish a New Hungarian Music Society in 1911. The objective of this project was to organize an independent orchestra that was to bring about decent performances, not only of old, but also newer and even the newest music. We could not achieve this goal, however: all of our efforts remained fruitless. As a consequence, also because of other failures in my personal life, I entirely retreated from the public musical world, devoting more energies, however, to folkloristic studies. I planned a number of journeys that, under the present circumstances, would appear over ambitious: as a modest beginning, I could only realize one of these: in 1913 I visited Biskra and its surrounding areas, where I researched for peasant music. The outbreak of the war affected me painfully because — aside from the normal human reasons — it suddenly broke by the waist all research of this kind. My studies became restricted to a few areas of Hungary, where I could continue working all the way through 1918, albeit within somewhat curtailed circumstances.

The year 1917 brought about a definite turn in the Budapest public’s attitude towards my works. I was finally fortunate to be able to hear one of my major works, the dancing play titled Wood-carved Prince in a musically flawless performance, thanks to maestro Egisto Tango. He was also the conductor who performed in 1918 my older stage work for the first time, the one acter Duke Bluebeard’s Castle created in 1911.

This favorable turn was followed, sadly, by the political and economic collapse in the autumn of 1918. The turmoil associated with this, that lasted about a year and a half, was not suitable for the accomplishment of productive tasks.

We can not think of resuming the study of musical folklore even under today’s circumstances. This kind of “luxury” is not possible on our own, while research in the detached territories — partly due to political causes, partly as a result of the mutual hatred — is practically out of question. Travel to distant lands is, in any case, entirely hopeless…

Otherwise, there is not much genuine interest anywhere in the world towards this branch of musical science: who knows, perhaps it is not even as important as its fanatics believe!


* * *

Béla Bartók’s own interest in folklore research continued unabated. The results of the expeditions early in the century, with the use of the Edison type cylinder recorder, lay on storage shelves, awaiting transcription and organization. His time was occupied by the professorship at the Music Academy, recitals and participation in concerts, while he also found time to create new musical compositions. But he would have much preferred to devote more of his efforts towards folk music studies. It was in 1934 that his wish was granted: he was relieved of his duties at the Music Academy, and continued his state employment working at the Academy of Sciences, exclusively transcribing and organizing the Universal Hungarian Folk Music Collection, together with Zoltán Kodály.

His pupil and wife, Ditta Pásztory, became his partner in performing works for two pianos. In this connection he composed his spectacular Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion that they performed together, with the appropriate percussionists, first on 16 January 1938 in Basel. More joint appearances followed in Budapest, Venice, Paris; and their later journey to the U.S.A. in 1940 was initially for a concertizing tour of the country. In addition to the two piano percussion sonata, they played the Mozart E-flat two piano concerto and Sonata for two pianos, Debussy’s En blanc et noir, and pieces from the Mikrokosmos arranged for two pianos. Mrs. Bartók also played another Mozart concerto by herself.

The political situation in Europe deteriorated to the point where, in the beginning of 1939, Béla Bartók considered that soon it would be “impossible to work, or even live” in Hungary. After considering a variety of destinations that included Tierra del Fuego, he travelled to the United States of America in October, 1940, taking with him much of his manuscripts and folk music collections. On their farewell concert in Budapest on 8 October they played piano concertos by Bach (by Béla) and Mozart (by Ditta), the Mozart two piano concerto, and pieces from Mikrokosmos. A few days later they left the country, crossing the Atlantic on the U.S.S. Excalibur.

In the U.S.A. Béla Bartók found work that was very close to his heart: transcribing and organizing a large collection of Serbo-Croatian folk songs, originally collected by Milman Parry. Although he never saw it finished, the results of this work appeared in print, published by the Columbia University Press.

In 1942 he developed the first signs of leukemia, the illness that eventually took his life at the age of 64. In 1943 he started to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard University, but the series had to be abandoned on account of his physical condition. The last time he and Ditta Pásztory appeared on the concert stage together was on 21 and 22 January, 1943, in New York, in an enlarged version of the two piano percussion sonata, titled Concerto for Two Pianos with Orchestral Accompaniment, with Fritz Reiner conducting. Nevertheless, while the leukemia was in temporary remission, he composed the Concerto for Orchestra and Solo Violin Sonata.

Once the war in Europe ended, the possibility of returning to Hungary arose. Béla Bartók did leave the U.S.A., but only went as far as Montreal, Canada, thereby ending his stay as a visitor to the U.S.A. He collected another visa from the U.S. Consulate there and returned as an immigrant on 3 July, 1945 (without planning to apply for citizenship, however). On the subject of returning, he wrote: “As far as I can see it, for the time being one can not even think of going home. There would neither be means of transportation, nor (Russian) permit. But even if there was a way, I think it would be advisable to await developments. God only knows how many years it will take until the country can pull itself together somewhat (if at all). Yet I, too, would like to go home, but for good – – – –.”

In the summer of 1945 Béla Bartók very nearly completed his Third Piano Concerto (leaving two pages for orchestration), and sketched the Viola Concerto, the orchestration of which, “a purely mechanical work” (for him), he did not have a chance to do. He died in New York on 26 September 1945. Béla Bartók left for the world about 87 titles of compositions (of widely different magnitude), not counting compositions of his youth that he did not see fit for publication. And with him, in a “full trunk”, went countless other musical ideas that were already born in his mind but have not yet been written down on paper.


Homosassa, May, 2008