Bartók, Béla (1881–1945)

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BARTÓK, BÉLA (1881–1945)


Hungarian composer, pianist, and ethnomusicologist.

Béla Bartók's art emerged from the search for an inner, spiritual voice in an attempt to confront the anxieties, both personal and communal, that he experienced as an artist living in twentieth-century Europe. As a result of a disease, Bartók was isolated from his peers during the first years of his life. His father died when he was seven, and his mother, an elementary school teacher, could provide for the family only with difficulty. This background—loneliness, isolation, the discomfort of illness, a religious-moral ideal of hard work, and a longing for an ideal "wholeness"—defined Bartók's inner world both as a pianist and as a composer.

After he graduated from the Academy of Music in Budapest, Bartók quickly became known in Hungary for his heroic-nationalistic symphonic compositions, but he soon grew disenchanted with this style and its message. After a compositional crisis, he set out, at Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodály's suggestion, on field trips in mainland Hungary (1906) and Transylvania (1907). These trips were the beginning of a lifelong project, in the course of which Bartók collected, transcribed, and analyzed thousands of folk pieces of various ethnicities (including Hungarian, Rumanian, Slovakian, Ruthenian, Arabic, and Turkish) and published major ethnomusicological collections and studies. The extraordinary energy he devoted to folk music reflected not merely scholarly interest but a deeper artistic need: Bartók regarded all folk music as a spontaneous human expression and believed that its study would lead to an understanding of basic musical techniques. It was these techniques, rather than fragments of folk songs, that he integrated into his compositional style.

More importantly, the encounter with folk music provoked in Bartók a new attitude toward emotional expression. Bartók realized that his artistic goal was to grasp in music complex emotions that reflected the polarity of thoughts and feelings, not only positive emotions but also anxiety, confusion, and ambivalence. The impetus for this aesthetic came partly from folk music (which, as he himself noted, can express complex feelings in simple forms) and partly from the modernist milieu in Budapest that included the era's leading artistic and intellectual personalities, as well as from his readings, particularly the poetry of Endre Ady and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Between 1908 and 1920, each major work explored novel techniques and ideas within this basic aesthetic orientation. The opera Bluebeard's Castle (1911) is a Freudian exploration of the soul through the metaphor of folk-inspired nocturnal "landscapes," while the pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin (1918–1919; orchestrated 1923–1924) integrates folk music elements into a dissonant style, evoking the clash between primeval or sincere passions and those of the modern city.

In the 1920s and 1930s, European art moved in two sharply contrasting directions: toward neoclassicism, on the one hand, and toward a complete dissolution of forms (abstract art), on the other. Bartók's music from 1920, and even more markedly from 1926, integrates these tendencies. Although it underwent significant stylistic changes (for example, a more explicit use of baroque techniques from 1926), Bartók's music from these two decades shows an underlying emotional and aesthetic basis. There is a return to traditional forms and techniques, but below the surface these pieces are actually more expressionistic than his previous music (their visionary character was noticed already by contemporary critics). As the titles and texts of works from this period suggest (such as "The Music of the Night" and "Chase," from the series Out of Doors [1926], or the text of the 1930 Cantata profana), the pieces capture an intense emotional "story" whose basis is an imaginary journey through the dark fears of the soul in search for an ideal world that is pure, simple, and positive. This underlying theme is perceivable also in works to which Bartók did not supply words, such as Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936) or the fifth and sixth string quartets (1934 and 1939). In order to recount this "story," Bartók used varied means of artistic expression, including irony and playfulness. This hidden story, which is more fundamental to the message of the works than the classical forms that cloak them, expresses both Bartók's childhood memories and a European modernist experience, both a belief in and longing for wholeness and the realization that wholeness is impossible in the modern world.

Fleeing the Nazi regime, Bartók emigrated to the United States in 1940. The trauma of emigration and his advancing illness brought him to a creative crisis; he was not able to compose for more than three years. The last works—Concerto for Orchestra (1943), Piano Concerto no. 3 (1945), Sonata for Violin (Solo Sonata; 1944)—bespeak fantasy but also confusion: each points in a different direction, and it is unclear which one he would have followed had he remained alive. Bartók left behind an unfinished and fragmented oeuvre, a beautiful and intense exploration of the human condition in the twentieth century.

See alsoModernism.


Frigyesi, Judit. Béla Bartók and Turn-of-the-Century Budapest. Berkeley, Calif., 1998.

Gillies, Malcolm. Bartók Remembered. New York and London, 1991.

Leafstedt, Carl S. Inside Bluebeard's Castle: Music and Drama in Béla Bartók's Opera. New York and Oxford, U.K., 1999.

Lendvai, Ernö. Béla Bartók: An Analysis of His Music. London, 1971.

Somfai, László. Béla Bartók: Composition, Concepts, and Autograph Sources. Berkeley, Calif., 1996.

Stevens, Halsey. The Life and Music of Béla Bartók. 3rd ed. New York, 1993.

Tallián, Tibor. Béla Bartók: The Man and His Work. Translated by Gyula Gulyas. Budapest, 1981.

Judit Frigyesi