Béla Bartók

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Béla Bartók (1927)
Bronze statue on Place d'Espagne in Brussels

Béla Bartók ( Hungarian Bartók Béla [ ˈbɒrtoːk ˈbeːlɒ ]; * March 25, 1881 in Groß-Sankt-Nikolaus / Nagyszentmiklós , Austria-Hungary ; †  September 26, 1945 in New York ) was a Hungarian composer , pianist and ethnomusicologist and is considered one the most important representatives of the modern age.

Short biography

Bartók's father, Béla Bartók the Elder (1855–1888), was the director of an agricultural school and played the cello in an amateur orchestra. The mother, Paula Bartók, née Voit (1857–1939), was a teacher. Bartók had a younger sister named Elza (1885–1955). After the early death of the father in 1888, the mother took over the education alone and gave Bartók his first piano lessons. From 1893 he received music and composition lessons in Pressburg . From 1899 Bartók studied piano and composition in Budapest . From 1908 to 1934 he was professor for piano at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest. In 1909 he married Márta Ziegler, with her he had their son Béla, born in 1910. The marriage was divorced in 1923, in the same year he married his piano student Ditta Pásztory . From this marriage in 1924 there was a son, Péter. In 1940 Bartók emigrated to the USA before fascism , where he died of leukemia in New York in 1945 after a long illness . Initially buried in New York, his body was transferred in 1988 and buried in the Farkasréti Cemetery in Budapest as part of a state funeral .

In addition to composing, Bartók dealt mainly with the systematic collection of folk songs . He undertook extensive journeys through Hungary , Romania , Slovakia , Transylvania and the Middle East and collected over 10,000 songs, which he phonographed or recorded directly in writing. He spoke and wrote several foreign languages, including German, English, French and Russian. Bartók joined the Unitarian Church in 1916, and his son later became President of the Hungarian Unitarian Church.

Childhood and early years

Bartók spent his childhood in the Kingdom of Hungary of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was divided up by the Treaty of Trianon after the First World War . After his father's death in 1888, Bartók lived with his mother in Nagyszőllős (now Wynohradiw , Ukraine) and Beszterce ( Bistritz ) before he moved to Pozsony (Pressburg, now Bratislava , Slovakia) for secondary school . Very early on was Bartók's extraordinary musical talent and his perfect pitch on. His mother encouraged him musically from an early age. She reported: “When he was four years old, he struck the popular songs on the piano with one finger; He knew forty songs, and if we said the beginning of a song, he could play the song straight away. ”Bartók, like Mozart , began with small compositions just as early . Bartók's mother continued: “When he heard about the Danube at school, he set the course of the Danube from the source to the mouth of the Black Sea to music ; I wrote that, like his other little pieces, in notes with his help. ”Bartók made his first public appearance when he was eleven. At a charity concert in Nagyszöllös he played, among others, a set of a Beethoven - Sonata and its course of the Danube .

At the age of twelve, Bartók was already playing Beethoven's violin sonatas and Mendelssohn's violin concerto in Beszterce . However, his tendency to all kinds of illnesses was noticed early on, which was to accompany him for a lifetime and was also responsible for his early death.

Early work

Bartók later began to study piano under Liszt's student István Thomán and composition under Hans Koessler . However Koesslers teaching him came soon be too conservative and regimented on. At the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest he met Zoltán Kodály around 1905 . This brought Bartók to the systematic study of folk music. From then on he worked with Kodály. This activity had a lasting influence on Bartók's artistic style. Up to this point in time, he had primarily associated Hungarian folk music with the music performed by Roma in the cities, such as was processed by Franz Liszt in the Hungarian Rhapsodies or by Johannes Brahms in the Hungarian Dances , and so on Had gained international popularity.

It soon turned out that these were more romantic, newly composed art songs . Bartók, on the other hand, was looking for the original music of the rural population, which he himself called "peasant music". Bartók had already written an extensive orchestral work called Kossuth in 1903 . This work falls into the phase of heightened national awareness of Bartók and is dedicated to Lajos Kossuth , the hero of the Hungarian revolution in 1848. The popular, romantic Hungarian style is still used here , which Bartók considered to be "original Hungarian" at the time. This is due to the fact that the composer felt strongly obliged in his early work to write nationally influenced Hungarian music.

Bartók's heightened national awareness must be seen in the context of social trends of the time. Large parts of the Hungarian population even felt that Hungary was largely independent after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (which was only coordinated with Austria in matters of foreign policy and the armed forces) as Austrian rule. Accordingly, German fashion was not well received by wealthy families, where it was chic to speak German (Bartók also complained about this in a letter) and the excessive orientation of the cultural industry (e.g. in Budapest) on Austria and Germany.

Bartók, like many other artists across Europe, was looking for a national style of music. This should draw from the old what was still to be discovered and at the same time create something new. While the young Bartók wrote “Down with the Habsburgs !” On his letters around 1900 , appeared demonstratively dressed in Hungarian at the German-friendly Budapest Music Academy and wanted to “serve the Hungarian nation, the Hungarian homeland” with his work throughout his life (so in a letter from 1903 ), he was later no longer interested in mere "Hungarian drudgery". Especially through his intensive music-ethnological research, especially in Eastern Europe, but also in Turkey and North African countries, he recognized how little regional cultures can be limited to nationality and the mutual influence they have always had. In a letter to his Romanian friend Octavian Beu from 1931 it says: "My real idea [...] is the fraternization of peoples [...] I try to serve this idea [...] in my music".

Influences on Bartók's music

The music of Richard Strauss , whom Bartók met in 1902 at the Hungarian premiere of Also sprach Zarathustra in Budapest, initially had a great influence on his orchestral work. However, the romantic exuberance soon seemed out of date to him. In contrast, the music of Franz Liszt left a more lasting impression .

Folk music and folk songs exerted a particular influence . Bartók was particularly fascinated by their simplicity and sometimes raw directness. In addition, he saw in the use of diatonic tone formulas beyond the major - minor system (for example from Doric , Mixolydian scales) or the pentatonic , as it is used almost everywhere in original folk music, a creative push towards a new, own harmonic style. In Bartók's work, inspiration from folk music or archaic tonalities never led to simple folklorism . Like many other composers of the 20th century, he was looking for a tonal language that would mark a new beginning compared to the music of the Romantic era , but not negate traditions. Bartók therefore thought little of twelve-tone music. In addition to the already mentioned pentatonic and diatonic scales , he also used bitonality and placed great emphasis on rhythmic diversity (like Igor Stravinsky ). For example, orchestras of his time initially had great difficulties with the odd rhythms composed by Bartók and borrowed from folk music.

For his piano music, in addition to the early departure from the romantic world of sound and expression, it was important that the piano no longer represented a melody, but a rhythm instrument with novel timbres and mixtures. The music of French composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel also had a strong influence on Bartók. He then used impressionist timbres in music for string instruments, percussion and celesta . Folk music can be found explicitly in the dance suite or in the 1st string quartet.

Bartók's professional development

Bartók was an excellent pianist and initially aimed for a career as such. But already in 1907 he got a job as a professor at the Royal Academy . This made it possible for him to stay in Hungary instead of having to tour Europe as a pianist. His students included Fritz Reiner , Irma Schaichet , Sir Georg Solti , György Sándor , Ernö Balogh and Lili Kraus .

In 1907/08, the 1st Violin Concerto was the composition of one of Bartók's most personal works. At that time, an unhappy love for the almost 20-year-old violinist Stefi Geyer seized him. He dedicated his first violin concerto to her and gave her the score. Geyer never played the concerto in public and kept the manuscript under lock and key for almost half a century. During this time nobody saw the score, it was thought to be lost at times. A few years before her death, Stefi Geyer decided that the work should be performed after her death and confided her secret to Paul Sacher . Geyer died in 1956. The score was given to Paul Sacher, the director of the Basel Chamber Orchestra and later patron of the arts , with whom Bartók had been in close contact since the 1930s. This, in turn, brought to light a strange coincidence: Bartók's Stefi motif from three thirds [D – F sharp – A – C sharp] was identical to a central motif in Willy Burkhard's violin concerto, which was completed in 1943 and dedicated to Geyer and Sacher. In 1958, Bartók's Violin Concerto was finally premiered .

Bartók was unfit for service in the kuk Wehrmacht. However, from 1915 to 1918, together with the conductor and composer Bernhard Paumgartner, he was responsible for collecting soldiers' songs in the music department of the war press office of the Austro-Hungarian War Ministry. Bartók worked in Budapest and was responsible for the transleithan part of the Habsburg dual monarchy, while Paumgartner worked in Vienna and was responsible for the cisleithan part. Together they published a songbook for soldiers for the Austro-Hungarian Wehrmacht, which saw several editions. Bartók's colleague in the music department in Budapest was his friend and composer Zoltán Kodály .

Bartók and Márta Ziegler married in 1909. Their son Béla junior was born in 1910. In 1911 Bartók wrote his only opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle , which he dedicated to his wife. This work was his contribution to a competition organized by the Hungarian Royal Commission for Fine Arts. But the latter rejected the work on the flimsy reason that it was unplayable. Behind this justification was the conservatism of the ore house of Habsburg and thus probably also a fear of the new. What was new was the unusual dramaturgy: the comparatively short one-act play (playing time around 60 minutes) is basically a continuous dialogue between only two characters (Bluebeard and Judith). The simple way of singing, by opera standards, is also striking: it is sometimes song-like and strongly influenced by the peculiarities of Hungarian prosody . The opera had never been performed until 1918, when the royal government put Bartók under pressure to remove the name of the librettist Béla Balázs from the program for political reasons. Bartók refused and dropped the premiere into the water. On May 24, 1918, the work was finally performed to great acclaim. For the rest of his life, Bartók was critical of the Hungarian government. In 1919 Bartók joined the Music Directorate of the Hungarian Soviet Republic , which also included Zoltán Kodály.

Out of his disappointment with the Commission for Fine Arts, he composed less over the next two or three years and concentrated more on building up a collection of Hungarian folk songs. The main result was the 1922/1923 The Hungarian Folk Song (original title: A magyar népdal , also published in German and English). However, this is not a mere anthology of Hungarian folk melodies and texts, but a scientifically oriented attempt to systematize melodies according to type, approximate age and regional occurrence. To do this, Bartók made use of a huge treasure trove of around 3,000 melodies and texts, most of which were listened to by himself, but also by other researchers, directly from the rural population. During this field research , the melodies were either phonographed and later transcribed or notated directly on site. The collection of folk songs and the transcription of his phonographic recordings was a task of great importance to Bartók: he recognized the regionally specific folk songs and their oral transmission as endangered (among other things by technological developments such as recording technology and radio); Furthermore, his phonographic recordings on wax cylinders were exposed to a relatively rapid physical deterioration. For the transcription, Bartók used techniques such as slow playback in order to be able to note down details in the execution.

Bartók phonographs folk songs (1907)

Apart from the territory of former Hungary, including large areas since 1945 to Romania , the Slovak Republic , the Ukraine or Serbia include Bartok's explorations led further to the Balkans , to Russia and to Turkey and North Africa . On his trip to Turkey, the outbreak of the First World War forced him to stop this and, for the time being, other expeditions in search of folk songs. Bartók devoted himself more to composing again. The ballet The Wood-Carved Prince (1914–1916) and his 2nd string quartet (1915–1917) emerged from this phase of his artistic career . The wood-carved prince made Bartók world famous.

Bartók then worked on another ballet, The Wonderful Mandarin , which in its expressive tonal language shows parallels to Igor Stravinsky . Although Bartók began work on it in 1918 and completed it in 1924, the ballet was not performed until 1926, probably mainly because of its offensive subjectprostitution , robbery and manslaughter  . After the premiere in Cologne in November 1926, the then mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, had further performances prohibited due to moral concerns.

Bartók divorced Márta in 1923 and married his piano student Ditta Pásztory . Bartók's second son Péter was born in 1924. For Péter's music lessons, Bartók composed a six-volume collection of piano works graded according to degree of difficulty, which is still used as a microcosm by piano students.

Emigration and later professional career

Due to the outbreak of the Second World War and the gradually deteriorating political situation in Europe, Bartók was inclined to leave Hungary. He strongly condemned National Socialism . After the National Socialists took power in Germany, he refused to continue performing in Germany and turned away from his publisher based in Germany. He also forbade German and Italian radio stations in 1937 to continue broadcasting his works. When in 1938 the government of Hungary enacted “Jewish laws” at the request of the Nazi state , 61 prominent Hungarian celebrities signed a protest against it, effective in the media but unsuccessfully. In addition to Béla Bartók, they also included Zoltán Kodály and Zsigmond Móricz . His liberal views put him in great trouble with right-wing Hungary. The fear that his homeland could become a German colony drove Bartók “away from the neighborhood of this polluted country” and in 1940 prompted him to “leap into the unknown from the known unbearable”. In August 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war, he stayed in Saanen, Switzerland, as a guest of Paul Sacher, on whose behalf he wrote his last string quartet and a divertimento for string orchestra. After he had already sent his manuscripts to the USA , he emigrated to America with his wife. Péter followed them two years later. Béla Bartók Jr. however, stayed in Hungary.

Bartók was not directly banned as a composer in Germany, but it was not welcomed when his works were performed. Little is known that the conductor Hans Rosbaud recorded a few small orchestral works with the orchestra for the Reichsender Frankfurt in 1943. A sound document has been preserved in the archive of the Hessischer Rundfunk, which was issued on the occasion of an “open day” at the end of the 1990s. (A special type of record that was used for radio broadcasts.) Oswald Kabasta has also repeatedly put his works on the programs of the Munich Philharmonic .

Bartók did not feel comfortable in the USA and found it difficult to continue writing. He was also hardly known in the USA, and there was little interest in his works, although his Hungarian compatriot, the pianist Andor Földes , who also emigrated to the USA, repeatedly advocated Bartók's work in his concerts. Bartók and his wife gave piano lessons, including concerts, and were temporarily engaged in research on Serbian folk songs. At Harvard University , Bartók gave some lectures (the Harvard Lectures ); among other things about composing in the 20th century. These are documented as sound recordings at Harvard University and excerpts are quoted as transcripts in various specialist publications. Nevertheless, the family's financial situation and Bartók's health were in a grave state. The diagnosis of his progressive leukemia disease, which among other things led to constant fever, was hidden from him by his doctors to the last, although he suspected the seriousness of his condition.

Bartók's grave in Budapest
Commemorative plaque in Szeged

From 1943 onwards there was a final clearing up of Bartók's life in the USA, which was marked by illness and financial difficulties. The American Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers ( ASCAP ) made it possible for him to receive medical treatment and cure. Sergei Kussewizki commissioned him with an orchestral work, Yehudi Menuhin asked for a viola sonata, William Primrose a concerto for viola and his publisher, Ralph Hawkes , asked for a 7th string quartet.

The commissioned work for Sergei Kusewizki , the Concerto for Orchestra , was perhaps Bartók's best-known work. Bartók found some strength to compose and then began with his cool and almost neo-classical 3rd piano concerto , the viola concerto and his 7th string quartet. But the work turned into a race against death. The viola concerto remained unfinished and was later completed by his student Tibor Serly . The work on the 7th string quartet broke off after a few bars.

Bartók's apartment was in Manhattan at 309 West 57th Street for the last few years of his life . There he died of leukemia on September 26, 1945 . An English-language plaque and a bronze bust were later attached to the house.

The composer was first buried in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale (New York). It was not until 1988, given the political thaw in Hungary, that the remains could be transferred to Budapest and buried there on July 7, 1988 as part of a state funeral in the Farkasrét cemetery.

Musical meaning

Music Mile Vienna

Bartók is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century, without being classified as part of the musical avant-garde , which includes composers such as Charles Ives , Edgar Varèse , Arnold Schönberg , Anton Webern , Alexander Wassiljewitsch Mossolow and Olivier Messiaen . His musical language includes Hungarian folk music, but combines it with the achievements of modern music. Bartók uses all twelve tones while maintaining a modal character. Especially in the field of chamber music , Bartók's compositions are among the best in 20th century music; for example the string quartets , the violin sonatas or the sonata for violin alone .

It is also noteworthy that Bartók composed didactic works that are not only suitable for instrumental lessons, but also for the concert hall or sound recordings. This applies in particular to the duos for two violins and pieces from the microcosm for piano. The duos for two violins were performed by world-class violinists such as Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman in the concert hall and recorded in the recording studio. Here are pieces that, in terms of playing technique, are among the simplest in violin literature, musically at almost the same level as the technically difficult works of concert literature for violin.

Bartók's piano piece Allegro barbaro became known to wider audiences in the adaptation of the music group Emerson, Lake and Palmer on their debut album.

A few years after Bartók's death, the film industry began to take an interest in his works, and so from the 1950s onwards some of his pieces were repeatedly used as film music for cinema and TV productions , for example the third part of the music for string instruments, percussion and Celesta in Stanley Kubrick's Shining (1980).

In 1935 he was granted honorary membership of the International Society for Contemporary Music ISCM . In 1984, Bartók was posthumously awarded the Grammy Trustees Award for his special importance in music .

The asteroid (4132) Bartók , discovered on March 12, 1988, was named after him in 1989. The same has been true for the Bartók Glacier in Antarctica since 1961 .


The archive is located in the Erdődy-Hatvany Palace in Budapest.

Stage works

Orchestral works


Chamber music

  • 1908: 1st string quartet
  • 1915–1917: 2nd string quartet
  • 1921: 1st sonata for violin and piano
  • 1922: 2nd sonata for violin and piano
  • 1927: 3rd string quartet
  • 1928: 4th string quartet
  • 1931: 44 duos for two violins
(Continuation of chamber music)
  • 1934: 5th string quartet
  • 1937: Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion
  • 1938: Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano
  • 1939: 6th string quartet
  • 1944: Sonata for solo violin

Piano works

  • 1900: 4 piano pieces
  • 1908: 14 bagatelles
  • 1908: For children . 85 pieces based on Hungarian and Slovak folk songs
  • 1911: Allegro barbaro
  • 1913: 18 easy pieces
  • 1915: 6 Romanian folk dances
  • 1916: Suite op.14
  • 1914–1918: 15 Hungarian peasant dances
  • 1926: 9 small piano pieces
  • 1926: outdoors (Szabadban)
  • 1926: piano sonata
  • 1926–1937: microcosm . 153 pieces
  • approx. 1900: village scenes

Vocal works

  • 1898 ff .: songs with piano
  • 1912: 4 old Hungarian folk songs for mixed choir
  • 1924: Dorfszenen - collection of five works for voice and piano
  • 1930: Cantata profana - Die Zauberhirsche for tenor, baritone, double choir and orchestra
  • 1935: From the old days for three-part mixed choir


  • 1924: The Hungarian Folk Song
  • 1923: The folk music of the Romanians of Maramures
  • 1935: The melodies of the Romanian Colinde
  • 1936: Why and how we collect folk music.
  • 1937: Folk song research and nationalism


  • Elliott Antokoletz: Béla Bartók . Garland, New York 1997.
  • Péter Bartók: My Father . Bartók Records, Homosassa / Fla 2002.
  • Pierre Citron : Bartók . Seuil, Paris 1994.
  • Everett helmet : Béla Bartók . Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 1981.
  • Lajos Lesznai : Béla Bartók. His life - his works . German publishing house for music, Leipzig, 1961.
  • Tadeus A. Zieliński: Bartók. Life work sound world . Munich Mainz 1989.
  • József Ujfalussy: Béla Bartók. Translated from the Hungarian by Sophie and Robert Boháti. Corvina, Budapest 1973.

Web links

Commons : Béla Bartók  - album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography: Béla Bartók
  2. a b c Bence Szabolcsi: Béla Bartók . Leipzig, 1981, p. 9 and p. 11.
  3. ^ Béla Bartók: The Hungarian folk song (ethnomusicological writings-facsimile reprints) . D. Dille (Ed.), Mainz 1965, p. 17.
  4. ^ Bence Szabolcsi: Béla Bartók . Leipzig, 1981, p. 26.
  5. Bence Szabolsci: Bela Bartok. Way and work - writings and letters . Budapest, 1957, p. 265.
  6. Peter Hollfelder: The great manual of piano music .
  7. Maria Stader : Take my thanks. Memories. Retold by Robert D. Abraham. Munich, 1979, pp. 120-121.
  8. Herbert Gantschacher : Witness and victim of the apocalypse . Exhibition catalog on Viktor Ullmann's military service in the First World War and the influence on his musical work. Arnoldstein / Vienna / Salzburg / Prora 2007–2008.
  9. a b Peter Bartók: My father. Homosassa (FL): Bartók Records, 2002.
  10. ^ Peter Petersen : "Béla Bartók." In: Lexicon of persecuted musicians from the Nazi era , Hamburg 2009 ( http://www.lexm.uni-hamburg.de/object/lexm_lexmperson_00002543 ).
  11. ^ Georg Kastner: Hungary: Between adaptation and rebellion. In GR Ueberschär: Handbook on Resistance to National Socialism and Fascism in Europe 1933/39 to 1945. de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2011, p. 62
  12. Hans-Werner Boresch: A leap into the unknown from the known unbearable - musicians in exile . In: Program for the performance of the German Miserere [by Paul Dessau] in Wuppertal and Solingen on November 21 and 23, 1993 . (Editor: Mechthild von Schoenebeck), pp. 8–16.
  13. 80 years of Bartók in Saanen Paul Sacher Foundation , August 11, 2019.
  14. ^ Bence Szabolcsi: Béla Bartók . Leipzig, 1981, p. 107.
  15. ^ Bence Szabolcsi: Béla Bartók . Leipzig, 1981, p. 109.
  16. Peter Petersen: "The tonality in the instrumental work of Béla Bartók." Wagner, Hamburg 1971.
  17. Film music for Shining. Internet Movie Database , accessed May 22, 2015 .
  18. ^ Honorary members. iscm.org, accessed August 2020 (American English).
  19. ^ Grammy Trustees Award - Grammys Trustees Award Winners. awardsandshows.com, accessed August 2020 .
  20. MINOR PLANET CIRCULARS and MINOR PLANETS AND COMETS. Minor Planet Center - Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, September 15, 1989, accessed August 2020 .