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Bela Bartok

1881 - 1945

Béla Viktor János Bartók (5 March 1881 – 26 September 1945) was a Hungarian composer and pianist. He is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century; he and Liszt are regarded as Hungary's greatest composers (Gillies 2001). Through his collection and analytical study of folk music, he was one of the founders of comparative musicology, which later became ethnomusicology.

(b. Brand, March 19, 1873; d. Leipzig, May 11, 1916)

Bela Bartok not only is the greatest composer Hungary has produced, but his music — a unique synthesis of the Western classical tradition with mid-European folk music — is one of the outstanding musical achievements of the twentieth century.


Bartok was born in Nagyszentmiklos, a small town now in Romania. His father, a teacher and amateur musician, died when Bartok was young, and his mother, Paula, had to support her family by teaching the piano. Paula Bartok was fully aware of her son's musical gifts — his earliest compositions date from his ninth year — and she finally managed to find a permanent teaching position in Poszony (now Bratislava), where she found excellent piano and harmony teachers for the young composer.

In 1899 Bartok had to decide where to continue his studies, and although the Vienna Conservatoire was the obvious choice, Bartok followed the advice of his schoolfellow, Erno Dohnanyi, and went to the Budapest Academy. There he was considered a virtuoso pianist of outstanding potential. As a composer, like Dohnanyi he initially took Brahms as a model. But in 1902 and 1903 he was profoundly affected by two new preoccupations: the music of Richard Strauss and the rising tide of Hungarian nationalism. Both influences found expression in 1903 in the symphonic poem Kossuth, based on the life of the leader of Hungary's 1848 uprising.

Bartok found a further and more enduring outlet for his nationalist sentiments in Hungarian folk songs, which he started collecting in 1904. This led to a lifelong collaboration with Zoltan Kodaly, a pioneer in the field. From 1906, Bartok made annual trips, using an Edison phonograph as recording equipment, to collect songs not only in Hungary but also in Romania, Slovakia, and Transylvania.

Also through Kodaly, Bartok was introduced to the music of Debussy, which was a revelation to him. The twin influences of Debussy and folk song formed the background to the composition of his first mature works, the First string quartet of 1908 and various short piano pieces, including the 14 Bagatelles. In 1909 he married his teenage pupil, Marta Ziegler, to whom he dedicated his one-act opera Bluebeard's castle, an allegorical study of the individual's ultimate isolation from the rest of humanity.

Starting in 1907, Bartok served as a professor of piano at the Budapest Academy, a position that gave him a degree of security and enabled him to continue his research into folklore, including a visit to northern Africa in 1913. His health was too frail for active participation in World War I; during the period 1914 to 1917 he wrote the ballet The wooden prince and his Second string quartet, works that show the impression made by Stravinsky's rhythmic innovations in The rite of spring and Schoenberg's experiments with tonality. In the pantomime The miraculous Mandarin Bartok pushed to an audacious extreme these tendencies towards driving rhythmic exuberance and unusual orchestral colours (variations, or shades, of tone).

The 1920s saw the consolidation of Bartok's international reputation as composer and pianist, both in solo music and partnering the great Hungarian violinists of the time, such as Joseph Szigeti. He wrote virtuoso works to perform himself in the 1920s and 1930s, including the First and Second piano concertos, the Piano sonata, and the Sonata for two pianos and percussion. The last was written for himself and his second wife, Ditta Pasztorv, whom he had married in 1923 following his divorce from Marta. Its journey from primeval darkness to searing light makes for a gripping aural experience.

Impressive too is the Music for strings, percussion and celesta of 1937, one of many classic commissions by the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher. This work creates the sense of an odyssey, enhanced by the telling return of the first movement's tortuous and mysterious fugue theme towards the end of the final fourth movement. The slow movement contains a favourite Bartok device, a "night music" section where, in an atmosphere of hushed expectancy, a tapestry is woven of the tiny sounds of nocturnal animals and insects.

In 1940 the Bartoks moved to New-York to escape the political situation m Hungary. The declining health, periods of depression, and financial worries that clouded Bartok's American years did not prevent him from completing such masterpieces as the Concerto for orchestra and the Sixth string quartet. The delicate Third piano concerto was practically finished when Bartok died in New York in September 1945.

Key Works

Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123

The conductor Serge Koussevitsky commissioned the Concerto for Orchestra in memory of his late wife, Nathalie. The title reflects Barlok’s admiration for the virtuosity of Koussevitsky’s orchestra.

INTRODUCTION (ALLEGRO NON TR0PP0 - ALLEGRO VIVACE) The first movement begins mysteriously with a theme in the low strings accompanied by whispering violin tremolandi. Instrumental groups are gradually added until the bright and energetic Allegro vivace begins with a theme from the violins.

A second theme is introduced by solo trombone in regular metre.
GAME OF THE PAIRS (ALLEGRETTO SCHERZANDO) The second movement features pairs of instruments, which move at all times in parallel: the bassoons (a sixth apart) are followed by oboes (a third apart), clarinets (a seventh apart), flutes (a fifth apart), and, finally, trumpets (a second apart). The chorale-like middle section is given to the brass.
ELEGY (ANDANTE, NON TR0PP0) Bartok called the third movement a “lugubrious death song”. The opening theme on

low strings recalls the beginning of the first movement. The misty section for flutes and clarinets that follows is accompanied by string tremolandi and harp glissandi. The music becomes more and more agitated until the passionate material from the first movement reappears.

INTERMEZZO INTERR0TT0 (ALLEGRETTO) This movement was apparently influenced by a broadcast of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7. Bartok thought that Shostakovich’s patriotism was misguided and quoted a theme of that work in raucous parody. There is then an outrageous response from muted trumpets, clarinets, and trombones.
FINALE (PRESTO) The finale is announced by a horn fanfare and athletic strings. The flurry of movement never lets up, and the coda is a brilliant and exciting culmination to one of the great orchestral works of the century.

00:00 - I. Introduzione. Andante non troppo -- Allegro vivace 
10:03 - II. "Giuoco delle coppie". Allegretto scherzando 
16:05 - III. "Elegia". Andante non troppo 
24:05 - IV. "Intermezzo interrotto". Allegretto 
28:21 - V. Finale. Presto 

Violin Concerto No. 2, BB 117

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz. 106, BB 114

00:00 - I. Andante tranquillo 
07:02 - II. Allegro 
14:33 - III. Adagio 
21:08 - IV. Allegro molto

Dance Suite, Sz. 77

I : 0:00 (Moderato)
II : 3:20 (Allegro molto)
III : 5:30 (Allegro vivace)
IV : 8:26 (Moderato tranquillo)
V : 11:16 (Codomo)
VI : 12:21 (Allegro, Finale)

The Miraculous Mandarin; Op. 19, Sz. 73

00:01 Introduction - The Chaotic City
01:15 Curtain - The Girl and the Three Tramps
03:07 The First Seductive Dance
04:22 The Shabby Old Rake
06:46 The Second Seductive Dance
08:06 The Shy Young Man
09:58 The Third Seductive Dance
11:38 The Mandarin enters the room
14:00 The girl begins a hesitant dance
18:30 She shudders at his embrace and he chases her
20:59 The three tramps leap out, seize the Mandarin and tear him away from the girl
23:05 Suddenly the Mandarin's head appears between the pillows and he looks longingly at the girl
26:06 The terrified tramps discuss how they are to get rid of the Mandarin
27:32 The body of the Mandarin begins to glow with a greenish blue light
29:19 She resists no longer – they embrace

Romanian Folk Dances


Bartok was greatly influenced by the folk music of Eastern Europe. In his youth he admired the music of Richard Strauss and later in his career developed an interest in Baroque music as well as the compositions of contemporaries such as Stravinsky. He influenced the composers Lutoslawski and Britten.

Statue of Bartók in Makó, Hungary

String quartet Nr. 4,  C-major Sz 91

00:00 - I. Allegro 
06:06 - II. Prestissimo, con sordino 
09:06 - III. Non troppo lento 
14:44 - IV. Allegretto pizzicato 
17:31 - V. Allegro molto 

Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz. 117 

Tempo di ciaccona
Fuga. Risoluto, non troppo vivo
Melodia. Adagio

15 Hungarian Peasant Songs

Four Old Tunes 00:00
Rubato - Andante - Poco rubato - Andante
Scherzo 04:11
Ballade (Tema con variazioni) 05:00
Old Dance Tunes 07:22
Allegro - Allegretto - Allegretto - Lo stesso tempo (quasi trio) - Assai moderato - Allegretto - Poco più vivo - Allegro - Allegro

Bluebeard's Castle, Opening Scene Part-1

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