Béla Bartók | Biography


Béla Bartók
Percussive piano works, elegant violin concertos, psychological opera and erotic ballet. Bartók was the greatest and most influential Hungarian composer of the 20th century. He was an inspiring teacher, as his Mikrokosmos educational works demonstrate. He was a virtuoso pianist, as can be heard in the technical complexities of his piano concertos. And he was a studious ethnographer, capturing the spirit, variety and detail of the Central and Eastern European folk music he collected and often included in his compositions. Music for solo piano makes up the largest proportion of Bartók’s output. A spiky, percussive keyboard style first appeared in his Allegro barbaro of 1911 and went on to become the defining feature of his later piano works. But despite the quantity and quality of his piano music, Bartók’s sequence of strings quartets is considered the backbone of his output. Widely considered to be the most significant contribution to the genre since Beethoven’s, the six Bartók quartets confide hopes and fears in troubled times. The quartets succeed because they work on so many levels. They showcase a range of technical discoveries and structural innovations. Masterful use of melody and rhythm brings these new ideas to life, giving the quartets a compelling sense of urgency and ensuring their broad appeal. Bartók studied piano at the Budapest Academy of Music. He toyed with composition during his student years but his skill and enthusiasm were slow to develop. Stylistically, the Austro-German tradition dominated his early work. Liszt (in his Germanic rather than Hungarian mode) was an early influence, as was Richard Strauss, especially after 1902 when Bartók attended the first Budapest performance of Also sprach Zarathustra. The symphonic poem Kossuth (1903) demonstrates Bartók’s early interest in Hungarian subjects. However, it wasn’t until the following year that he heard his first genuine Hungarian folk song, courtesy of a nursemaid. Another important element of Bartók’s mature style came via his friend and fellow composer Zoltán Kodály. In 1907, Kodály returned from Paris bringing scores by Debussy. The sophistication of Debussy’s idiom and his free approach to harmony and modality were to have to have an immediate impact on Bartók’s musical outlook. Over the next decade this new-found musical independence was expressed in a succession of remarkably accomplished works. In the concert hall, Bartók made an impact with his First and Second String Quartets (1908–9 and 1914–17). He also won acclaim in the theatre with the one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle (1911–12) and the ballet The Wooden Prince (1914–17). Another ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin (1918–19) would eventually find similar success, although its sexually explicit plot proved a major obstacle to early performances. As Bartók’s music became more concentrated and dissonant, it began to stray from the notated key signatures, with individual passages employing increasingly ambiguous tonality. The innovations of Arnold Schoenberg were clearly alluring, leading to a range of stylistic experiments in the two violin sonatas (1921 and 1922). Not that Bartók ever renounced tonality altogether. His suspicion of rigorous dogmas meant that a conversion to serialism was always going to be an unlikely prospect. He pokes fun at the pretensions of the Second Viennese School in his resolutely tonal treatment of a 12-note theme in his Second Violin Concerto (1937–8). (A similar joke can be found in the Concerto for Orchestra (1943), where Bartók mocks the vulgarity of the ‘invasion theme’ from Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony.) Bartók’s fame as a pianist was spreading fast, but he was reluctant to embrace the cosmopolitan lifestyle of a touring composer-virtuoso. He preferred to focus his attentions on the study of folk music and the refinement of his own musical language. Concert engagements did however lead to the composition of his first two piano concertos between 1926 and 1931, both vehicles for his own virtuosity. The contrasting style of his Third (1945), a simpler and more graceful work, is partly explained by the fact that it was intended for his second wife to perform. Complexity of rhythm and metre in the earlier concertos, as well as their emotional astringency, is sometimes attributed to Stravinsky’s influence. Other works from the period show Bartók’s less fashionable preoccupations: innovative variation techniques, the viability of symmetrical arch-like forms and his exploration of mysterious-sounding sonorities. These issues predominate in the Third, Fourth and Fifth Quartets (1927, 1928 and 1934), Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). The masterly second Violin Concerto, written for Zoltán Székely, began life as one of Bartók’s many sets of variations. It then morphed into a three-movement work. It finally settled into a conventional design, but one that belies its surprising depths of feeling. The 1930s saw a resurgence of simple and clear tonal harmony in Bartók’s music. This was not mere escapism or nostalgia. The darkness-to-light progression in many works speaks of the composer’s resilience of spirit. It is as if Bartók is defying the chaos around him, as well as the virulent fascism that was rapidly imposing its own perverse sense of order. The premiere of the Second Piano Concerto in Frankfurt marked an ominous terminal point in Bartók’s performing career. A week later Hitler was appointed chancellor. Bartók would never again give a public performance in Germany. Emigration was on his mind when he decided to move from his Austrian-based publisher (Universal Edition) to a British one (Boosey & Hawkes). ‘Neither while I am alive nor after my death’ he wrote ‘do I want any German publisher to have any of my work, even if it means that no work of mine will ever be published again. This is fixed and final.’ The increasing focus on ethnic purity at home and abroad outraged him. Only in the Sixth Quartet, the most agonised and intimate of the cycle, does the mask slip. It was written in 1939, but not be heard until 1941. The premiere took place in New York, Bartók having finally fled there the previous year following his mother’s death. Work was initially scarce, but Bartók continued to compose. Financial and health worries prevented him from enjoying the fruits of this final creative period. He died in 1945 from leukaemia, leaving his Third Piano Concerto 17 bars short of completion and his Viola Concerto still in sketch form. One of his greatest successes of these American years was the Concerto for Orchestra, the result of a far-sighted commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation. The work is a masterpiece of accessibility and one of the last pieces from outside the Soviet Union to have entered the standard orchestral repertoire. Bartók also retained his mastery of small-scale forms. His Solo Violin Sonata, written in 1944 for Yehudi Menuhin, amply demonstrates that this sensitive, reluctant émigré was still operating at the top of his form. Despite his towering reputation, Bartók was a modest man. His stance on social and political matters was always highly principled. However, the re-designation of his famous Violin Concerto as ‘no.2’ more than a decade after his death acknowledged a more dubious side to his personality. Bartók had an eye for young ladies. His first wife, Márta Ziegler, had been one of his students. He left her in 1923 for a younger pupil, Ditta Pásztory. The work that became known as his Violin Concerto no.1 was written for another lover, the virtuoso Stefi Geyer. Bartók wrote the concerto in 1907–08 and gave her the manuscript, but it remained unplayed until after her death in 1956. For Bartók’s many biographers, his personal life has turned out to be just as complex as the politics of his times, the diverse influences on his work and the technical innovations that make his music so distinctive.