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String Quartets 2 3 & 6 (2006)


Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók was without a doubt one of the most original and versatile musicians of the twentieth century.  He performed as a pianist and had enormous impact as an educator.  In addition, he collected folk music from most of Eastern Europe and beyond, making him one of the pioneers of ethnomusicology even though his methods are now seen as outdated.  As a composer, Bartók incorporated distinctively Hungarian traits into his own modernist language.  As a result, despite his enduring popularity and great significance for many other composers, including Olivier Messiaen, Benjamin Britten, and Aaron Copland, Bartók’s music remains inimitable.

Youth and Education in Hungary

Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklos, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania), on March 25, 1881.  His parents, Béla and Paula (née Voit), were both involved in education, with the elder Béla serving as principal at an agricultural school.  The Bartóks were also amateur musicians, and they started their son on the drums and piano from a very early age.  He learned about forty piano pieces by the age of four and began composing by the time he was ten.

When Bartók was only seven, his father died.  Looking for work as a piano teacher, his mother took Bartók and his younger sister Elza (born in 1885) from Nagyszentmiklos to various small towns in what was then Hungary.  To give an idea of just how peripatetic the family was and of how much the map of Eastern Europe has changed in little over a century, these towns are now in the Ukraine, Romania, and Slovakia respectively.  Finally, in 1894, the Bartóks moved to a larger city, Pozsony (now Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia).

In Nagyszöllös, the first stop after Nagyszentmiklos, Bartók made his public debut as a pianist in 1892, playing Beethoven and one of his own works.  By the time the family arrived in Pozsony, Bartók was sufficiently advanced to be chosen as chapel organist at his school, the Catholic Gymnasium.  He also made his first attempts at composing chamber music.

In September 1899, after auditioning successfully at both the Vienna Conservatory and the Budapest Academy of Music, Bartók entered the Budapest Academy of Music, whose first president had been Franz Liszt.  István Thomán, a student of Liszt, taught Bartók piano, and the rather conservative Hans Koessler was his composition teacher. 

Attending the opera and symphony regularly, Bartók began composing for orchestra soon after arriving at the conservatory.  Nevertheless, he grew frustrated, finding Koessler’s influence stifling.  In 1902, his compositional outlook changed when Bartók first heard Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra.  Wagner and Liszt inspired Bartók as well.  During his time at the Academy, however, it was as a pianist rather than as a composer that he earned renown.  Among other concerts, he performed his own transcription of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Ein Heldenleben in Vienna.

Strauss’s tone poems inspired Bartók to write his own work, albeit on a Hungarian patriotic theme, and the result was Kossuth, composed in 1903.  Soon after, he discovered a new, life-long source of inspiration: the folk music of Hungary and the neighboring countries.  In 1904, while staying in Gerlice Puszta in northern Hungary (now Ratkó, Slovakia), he heard a Transylvanian maid, Lidi Dósa, singing, and notated her songs.  The following year he wrote an orchestra suite based on these pieces.  Of even more lasting importance was his acquaintance in that year with Zoltan Kodaly, who was one year younger and completing a dissertation on Hungarian folk song.  Bartók and Kodály went on to collaborate in collecting and setting folk songs for over thirty-five years.

Folk Song Collecting and Compositional Breakthroughs

In 1906, after a two-month tour of Spain and Portugal, Bartók was appointed to a position as piano teacher at the Budapest Academy.  He was to remain at the Academy until 1934.  In addition to providing financial security, the job gave Bartók enough free time to allow him to pursue his folk song collecting.  Over the next two years, he collected Slovak, Transylvanian, Serbian, and Bulgarian folk music.  He also more thoroughly incorporated the melodic and rhythmic insights gained from this music into his own work.

At around the same time, Bartók began a relationship with the violinist Stefi Geyer, for whom he wrote the Violin Concerto in 1907.  The following year, however, Geyer broke up with Bartók, leading him to dismantle the Violin Concerto.  He combined the first movement with another work to create Two Portraits, op. 5.  Despite the personal disappointment, Bartók’s period of compositional productivity continued through 1911.  Partially inspired by the end of his affair with Geyer, the Fourteen Bagatelles for piano, op. 6, were praised by the composer and critic Ferruccio Busoni as “something truly new.”  Another major breakthrough came with Bartók’s First String Quartet, composed from 1908 to 1909 and the first of Bartók’s six major efforts in this genre.

Just a year after Geyer left him, Bartók married one of his students, Márta Ziegler.  She too was interested in folk songs and helped him with her music-copying and translating skills.  In August 1910, Márta gave birth to a son, whom the Bartóks named Béla as well. 

Bartók’s most important work of the next two years was undoubtedly his opera Bluebeard’s Castle, which utilized folksong mannerisms in its approach to setting the Hungarian language.  This style, often referred to as parlando rubato, set a new course for Hungarian opera once Bluebeard’s Castle was finally staged some five years later. 

In general, Bartók received few performances of his works, let alone positive critical attention.  In an attempt to remedy the situation, he helped form the New Hungarian Musical Society in 1911, but by the following year, Bartók decided that things were going nowhere.  He resigned from the society and closed himself off from public musical life, turning back to folksong collecting as an outlet.

World War I and its Aftermath

When World War I broke out, Bartók was on vacation in France.  Because of health problems dating back to his childhood, he was ruled unfit for service in the Austro-Hungarian army.  Together with Kodály, however, he contributed indirectly to the war effort by collecting folksongs from the soldiers.  His compositional activity during the war years consisted largely of folksong arrangements, as well as the Second String Quartet.  The second movement of this work made use of North African folk music that Bartók had heard on a brief trip to Algeria in 1913.

From 1915 to 1916, while studying folk songs in Slovakia, Bartók had a brief affair with a fourteen-year-old named Klára Gombossy.  He set a few of her poems but later regretted having become involved with her.  A more praiseworthy endeavor was his one-act ballet, The Wooden Prince, op. 17.  It was not only staged but achieved enough success that Bartók found a publisher (Universal Editions of Vienna) and a sponsor willing to stage Bluebeard’s Castle.

The final years of the war brought great hardship to Bartók and his family.  From 1917 to 1920, they no longer had electricity or running water, and food and heating fuel became desperately scarce.  In addition, Bartók fell ill in the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.  Once the war was over, Hungary lost many of its eastern provinces, including the ones whose folksongs Bartók liked most, to Romania.  The resulting tensions between Hungary and Romania often saw Bartók caught in the middle, with conservative Hungarians accusing him of pro-Romanian behavior and Romanians condemning Bartók as a Hungarian nationalist.  In the end, Bartók gave up folksong collecting, devoting himself instead to analyzing the songs he had already gathered.

During the immediate post-war years, Bartók nearly became director of the Hungarian National Opera.  He also came close to heading the department of music at the National Museum.  The government granted him several other positions, but none lasted very long.  His major endeavor of the period, lasting from 1918 to 1924, was the composition of a second opera, The Miraculous Mandarin.  Unfortunately, this was performed only once in Cologne (in 1926) before being “withdrawn.”  It was not performed in Budapest at all until after Bartók had died. 

The controversy largely stemmed from the plot, which concerned prostitution, but may also have related to the musical language, which was highly influenced by Schoenberg’s expressionistic style and twelve-tone technique.  Despite experimenting with atonality, Bartók did not disavow folk music.  On the contrary, he said that atonality and folk music were entirely compatible, with each showcasing the other.

Fallow Compositional Years and a New International Outlook

From 1920 to 1925, Bartók spent little time composing.  He devoted more energy to publishing studies of folk music, performing as a pianist, and writing for the international press.  In 1923, he and Márta divorced.  Bartók remarried the same year, to Ditta Pásztory, with whom he had a son the following July.

As part of his busy performing schedule, Bartók made four visits to Italy in 1925 and 1926.  There he discovered Italian Baroque music, which had not previously interested him, and began composing large amounts of piano music to perform himself.  Much of this music was influenced by the Baroque, not only Italian but also Bach.  Another influence of the period was Stravinsky. 

1927 saw the birth of several important new pieces, such as the immensely challenging First Piano Concerto and the Third String Quartet.  The Fourth String Quartet came the following year, as did two Violin Rhapsodies built according to the traditional Hungarian pattern of lassu-friss (slow-fast).  In 1928, Bartók also visited the U.S. for the first time.  Part of the plan was that the New York Philharmonic would perform the First Piano Concerto, but it proved too difficult for that orchestra to handle.  Its American premiere came from the Boston Symphony Orchestra instead, conducted by Bartók’s former student, Fritz Reiner

Bartók continued touring in 1929, visiting the Soviet Union, Britain, and most of the rest of Europe.  The following year, frustrated by a perceived lack of Hungarian support, he gave up performing his own works in Budapest.  Instead, he became more international in his outlook, as demonstrated by his joining the League of Nation’s Permanent Committee for Literature and the Arts in 1931.  The Committee’s stated goal was to work for freedom of expression and international brotherhood. 

Bartók’s compositional philosophy changed during these years as well.  He reversed his earlier position on the compatibility of atonality and folk music, saying that the two were completely different and could not work together.  He even denied that his early “atonal” works were atonal at all.  The major products of this new embrace of tonal music were the Cantata Profana, which has also been seen as a response to fascism, and the Second Piano Concerto.  These were also his last major works until 1934, partly because of the Depression and the resulting lack of performance opportunities. 

Period of Productivity and the Looming Nazi Threat

In 1934, however, the situation relaxed somewhat.  For one, Bartók became a full-time ethnomusicologist at the Budapest Academy of Sciences.  Two years later, he made his final field trip, collecting folk songs in south-central Turkey.  Also beginning in 1934, Bartók was able to give concerts both in Hungary and abroad (although not in Germany, which had refused to receive Bartók since the previous year).  Finally, Bartók entered a five-year period of great compositional fertility during which time he wrote many of his best-loved pieces.  Among these are the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, the Second Violin Concerto, the Fifth and Sixth String Quartets, and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.

In the midst of this fruitful period, in 1937, Bartók began to worry about the Nazi menace.  He and others feared that Hungary was not safe, particularly after the German attack on Czechoslovakia and annexation of Austria in 1938.  In April, one month after Germany and Austria united, Bartók began sending his manuscripts out of Hungary, first to Switzerland and then to New York.  He also began thinking about leaving for New York himself but did not feel free to abandon his elderly mother. 

After she died in December 1939, however, Bartók started planning his move in earnest.  To lay the groundwork for a long-term stay, he toured the U.S. giving concerts in 1940.  Returning to Budapest in May, he gave his final Hungarian concert on October 8 before moving to New York the same month.


Bartók’s experience in America failed to fulfill his expectations.  Although he worked as an ethnomusicologist at Columbia from 1941 to 1942, studying the Parry-Lord collection of Serbian and Croatian folk music lent by Harvard, his concerts (usually consisting of two-piano works performed by himself and his wife) were poorly received.  He could have taken one of several university teaching positions but refused all but a few private piano and composition students.  He also declined a chance to study American Indian music at the University of Washington.

These refusals probably had something to do with his health.  In the midst of a visiting appointment at Harvard, Bartók had to be hospitalized for tuberculosis and a blood condition called polycythemia.  The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) stood by Bartók, paying for three summers’ worth of rest cures in upstate New York and a winter vacation in Asheville, North Carolina.

Despite his illness, Bartók accepted a 1943 commission from Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  The resulting work, the Concerto for Orchestra, was premiered on December 1, 1944 and became extremely popular.  Bartók also began the Violin Sonata, written for Yehudi Menuhin

Meanwhile, the state of his health grew ever more dire.  Doctors diagnosed him with leukemia in 1944, but he was able to keep the condition at bay with penicillin and blood transfusions.  He was able to write the Third Piano Concerto for his wife and complete most of the Viola Concerto (commissioned by William Primrose).  On September 26, 1945, however, Bartók succumbed to his illnesses. 


Gillies, Malcolm: ‘Bartók, Béla’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 31 May 2007), <>

Gillies, Malcolm.  "Review of Béla Bartók: Régard sur la passé, by Denijs Dille."  Music and Letters 73 (1992): 472-4.

Stevens, Halsey.  The Life and Music of Béla Bartók.  3rd ed.  Prepared by Malcolm Gillies.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.