In 1923, the Budapest city council threw a vast party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the merging of the towns of Buda and Pest: two rather distinct although neighboring — on opposite banks of the Danube — entities: Buda, the old city, with its imperial traditions and aristocratic residences; Pest, the commercial hub and abode of both the middle class and the working class. The resultant city instantly became one of Europe’s major metropolitan areas.
LIFE & WORKS
Bartók was a true child prodigy: one of the few major composers of the 20th century who indeed WAS a child prodigy (Prokofiev was the other one). An amazing pianist, he played his first public concert at age 11, including original compositions written two years earlier!
Quiz yourself on facts about Bartók
Bartók & His Contemporaries
An in-depth look at the composers who influenced Bartók, as well as those composers who were his contemporary colleagues.
Bartók Video Links
Bartók’s long composing career (over 45 years) saw a succession of stylistic influences, changes, and development. The ten videos offered here aim to show the evolution of Bartok’s musical genius from very early compositions up through his final works composed in America. I hope you enjoy this brief audio-visual introduction to one of the most important composers of the 20th century!
One of the most important early influences on Bartók (and many other composers as well, to be sure) was Richard Strauss. This titan of the period dazzled audiences and composers alike with his brilliant orchestration and daring harmonic prowess, set forth in a series of tone poems composed between 1888 and 1898. In the words of Bartók himself: "I was aroused as by a flash of lightning by the first Budapest performance ofAlso Sprach Zarathustra. It contained the seeds for a new life. I started composing again." The result was the tone poem Kossuth, completed in 1903. As you listen to this excerpt, you can hear the very heavy influence of Strauss. As a matter of fact, if you didn’t know this piece, it would be quite the guess to imagine that it is a work by Bartók!
Allegro barbaro (1911)
Bartók was of course a phenomenal pianist, and his works for that instrument are among the most important of the 20th century. This early work is one of Bartók’s most famous and frequently played solo piano pieces. The work combines Hungarian and Romanian scales; Hungarian peasant music is based on thepentatonic scale, while Romanian music is largely chromatic. The work is very similar in style to the percussive and angular piano music of Sergei Prokofiev composed around the same time.
Bluebeard’s Castle (1911)
BARTÓK WORKS LIST
1904 Rhapsody no. 1 for Piano and Orchestra
1904 Scherzo for Piano and Orchestra
1905 Suites 1-2 for Orchestra (completed 1907)
1908 Violin Concerto no. 1
1908 String Quartet no. 1
1910 Two Pictures for Orchestra
1911 Two Portraits for Orchestra
1911 Bluebeard's Castle
1912 Four Pieces for Orchestra (orchestrated 1921)
1917 String Quartet no. 2
1917 Romanian Folk Dances
1917 The Wooden Prince
1919 The Miraculous Mandarin
1921 Sonata no. 1 for Violin and Piano
1922 Sonata no. 2 for Violin and Piano
1923 Dance Suite
1926 Piano Concerto no. 1
1927 String Quartet no. 3
1928 Rhapsody no. 1 for Violin and Orchestra
1928 Rhapsody no. 2 for Violin and Orchestra
1928 String Quartet no. 4
1930 Cantata Profana
1931 Piano Concerto no. 2
1931 Transylvanian Dances
1931 Hungarian Sketches
1931 Forty-four Duos for Two Violins
1933 Hungarian Peasant Songs
1934 String Quartet no. 5
1936 Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
1937 Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion
1938 Violin Concerto no. 2
1938 Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano
1939 Divertimento for String Orchestra
1939 String Quartet no. 6
1940 Concerto for Two Pianos (orchestration of 1937 work)
1940 Sonata for Solo Violin
1943 Concerto for Orchestra
1945 Piano Concerto no. 3 (unfinished)
1945 Viola Concerto (unfinished)
IMPORTANT PIANO WORKS
1911 Allegro Barbaro
1926 Out of Doors
CYS Performance History:
Works by Belá Bartók
Concerto for Orchestra (2007)
Dance Suite (2005, 2013, 2020)
Bartok’s only opera is considered to be his first truly great masterpiece. And what a piece it is!!! It tells the story of Duke Bluebeard, who brings his new bride Judith to his castle. Upon arrival, she sees that there are seven locked doors. She insists upon opening them, and one by one, horrors unfold, including a torture chamber, a lake of tears, an armory, his precious jewels and diamonds, all of which begin to drip with blood. The final room opens upon his three former wives, now to be joined by Judith as he closes the door behind them all and is left in darkness. A supremely Expressionistic work and one of the most powerful pieces of music composed in the 20th century.
Romanian Folk Dances (1917)
This amazing work is based on sevenRomaniantunes fromTransylvania, originally played on fiddle or shepherd's flute. Much of Bartók’s work is based on the folk melodies that he assiduously recorded and transcribed during his field work throughout Central and Eastern Europe. In this recording, listen for the shepherd’s flute (at 1:55 minutes) playing the original tune, which is followed by the orchestral version played on the piccolo. Brilliant!
The Miraculous Mandarin (1919)
Bartók’s most forward-looking, dissonant, and Expressionistic work, without question. Definitely not for the faint-hearted (WARNING!). The brutal story of a gang of thieves/tramps that lure suspects into a room by forcing a girl to stand by the window and attract passing men into said room. When a Chinese Mandarin (wealthy Chinese man) enters and forcibly goes after the girl, the thieves jump him, stab him, try to drown him, suffocate him, etc. but he will not die. Only when the girl finally embraces him does he die. The meaning of this work has always been hotly contested. Here is the final scene. A disturbing and dark work.
Dance Suite (1923)
The Dance Suite marks the true beginning of Bartók’s “Neoclassic” period. All one has to do is compare this example with the previous one (Miraculous Mandarin) to see the almost unbelievable change in approach and style. What happened? Bartók traveled to London and Paris in1922-23and discovered what Schoenberg and Stravinsky had been doing since the end of World War I. He also saw what fellow composers and the public found most vital and interesting in hisownwork, which was indeed the folk element. This prompted a reassessment in Bartók’s mind about the direction he wanted his music to take and the evolution of his style. The result was a less dissonant and more folk-inspired type of music. The Dance Suite remains one of Bartók’s most beloved works.
String Quartet No. 4 (1928)
Bartók’s most significant contribution to the music of the 20th century was not his opera, or his concertos, or his ballets, or his orchestral music: it was his six string quartets, considered universally to be the most important chamber music composed in the first half of the century. These works, which date from quite early in his career (1908) to very late in his career (1939), are a compendium of all that Bartók processed and took in with regard to his folk music studies and research, and stand as the ultimate expression of his beliefs as a composer. The Finale from his String Quartet No. 4 is a tour-de-force of string writing (supremely difficult to perform!) in which Bartók brings together all aspects of his technical genius: rhythmic complexity and ingenuity, folk-based melodic ideas, polymodal chromaticism, advanced string techniques, and highly complex formal structure. Simply astounding music!
This energetic, boisterous work typifies the folk style of Bartók that goes under the heading of tempo giusto. This type of folk-based music, literally meaning “precise tempo”, is based on peasant dance music that would be played on instruments (rather than sung), and can be wildly powerful, as in this classic example from 1939. This composition was composed one year before Bartók left Europe for America and falls into his “final period”, characterized by a more tonal approach, greater lyricism, and a more fluid style of writing.
Concerto for Orchestra (1943)
This work was commissioned by Sege Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was Bartók’s last fully completed work for orchestra. Composed in America when the composer was already extremely ill, it is universally regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century. Heard here is the fourth movement.
Piano Concerto No.3 (unfinished at death in 1945)
One of Bartók’s last works, unfortunately left unfinished at his death (the first two movements are complete). This shows, better than any other example, the incredibly lyrical and tonal aspects of the final period of Bartók. The slow movement, offered here, is one of the most beautiful soundscapes ever created by the composer. Pay particular attention to the section beginning at 3:46, which is an example of the style called “night music” by Bartók himself: music that brings to mind the outdoor natural world at night, often with the sound of insects and other critters. As this final example shows, the music of Bartók is extremely diverse and takes us through a remarkable 20th century journey. Along with Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Bartók must be considered to be one of the three pillars of 20th century music.