Childhood and early years (1881–98)
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Bartók was born in the Banatian town of Nagyszentmiklós in the Kingdom of Hungary (since 1920 Sânnicolau Mare, Romania) on 25 March 1881.
Bartók had a diverse ancestry. On his father's side, the Bartók family was a Hungarian lower noble family, originating from Borsodszirák, Borsod (Móser 2006a, 44). His paternal grandmother was a Catholic of Bunjevci origin, but considered herself Hungarian (Szekernyés 2017). Bartók's father was also named Béla; his mother, Paula (née Voit), had ethnic German roots, and spoke Hungarian fluently (Hooker 2001, 16). She was a native of Turócszentmárton (now Martin, Slovakia)(Cooper 2015, 6). Paula also had Hungarian (Teréz Fegyveres) and Slavic (Polereczky: Magyarized Slavic) ancestors.
Béla displayed notable musical talent very early in life: according to his mother, he could distinguish between different dance rhythms that she played on the piano before he learned to speak in complete sentences (Gillies 1990, 6). By the age of four he was able to play 40 pieces on the piano and his mother began formally teaching him the next year.
Béla was a sickly child and suffered from severe eczema until the age of five (Gillies 1990, 5), as a result of an inoculation with a faulty smallpox vaccine, with his facial disfigurement causing him to avoid people (Suchoff 2001, 15). In 1888, when he was seven, his father (the director of an agricultural school) died suddenly. His mother then took him and his sister, Erzsébet, to live in Nagyszőlős (today Vynohradiv, Ukraine) and then to Pozsony (present-day Bratislava, Slovakia).
He gave his first public recital aged 11 in Nagyszőlős, to a warm critical reception (Griffiths 1988, ). Among the pieces he played was his own first composition, written two years previously: a short piece called "The Course of the Danube" (de Toth 1999). Shortly thereafter László Erkel accepted him as a pupil (Stevens 1964, 8).
Early musical career (1899–1908)
Bartók's signature on his high-school-graduation photograph, dated 9 September 1899
From 1899 to 1903, Bartók studied piano under István Thomán, a former student of Franz Liszt, and composition under János Koessler at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest (Anon. 2018). There he met Zoltán Kodály, who made a strong impression on him and became a lifelong friend and colleague (Rockwell 1982). In 1903, Bartók wrote his first major orchestral work, Kossuth, a symphonic poem which honored Lajos Kossuth, hero of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 (Stevens 2018).
The music of Richard Strauss, whom he met in 1902 at the Budapest premiere of Also sprach Zarathustra, strongly influenced his early work (Wilhelm 1989, 73). When visiting a holiday resort in the summer of 1904, Bartók overheard a young nanny, Lidi Dósa from Kibéd in Transylvania, sing folk songs to the children in her care. This sparked his lifelong dedication to folk music (Kory 2007).
From 1907, he also began to be influenced by the French composer Claude Debussy, whose compositions Kodály had brought back from Paris. Bartók's large-scale orchestral works were still in the style of Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss, but he wrote a number of small piano pieces which showed his growing interest in folk music. The first piece to show clear signs of this new interest is the String Quartet No. 1 in A minor (1908), which contains folk-like elements (Rodda 1990–2018).
In 1907, Bartók began teaching as a piano professor at the Royal Academy (Anon. 1945). This position freed him from touring Europe as a pianist and enabled him to work in Hungary. Among his notable students were Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, György Sándor, Ernő Balogh, and Lili Kraus. After Bartók moved to the United States, he taught Jack Beeson and Violet Archer.
In 1908, he and Kodály traveled into the countryside to collect and research old Magyar folk melodies. Their growing interest in folk music coincided with a contemporary social interest in traditional national culture. They made some surprising discoveries. Magyar folk music had previously been categorised as Gypsy music. The classic example is Franz Liszt's famous Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano, which he based on popular art songs performed by Romani bands of the time. In contrast, Bartók and Kodály discovered that the old Magyar folk melodies were based on pentatonic scales, similar to those in Asian folk traditions, such as those of Central Asia, Anatolia and Siberia.
Bartók and Kodály quickly set about incorporating elements of such Magyar peasant music into their compositions. They both frequently quoted folk song melodies verbatim and wrote pieces derived entirely from authentic songs. An example is his two volumes entitled For Children for solo piano, containing 80 folk tunes to which he wrote accompaniment. Bartók's style in his art music compositions was a synthesis of folk music, classicism, and modernism. His melodic and harmonic sense was profoundly influenced by the folk music of Hungary, Romania, and other nations. He was especially fond of the asymmetrical dance rhythms and pungent harmonies found in Bulgarian music. Most of his early compositions offer a blend of nationalist and late Romanticism elements.
Middle years and career (1909–39)
In 1909, at the age of 28, Bartók married Márta Ziegler (1893–1967), aged 16. Their son, Béla Bartók III, was born the next year. After nearly 15 years together, Bartók divorced Márta in June 1923. Two months after his divorce, he married Ditta Pásztory (1903–1982), a piano student, ten days after proposing to her. She was aged 19, he 42. Their son, Péter, was born in 1924 (Vetter 2007, 22).
In 1911, Bartók wrote what was to be his only opera, Bluebeard's Castle, dedicated to Márta. He entered it for a prize by the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission, but they rejected his work as not fit for the stage (Chalmers 1995, 93). In 1917 Bartók revised the score for the 1918 première, and rewrote the ending. Following the 1919 revolution in which he actively participated, he was pressured by the Horthy regime to remove the name of the librettist Béla Balázs from the opera (Chalmers 1995, 123) , as he was blacklisted and had left the country for Vienna. Bluebeard's Castle received only one revival, in 1936, before Bartók emigrated. For the remainder of his life, although he was passionately devoted to Hungary, its people and its culture, he never felt much loyalty to the government or its official establishments.
Folk music and composition
Béla Bartók using a phonograph
to record folk songs sung by peasants in what is now Slovakia
After his disappointment over the Fine Arts Commission competition, Bartók wrote little for two or three years, preferring to concentrate on collecting and arranging folk music. He collected first in the Carpathian Basin (then the Kingdom of Hungary), where he notated Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, and Bulgarian folk music. He also collected in Moldavia, Wallachia, and (in 1913) Algeria. The outbreak of World War I forced him to stop the expeditions, but he returned to composing with a ballet called The Wooden Prince (1914–16) and the String Quartet No. 2 in (1915–17), both influenced by Debussy.
Raised as a Catholic, by his early adulthood Bartók had become an atheist. He later became attracted to Unitarianism and publicly converted to the Unitarian faith in 1916. Although Bartók was not conventionally religious, according to his son Béla Bartók III, "he was a nature lover: he always mentioned the miraculous order of nature with great reverence." As an adult, Béla III later became lay president of the Hungarian Unitarian Church (Hughes 1999–2007).
Bartók's libretto for The Miraculous Mandarin, another ballet, was influenced by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss. Though started in 1918 the story of prostitution, robbery, and murder was not performed on the stage until 1926 because of its sexual content. He next wrote his two violin sonatas (written in 1921 and 1922 respectively), which are harmonically and structurally some of his most complex pieces.
In 1927–28, Bartók wrote his Third and Fourth String Quartets, after which his compositions demonstrated his mature style. Notable examples of this period are Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and Divertimento for String Orchestra (1939). The Fifth String Quartet was composed in 1934, and the Sixth String Quartet (his last) in 1939.
In 1936 he travelled to Turkey to collect and study Turkish folk music. He worked in collaboration with Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun mostly around Adana (Özgentürk 2008; Sipos 2000).
World War II and last years in America (1940–45)
In 1940, as the European political situation worsened after the outbreak of World War II, Bartók was increasingly tempted to flee Hungary. He strongly opposed the Nazis and Hungary's alliance with Germany and the Axis powers under the Tripartite Pact. After the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, Bartók refused to give concerts in Germany and broke away from his publisher there. His anti-fascist political views caused him a great deal of trouble with the establishment in Hungary. Having first sent his manuscripts out of the country, Bartók reluctantly emigrated to the U.S. with his wife Ditta in October that year. They settled in New York City after arriving on the night of 29–30 October 1940 via a steamer from Lisbon. After joining them in 1942, their younger son, Péter Bartók, enlisted in the United States Navy where he served in the Pacific during the remainder of the war and later settled in Florida where he became a recording and sound engineer. His elder son, by his first marriage, Béla Bartók III, remained in Hungary and later worked as a railroad official until his retirement in the early 1980s.
Although he became an American citizen in 1945, shortly before his death (Gagné 2012, 28), Bartók never felt fully at home in the USA. He initially found it difficult to compose. Although he was well known in America as a pianist, ethnomusicologist and teacher, he was not well known as a composer. There was little American interest in his music during his final years. He and his wife Ditta gave some concerts, although demand for them was low. Bartók, who had made some recordings in Hungary, also recorded for Columbia Records after he came to the US; many of these recordings (some with Bartók's own spoken introductions) were later issued on LP and CD (Bartók 1994, 1995a, 1995b, 2003, 2007, 2008).
Supported by a research fellowship from Columbia University, for several years, Bartók and Ditta worked on a large collection of Serbian and Croatian folk songs in Columbia's libraries. Bartók's economic difficulties during his first years in America were mitigated by publication royalties, teaching and performance tours. While his finances were always precarious, he did not live and die in poverty as was the common myth. He had enough friends and supporters to ensure that there was sufficient money and work available for him to live on. Bartók was a proud man and did not easily accept charity. Despite being short on cash at times, he often refused money that his friends offered him out of their own pockets. Although he was not a member of the ASCAP, the society paid for any medical care he needed during his last two years. Bartók reluctantly accepted this (Chalmers 1995, 196–203).
The first symptoms of his health problems began late in 1940, when his right shoulder began to show signs of stiffening. In 1942, symptoms increased and he started having bouts of fever, but no underlying disease was diagnosed, in spite of medical examinations. Finally, in April 1944, leukemia was diagnosed, but by this time, little could be done (Chalmers 1995, 202–07).
As his body slowly failed, Bartók found more creative energy, and he produced a final set of masterpieces, partly thanks to the violinist Joseph Szigeti and the conductor Fritz Reiner (Reiner had been Bartók's friend and champion since his days as Bartók's student at the Royal Academy). Bartók's last work might well have been the String Quartet No. 6 but for Serge Koussevitzky's commission for the Concerto for Orchestra. Koussevitsky's Boston Symphony Orchestra premièred the work in December 1944 to highly positive reviews. The Concerto for Orchestra quickly became Bartók's most popular work, although he did not live to see its full impact. In 1944, he was also commissioned by to write a Sonata for Solo Violin. In 1945, Bartók composed his Piano Concerto No. 3, a graceful and almost neo-classical work, as a surprise 42nd birthday present for Ditta, but he died just over a month before her birthday, with the scoring not quite finished. He had also sketched his Viola Concerto, but had barely started the scoring at his death, leaving completed only the viola part and sketches of the orchestral part.
Béla Bartók's portrait on 1,000 Hungarian forint
banknote (printed between 1983 and 1992; no longer in circulation)
Béla Bartók died at age 64 in a hospital in New York City from complications of leukemia (specifically, of secondary polycythemia) on 26 September 1945. His funeral was attended by only ten people. Among them were his wife Ditta, their son Péter, and his pianist friend György Sándor (Anon. 2006).
Bartók's body was initially interred in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. During the final year of communist Hungary in the late 1980s, the Hungarian government, along with his two sons, Béla III and Péter, requested that his remains be exhumed and transferred back to Budapest for burial, where Hungary arranged a state funeral for him on 7 July 1988. He was reinterred at Budapest's Farkasréti Cemetery, next to the remains of Ditta, who died in 1982, the year after his centenary (Chalmers 1995, 214).
The two unfinished works were later completed by his pupil Tibor Serly. György Sándor was the soloist in the first performance of the Third Piano Concerto on February 8, 1946. Ditta Pásztory-Bartók later played and recorded it. The Viola Concerto was revised and published in the 1990s by Bartók's son, Peter (Maurice 2004, ); this version may be closer to what Bartók intended (Chalmers 1995, 210).
Concurrently, Peter Bartók, in association with Argentinian musician
Nelson Dellamaggiore, worked to reprint and revise past editions of the Third Piano Concerto (Somfai 1996).