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Bela Bartok: Bela Bartok (b. Nagyszentmiklos, 25 March 1881; d. New York, 26 Sept 1945).
Mahler's famous complaint that he was 'three times without a country' might have been reiterated, mutatis mutandis, by Bela Bartok, Born and brought up in pre-First War Hungary, Bela Bartok watched from his chair at the Budapest Academy of Music as his native land shrank like a puddle in the July sun, leaving every town he had lived in as a child high and dry and, thanks to the barbarity of visas and passports, accessible to him only with difficulty.
After the Treaty of Trianon, by which Hungary was partitioned in 1920, even Bratislava (formerly Pozsony), where Bela Bartok's mother continued to live, could not be visited without formalities. Most of the more remote parts of pre-War Hungary to which Bela Bartok had gone in search of authentic folk music were now cut off. And what the First War had begun the Second continued. When Bela Bartok embarked for the USA in October 1940 it was for the last time. His five remaining years were spent, ironically, cataloguing somebody else's collection of Yugoslavian folk songs and struggling to secure a livelihood against the indifference of the American public and his own rapidly deteriorating health. Unlike Mahler, he never made the return crossing.
Bela Bartok was born in the village of Nagyszentmiklos (now Sannicolaul-Mare) on the 25th March 1881. It lies near the junction of the borders of modern Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania, and is now in Romania. His father, the director of the local government agricultural college and an accomplished amateur pianist, died when young Bela was seven, after which his early career was guided by his mother, often in the face of real economic, geographical and physical hardship. We can follow their track northwards and westwards, always just outside the fringes of present-day Hungary. At Nagyszollos, now in the USSR, Paula Bartok taught from 1889 in the elementary school while Bela studied, with conspicuous lack of success, at the Gymnasium in Nagyvarad (now Oradea Mare in Romania). In 1892 the little family, including Bela's younger sister Erzsebet, spent a year's 'sabbatical' in Pozsony to enable Bela to take proper music lessons with Laszlo Erkel. Later Paula managed to get a permanent teaching job in Pozsony, and it was there that Bela had his first real opportunity to hear and make music and to move in musical circles. He met Erno Dohnanyi and succeeded him as organist in the Gymnasium chapel. In 1898, when he was accepted for the Vienna Conservatoire, he followed Dohnanyi in preferring Budapest: a fashionable, but in Bela Bartok's case, vital choice.
Bela Bartok's childhood had been seriously affected by ill-health. He was bronchitic, had suffered from pneumonia and been treated for a (wrongly diagnosed) curvature of the spine. These ailments slowed down his physical growth, but could not obstruct his musical ability and intellect. By the time his father died he was picking out tunes on the piano, and at nine he was composing (an activity he called 'remembering'). At ten he appeared at a concert in Nagyszollos in the dual role of composer/pianist on which his career was later to pivot. But illness continued to dog him. It interrupted his course at the Budapest Academy no less than three times, and may have stopped him composing - though his silence between 1900 and 1902 was probably due to a stylistic impasse which was eventually broken by a performance of Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. For a time music poured out of him under Strauss's influence, though his biggest work of this period, the Kossuth Symphony, is significantly not autobiographical but patriotic and in tune with the vigorous Hungarian separatist movement in the dying years of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Kossuth was incidentally Bela Bartok's first work to be heard in England, when Richter conducted it in Manchester in 1904.
A more important event of 1904 was the discovery of Hungarian folk music. Bela Bartok's first recordings of this seem to have been made out of more or less idle curiosity, but in 1905 he began, with Kodaly, a systematic survey which took him on collecting trips throughout Hungary, Transylvania and Carpathia and ultimately as far afield as North Africa (1913) and Turkey (1936). Bela Bartok's collation and editing of this material, though later eclipsed by his own music, was meticulous and scholarly and remains an important contribution to musical ethnology. Moreover, it bore fruit in his music, both in providing actual melodies and in forming the basis of a new and completely individual style. All Bela Bartok's works after the First Quartet (1908) are impregnated with the folk influence.
Meanwhile in 1907 Bela Bartok accepted a teaching post at the Budapest Academy, where he was to remain until 1934. This was, however, the start of a frustrating phase of his career. The Straussian period had been succeeded by a series of more austere and experimental works, including the piano bagatelles, whose modernisms were admired by Busoni, and the First Quartet, which shows the new influence of Debussy. These works encountered growing opposition in Budapest circles, though they were better received abroad. Then came the war of 1914, followed by the abortive Hungarian revolutions of 1918, and the Treaty of Trianon. Throughout this period Bela Bartok worked somewhat hopelessly on collating hfs folksong collections, teaching his piano students (he refused to teach composition) and writing music of growing rhythmic ebullience and harmonic ferocity. The Second Quartet dates from this period, as does the opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, the ballets The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin and much piano music. By the early 1920s the future was beginning to look happier for new music. In 1922 Salzburg played host to an international festival of modern music, and the following year this was institutionalised as the festival of the ISCM. Bela Bartok's music featured prominently on these occasions. He was also now an admired international concert pianist, and we owe the first two piano concertos and the great solo piano works of the 1920s (the Improvisations, the Sonata, Out of Doors) to his Mozartian need to keep his recital programmes fresh. It was as a pianist/composer that Bela Bartok enjoyed a succesd'estime'm London in 1922 and again in 1923 (each time with a new violin and piano sonata), and paid his first visit to the USA in 1927. The following year the USA paid him a further compliment by awarding a prize to his uncompromisingly difficult Third Quartet.
The closing years of Bela Bartok's life are as melancholy biographically as they are rich musically. To the distractions and exhaustions of a combined creative, performing and teaching career was added the gloom of seeing central Europe fall more and more into Nazi control, and the humiliation of having his own Aryanism investigated (in 1937: he was not, of course, Aryan, but like all pure Hungarians a member of the racially distinct Finno-Ugric stock). The music of this period, however, includes some of the greatest of all 20th-century works: the Fourth and Fifth Quartets, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and the Sonata for two pianos and percussion. The mellowing of Bela Bartok's style has not at this stage undermined its vigour. But by 1939, the year of the Sixth Quartet and of his mother's death at the age of 82, the strain of regret portends some falling off of creative energy, though this was to be brilliantly but briefly halted in three works of 1943-5, the Concerto for Orchestra (commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation), the Sonata for solo violin, and the Third Piano Concerto, all composed in New York.
Bela Bartok is one of the great originals among 20th-century composers. His early chamber works, of which a violin sonata (1903) and a piano quintet (1903^4) have been published and recorded, still show the influence of Brahms, Strauss and perhaps Liszt. But by 1908, in the bagatelles and the First Quartet, he was writing music which for the most part cannot be traced to any major historical influence except folk music. Bela Bartok's subsequent music presents two significant and opposed aspects of his personality: on the one hand that passionate streak which, according to contemporary accounts, was only evident in the man when he sat at the piano; and on the other hand a fondness for intellectual constructions. In most of Bela Bartok's 'barbaro' writing, from the Two Romanian Dances (1910) to the moto perpetuo finale of the Concerto for Orchestra (1943) there is some feeling of pent-up emotion bursting out, though he was also undoubtedly influenced by the anti-romantic tendencies of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Similarly the many 'night-music' movements generate a positively expressionistic tension which seems bound to explode into violence.
This quasi-pathological streak naturally influenced his music at every level. In the violin sonatas of 1922-3 it threatens to unhinge the whole idea of coherent partnership between two instruments, and in the Third and Fourth Quartets it inspires various instrumental effects of a more or less disintegrative nature (including the famous 'Bela Bartok' pizzicato, where the string rebounds harshly against the fingerboard). Such effects were partly influenced by Berg's Lyric Suite. But though the Third Quartet is practically non-tonal, Bela Bartok never quite reconciled himself to whole hearted atonality, still less to Schoenberg's twelve-note method. Nevertheless, like Schoenberg, he was a brilliant contrapuntist and moreover probably did arrive quite early at a composing system (based, according to Ernd Lendvai, on the Golden Section). But he never taught or expounded it.
Most of Bela Bartok's music has an expressive urgency in proportion to the lifelong difficulty he experienced in personal communication. As a child he was usually too ill to play normally with other children, and this, together with the early death of his father, seems to have kept back the gregarious side of his nature. Brought up by his mother, he was always happiest in the company of women. He married twice, both times to pupils considerably younger than himself: in 1909 to Marta Ziegler (who was then 16 or 17), and in 1923, after a divorce, to Ditta Pasztory. Most of those who knew him testify to his intensely private and withdrawn nature, in which there was also a streak of rather proud integrity. When his New York friends wanted to ease his financial worries, they always had to employ subterfuge, since Bela Bartok would never accept straightforward generosity. By the time of his success in the USA, he was too ill to profit by it.
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