Béla Bartók MP3, CDs & Vinyl, Music of Béla Bartók

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Béla Bartók MP3, CDs & Vinyl, Music of Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók: Overview

Béla Bartók: Béla Bartók, Hungarian form Bartók Béla, (born March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, Austria-Hungary [now Sânnicolau Mare, Romania] — died September 26, 1945, New York, NewYork, U.S.), Hungarian composer, pianist, ethnomusicologist, and teacher, noted for the Hungarian flavour of his major musical works, which include orchestral works, string quartets, piano solos, several stage works, a cantata, and a number of settings of folk songs for voice and piano.

'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 , 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 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.

Béla Bartók spent his childhood and youth in various provincial towns, studying the piano with his mother and later with a succession of teachers. He began to compose small dance pieces at age nine, and two years later he played in public for the first time, including a composition of his own in his program.

Following the lead of another eminent Hungarian composer, Ernö Dohnányi, Béla Bartók undertook his professional studies in Budapest, at the Royal Hungarian Academy of Music, rather than in Vienna. He developed rapidly as a pianist but less so as a composer. His discovery in 1902 of the music of Richard Strauss stimulated his enthusiasm for composition. At the same time, a spirit of optimistic nationalism was sweeping Hungary, inspired by Ferenc Kossuth and his Party of Independence. As other members of Béla Bartók’s generation demonstrated in the streets, the 22-year-old composer wrote a symphonic poem, Kossuth (1903), portraying in a style reminiscent of Strauss, though with a Hungarian flavour, the life of the great patriot Lajos Kossuth, Ferenc’s father, who had led the revolution of 1848–49. Despite a scandal at the first performance, occasioned by a distortion of the Austrian national anthem, the work was received enthusiastically.

Shortly after Béla Bartók completed his studies in 1903, he and the Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, who collaborated with Béla Bartók, discovered that what they had considered Hungarian folk music and drawn upon for their compositions was instead the music of city-dwelling Roma. A vast reservoir of authentic Hungarian peasant music was subsequently made known by the research of the two composers. The initial collection, which led them into the remotest corners of Hungary, was begun with the intention of revitalizing Hungarian music. Both composers not only transcribed many folk tunes for the piano and other media but also incorporated into their original music the melodic, rhythmic, and textural elements of peasant music. Ultimately, their own work became suffused with the folk spirit.

Béla Bartók was appointed to the faculty of the Academy of Music in 1907 and retained that position until 1934, when he resigned to become a working member of the Academy of Sciences. His holidays were spent collecting folk material, which he then analyzed and classified, and he soon began the publication of articles and monographs.

At the same time, Béla Bartók was expanding the catalog of his compositions, with many new works for the piano, a substantial number for orchestra, and the beginning of a series of six string quartets that was to constitute one of his most impressive achievements. His first numbered quartet (1908) shows few traces of folk influence, but in the others that influence is thoroughly assimilated and omnipresent. The quartets parallel and illuminate Béla Bartók’s stylistic development: in the second quartet (1915–17) Berber (Amazigh) elements reflect the composer’s collecting trip to North Africa; in the third (1927) and fourth (1928) there is a more intensive use of dissonance; and in the fifth (1934) and sixth (1939) there is a reaffirmation of traditional tonality.

In 1911 Béla Bartók wrote his only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, an allegorical treatment of the legendary wife murderer with a score permeated by characteristics of traditional Hungarian folk songs, especially in the speechlike rhythms of the text setting. The technique is comparable to that used by the French composer Claude Debussy in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), and Béla Bartók’s opera has other impressionistic qualities as well. A ballet, The Wooden Prince (1914–16), and a pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin (1918–19), followed; thereafter he wrote no more for the stage.

Unable to travel during World War I, Béla Bartók devoted himself to composition and the study of the collected folk music. During the short-lived proletarian dictatorship of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919, he served as a member of the Music Council with Kodály and Dohnányi. Upon its overthrow Kodály was removed from his position at the Academy of Music; but Béla Bartók, despite his defense of his colleague, was permitted to remain.

His most productive years were the two decades that followed the end of World War I in 1918, when his musical language was completely and expressively formulated. He had assimilated many disparate influences; in addition to those already mentioned — and — there were the 19th-century Hungarian composer and the modernists and . Béla Bartók arrived at a vital and varied style, rhythmically animated, in which diatonic and chromatic elements are juxtaposed without incompatibility. Within these two creative decades, Béla Bartók composed two concerti for piano and orchestra and one for violin; the Cantata Profana (1930), his only large-scale choral work; the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936) and other orchestral works; and several important chamber scores, including the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). The same period saw Béla Bartók expanding his activities as a concert pianist, playing in most of the countries of western Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

As Nazi Germany extended its sphere of influence in the late 1930s and Hungary appeared in imminent danger of capitulation, Béla Bartók found it impossible to remain there. After a second concert tour of the United States in 1940, he immigrated there the same year. An appointment as research assistant in music at Columbia University, New York City, enabled him to continue working with folk music, transcribing and editing for publication a collection of Serbo-Croatian women’s songs, a part of a much larger recorded collection of Balkan folk music. With his wife, the pianist Ditta Pásztory, he was able to give a few concerts. His health, however, was never very strong and had begun to deteriorate even before his arrival in the United States.

Béla Bartók’s last years were marked by the ravages of leukemia, which often prevented him from teaching, lecturing, or performing. Nonetheless, he was able to compose the Concerto for Orchestra (1943), the Sonata for violin solo (1944), and all but the last measures of the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945). When he died, his last composition, a viola concerto, was left an uncompleted mass of sketches (completed by Tibor Serly, 1945).

The significance of Béla Bartók lies in four major areas of music—composition, performance, pedagogy, and ethnomusicology. As a composer of a stature equaled by few in the first half of the 20th century, he fused the essence of Hungarian and related folk music with traditional music to achieve a style that was at once nationalistic and deeply personal. As a pianist he gave concerts in Europe and the United States, disseminating the newer Hungarian music. As a teacher he helped train generations of pianists, both Hungarian and foreign. And as an ethnomusicologist he was one of the first to examine folk music with attention to its historical and sociological implications. He helped to lay the foundations for the study of comparative musical folklore in Hungary and published several important book-length studies of Hungarian and Romanian folk music. The composer’s son Peter, a recording engineer (from 1949) who worked with Folkways Records, was a crucial figure in the dissemination of American folk and avant-garde music on LP records.

Though Béla Bartók’s music was infrequently performed outside Hungary during his lifetime, many of his compositions, including the string quartets and the Concerto for Orchestra, later entered the standard concert repertory. Within a quarter century after his death, many of Béla Bartók’s works had been recognized as belonging among the classics of Western music.

The composer’s writings, especially on folk music, were compiled and edited by Benjamin Suchoff in Béla Bartók Essays (1976, reissued 1993) and Béla Bartók Studies in Ethnomusicology (1997). Hundreds of Béla Bartók’s letters and relevant documents were collected and edited by Demény János (János Demény) in several books, most in Hungarian. Nearly 300 of these, also edited by Demény, appear in English in Béla Bartók Letters (1971).

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