Béla Viktor János Bartók (March 25, 1881, Sînnicolau Mare – September 26, 1945, New York) was a Hungarian composer and pianist, regarded, along with Liszt, to be his country’s greatest composer. Through his collection and analytical study of folk music, he was one of the founders of ethnomusicology.
Béla Bartók was born in the town of Sînnicolau Mare (Hungarian: Nagyszentmiklós) - at the time when the Romanian province of Banat was part of Austria-Hungary - into a Hungarian ethnic musical family and received good pianistic training from his mother. He was something of a prodigy, and began composing at the age of ten. In 1898 he was accepted at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory, but chose instead to stay in Hungary at the Budapest Academy. There he met Zoltán Kodály, who influenced him greatly and became his lifelong friend and colleague. His early work was influenced greatly by Strauss and Liszt, but his first major work, the symphonic Kossuth (1903), also stands out for its telling of a nationalist story.
In 1904 Bartók began collecting folk music by recording musicians on wax cylinders. He collected first in the Carpathian Basin (the then Kingdom of Hungary), where he notated Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian and Bulgarian folk music. He also collected in Moldavia, Wallachia and in 1913 in Algeria. This had a profound impact on his compositional style, for in these pieces he found elements that he began to incorporate into his own writing. The melodies of these folk tunes, removed from the traditional major/minor tonality of Western music, provided new melodic and harmonic resources, and the powerful and often asymmetrical rhythms (often freely mixing groupings of twos and threes) became a hallmark of Bartók's rhythmic style.
In 1907 Bartók was appointed professor of piano at the Budapest Academy and he continued his compositional activity, creating works of greater complexity. Among his notable students were Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, György Sándor, Ernő Balogh, Lili Kraus, and, after Bartók moved to the United States, Jack Beeson and Violet Archer. In 1911, Bartók wrote what was to be his only opera, Bluebeard's Castle. By the early 1920s his music was verging on an atonal style. He gained international success with a less challenging work, The Wooden Prince (1917), and by the late 1920s his music started to take on more of a neoclassical approach.
The crises leading up to World War II forced Bartók to flee Hungary and settle in the United States. The move caused both financial and personal difficulties, and failing health heightened these. Nonetheless, in his final few years he created a group of important pieces, including the Concerto for Orchestra. For several years, supported by a research fellowship from Columbia University, Bartók and his wife worked on a large collection of Serbo-Croatian folk songs in Columbia's libraries. Bartók's difficulties during his first years in the US were mitigated by publication royalties, teaching, and performance tours. While their finances were always precarious, it is a myth that he lived and died in poverty and neglect. There were enough supporters to ensure that there was sufficient money and work available for him to live on. Bartók generally refused outright charity. Bartók died in New York from leukemia on September 26, 1945 at age 64. Bartok's body was initially interred in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, but during the final year of communist Hungary in the late 1980s, his remains were transferred to Budapest for a state funeral on July 7, 1988 with interment in Budapest's Farkasréti Cemetery.
In his own words...
"Many people think it is a comparatively easy task to write a composition on found folk tunes... This way of thinking is completely erroneous. To handle folk tunes is one of the most difficult tasks; equally difficult, if not more so, than to write a major original composition. If we keep in mind that borrowing a tune means being bound by its individual peculiarity, we shall understand one part of the difficulty. Another is created by the special character of folk tune. We must penetrate it, feel it, and bring out its sharp contours by the appropriate setting... It must be a work of inspiration just as much as any other composition".
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