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About Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók: Overview

  • Born: 1881 - Austria-Hungary 
  • Died: 1945 - New YorkUSA
  • Historical Period: The 20th Century 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, keyboards, songs, ballet, opera, string quartets
Composer, Bela Bartok 

    Béla Bartók was a Hungarian master composer, born in the year 1881 in the then Austria-Hungary. He was also equally proficient and respected as an ethnomusicologist, a pianist, and a teacher, with a distinct style, evident in his body of work. These include piano solos, stage pieces, string quartets, and orchestral compositions, among others. He passed away in 1945 in New York.

    Dive deeper into Béla Bartók's life and works: The Fledgling Maverick Who Grasped at Musical Greatness

    It is widely accepted by musicologists and amateur admirers alike that there is no equal to Bartok when there is a connection to be made between raw music and the world around. He was an avid researcher of local folk tales and legends, which then reflected in his creations, some of which were musically rendered communication of human relational struggles. Bartok’s music was a celebration of mystery where the rhythm often rose to scorching levels, rivaling and even going beyond the likes of Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

    Bartók’s younger years, his childhood, was spent learning the piano, from teachers as well as his mother. His prodigious talents appeared when he wrote dance pieces at 9, and when at 11, he starred in his debut performance. As a rather frail individual, Bartok led a rather secluded life as opposed to his contemporaries and was less politically motivated as well. His political opinions, however, became evident in the 30s when he left Europe after the situation started worsening with the advent of Nazism. 

    In the steps of Ernö Dohnányi, one of Hungary’s greats, Bartók learned music at the Royal Hungarian Academy of Music, developing more as a pianist than as a composer. In the early 1900s, Hungary was overtaken by a nationalistic ideology, fueled by Ferenc Kossuth’s Party of Independence. During this time, Bartók composed Kossuth (1903), much akin to Johann Strauss’s style. This piece was eventually accepted by the masses among critical acclaim.

    Joining the Academy of Music’s faculty in 1907, Bartók stayed till 1934, after which he left to join the Academy of Sciences. He mostly collected and analyzed folk songs, before publishing monographs and articles. The composer’s first numbered string quartet was produced in 1908, and the folk influences in it were evident and profound, while his second quartet creation in between 1915-1917, had inspiration from his time in North Africa. We can also infer from his third in 1927 and fourth in 1928, respectively, that he utilized dissonance more effectively, with the next two in 1934 and 1939 returning to traditional roots and tune. 

    Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) was Bartók’s only opera, which made the use of rhythms that sounded like speech, comparable to what Claude Debussy used in his Pelléas et Mélisande. The musical notes are intense with dissonances that are grating, complimented by a counterpoint similar to Schoenberg’s “12-note” technique. Bartók also wrote the ballet, The Wooden Prince (1914–16) and a pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin (1918–19) which were his final stage performance creations.

    The maestro’s most significant time was the decades immediately after the First World War when his distinctly varied style with diatonic and chromatic elements that was also rhythmically animated blended perfectly. Bartók’s pieces during these wonderfully prolific years include the Cantata Profana (1930), the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936) and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). After this, he received an appointment as a research assistant for music at Columbia University in New York City, where he maintained his interest of dabbling in folk materials and music. He carried out transcriptions and editing activities for publishing Serbo-Croatian women’s songs, a segment of his larger Balkan folk music. Ditta Pásztory, Bartók’s wife and a pianist by her own right, assisted him in performing at concerts, even as his health started to fail him.

    Bartók had, in his lifetime, collected thousands of songs of folk origin, which were eventually published by scholarly sources and in his own creations. By his own admission, we know that his research into folk songs had helped him to break out of the traditional major-minor tonality of Western music. Apart from being well-known as an ethnomusicologist and a composer, Bartók was also a traveling concert pianist. 

    The financial condition of the composer was always in a state of urgency and his romantic affairs didn’t always turn out to be happy. Further complications were added to his life and beliefs when Hungary transitioned from the Austro-Hungarian Empire into an independent nation that favored the Nazis. In the face of such developments, Bartók decided to move to the United States.

    Suffering from an advanced stage of leukemia, Bartók was physically drained but mentally, he was as fruitful as ever. Despite tremendous ravages of cancer in his final years, Bartók did manage to churn out some fine masterpieces such as Sonata for violin solo (1944), Concerto for Orchestra (1943) and Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945). His final work of music was a viola concerto, that included only unfinished records and was eventually finished by Tibor Serly in 1945.

    He died in New York, and despite his achievements and fame, his funeral was attended by a small group of people, that included his family and also close friend György Sándor. He was buried in New York’s Ferncliff Cemetery. In the year 1980, Hungary, now a non-Fascist state, requested the United States to let them have Bartók’s remains to be interred in his home country. And his remains were reinterred in Hungary next to Ditta’s remains.  

     

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