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Bela Bartok Biography And Music

Updated on September 10, 2014

Who Was Bela Bartok?

Bela Bartok (1881-1945) is internationally recognized as one of the greatest musicians and composers of the twentieth century.

So why another page about this famous composer? As a child I practically grew up with his music. My family is distantly related to his (from my father's side) so a few years ago I spent a lot of time researching him and his work. I wanted to know who he really was.

This page is created as a homage to the wonderful person and composer who enchanted so many people with his ethnomusic style.

It provides an overview of Bartok's life and music starting from his early years until his very last when he passed away at the age of 64 in New York from a complication of leukemia, of which he was suffering at the time.

You can also shop for his music and books about his life and his compositions.

The images on this page are either public domain, creative common pictures on Flickr, or pictures that I have actually taken while traveling to Romania and Hungary a few years back.

The current picture is public domain, sourced from Wikimedia.

The Life and Music of Bela Bartok

The Life and Music of Béla Bartók
The Life and Music of Béla Bartók

One of the most complete biographies on Bela Bartok.

First published in 1953, and again in 1964, Stevens's study is a classic text, combining an authoritative, balanced account of the Hungarian composer's life with candid, insightful analyses of his numerous works, particularly the chamber works.

 

I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing. ~

Bela Bartok

Statue of Bela Bartok
Statue of Bela Bartok

The Early Life Of Bela Bartok

Bela Bartok was born in 1881 in Nagyszentmiklos, a typical village in Banat that was at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian empire (which became Sinnicolau Mare after the Treaty of Trianon, when the entire Transilvania got taken over by Romania).

As a small child he was isolated from his friends and peers due to a severe case of smallpox, which kept him quarantined at home.

During this period he spent a great amount of time listening to his mom, Paula, playing the piano (she was a piano teacher), who eventually realized the potential that the young Bela had for music and started to encourage his musical inclinations.

At the age of 8, after his dad died in 1888, he and his sister Elza moved with his mom to the Nagyszolos (at the time Hungarian territory, which became eventually part of Ukraine). This is where he wrote his first pieces of music at the age of 9 in 1890.

In 1903 he returned to his native place where he gave his very first concert.

(The image here shows a statue of Bela Bartok in his natal place, Nagyszentmiklos - scanned it from postcard i bought)

Photos and Maps About Nagyszentmiklos, Bela Bartok's Birthplace - (Sinnicolau Mare)

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Nagyszentmiklos (in Hungarian), Sinnicolau Mare (in Romanian) on the map. Where Bela Bartok was born.Here was Bela Bartok's home. It has long been destroyed, so the plaque on the wall of this house tells briefly about him (see below).This is the plaque in detail that is shown at the front of the house above.A stone erected on his place of birth.An aerial picture of Nagyszentmiklos as it is now.Statue of Bela Bartok in Nagyszentmiklos for remembrance.
Nagyszentmiklos (in Hungarian), Sinnicolau Mare (in Romanian) on the map. Where Bela Bartok was born.
Nagyszentmiklos (in Hungarian), Sinnicolau Mare (in Romanian) on the map. Where Bela Bartok was born.
Here was Bela Bartok's home. It has long been destroyed, so the plaque on the wall of this house tells briefly about him (see below).
Here was Bela Bartok's home. It has long been destroyed, so the plaque on the wall of this house tells briefly about him (see below).
This is the plaque in detail that is shown at the front of the house above.
This is the plaque in detail that is shown at the front of the house above.
A stone erected on his place of birth.
A stone erected on his place of birth.
An aerial picture of Nagyszentmiklos as it is now.
An aerial picture of Nagyszentmiklos as it is now.
Statue of Bela Bartok in Nagyszentmiklos for remembrance.
Statue of Bela Bartok in Nagyszentmiklos for remembrance.

Have you ever heard of the composer Bela Bartok?

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Bartok and His World

Bartok and His World
Bartok and His World

Adds important material to the slim library of English-language studies of Bartok's achievements

 
Bartok Bela age 22
Bartok Bela age 22

Bela Bartok - During His Studies

At some point he moved to Pozsony (Hungarian name for Bratislava) in Slovakia, his mother's native place. Here he studied piano with famous composers and teachers. It is interesting though that he learned the art of composing on his own, by studing the piano scores.

He was strongly influenced by Erno Dohanyi, another famous composer just 4 years older than him, whom he followed in 1899 to Budapest in Hungary to the Academy of Music.

This is where he really started to to plant the seeds for a style of music for which he will always be remembered, ethnomusicology.

Ethnomusicology is a perfect symbiosis between his Hungarian nationalism and influences of other composers. In 1903 he created his first ever known major piece, Kossuth, which is a symphonic poem dedicated to Kossuth Lajos (a well known hero in Hungary who fought for freedom in the 1948 revolution).

Once he left his official studies at the Academy, he became a concert pianist, thus starting his new career as a real musician.

After graduating from the Academy, he returned in 1907 to become a piano instructor, a position that he held for over 25 years.

(The image here shows Bela Bartok at his graduation in 1899 - public domain)

Bela Bartok musing...

"...I consider myself a Hungarian composer. The fact that the melodies in some of my own original compositions were inspired by or based on Rumanian folk-songs is no justification for classing me as a compositorul român;..."

Bela Bartok in his letters discussing on being labeled a Romanian composer

The year 1904 was one of the important milestones in Bartok Bela's life. He was still living in Pozsony when he one day heard Lidi Dosa, a Transylvanian servant, singing a folk song called Piros Alma (red apple). This is when he truly became bewitched by the Transylvanian folk music.

The fact that just a couple of years later he met and become close friend with Kodaly Zoltan, one of the major Hungarian composers at the time, strengthened his love for folk music. Kodaly was at the time collecting Hungarian folk music recordings, and this prompted Bela to start his own collection as well.

They published together the Magyar nepdalok (Hungarian Folksongs), made of 10 - 10 folk songs each for piano.

While Kodaly was mostly interested in Hungarian traditional music, Bela Bartok liked also listening to other folk music, such as the Romanian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Serbian, Slovakian and North African as well.

From here onwards his major calling in life was set: writing pieces with a strong multi-ethnic influence. He spent a lot of time studying ethnic music of various places, one of the major one being Transylvania.

(Here is an image of Bela Bartok and his friend Kodaly Zoltan working together as collectors of folk music - picture in public domain.)

Kossuth & The Wooden Prince By Bela Bartok

Wooden Prince
Wooden Prince

Kossuth and The Wooden Prince are two works by Bela Bartok worth having.

 

Bela Bartok Composition Called Kossuth

Hungary vol.1 / Hungarian folksong Bela Bartok

Bela Bartok musing...

The principal scene of my research has been Eastern Europe. As a Hungarian I naturally began my work with Hungarian folk music, but soon "extended it to neighbouring territories-Slovakian, Ukrainian, Rumanian."

Bela Bartok

Bluebeard's Castle by Bela Bartok

Béla Bartók: Bluebeard's Castle ~ Fischer
Béla Bartók: Bluebeard's Castle ~ Fischer

This album is the most dramatic version of Bartok's opera, whose powerful bass/baritone and soprano leads are the real force of the opera. The drama and dynamic force of the original opera is heightened and the music swells with intensity.

 

The Adult Years Of Bela Bartok

I guess we could say that his adult years really started in 1909 when he married Ziegler Marta. They had a son one year later, whom they named Bela Jr.

One of his major life transformations happened in 1916 when he converted from Catholicism to Unitarianism, a less stricter church (just a side note, I am also Unitarian and many people in Transylvania are).

Bela Bartok Jr wrote at some point that his father joined the Unitarian church and faith because he found it to be "the freest, most humanistic faith".

He was not a very religious person, but he was a nature lover. In fact throughout his life he collected many insects, plants and minerals.

As a matter of fact, many people say that he was a rather withdrawn person, not very outgoing. He loved nature more than being with many people. His first mature work, the opera Bluebeard's Castle, shows this alienation and sense of withdrawal.

Bluebeard's Castle by Bela Bartok

Unitarian Church Photos Related To Bela Bartok

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Budapest Unitarian Church named after Bela Bartok (he converted from catholicism to unitarianism)Inside of the church, focus on his name plaqueInside of the Bela Bartok churchChurch congregation to commemorate 125 years of his birthday
Budapest Unitarian Church named after Bela Bartok (he converted from catholicism to unitarianism)
Budapest Unitarian Church named after Bela Bartok (he converted from catholicism to unitarianism)
Inside of the church, focus on his name plaque
Inside of the church, focus on his name plaque
Inside of the Bela Bartok church
Inside of the Bela Bartok church
Church congregation to commemorate 125 years of his birthday
Church congregation to commemorate 125 years of his birthday

Mikrokozmosz by Bela Bartok

Bela Bartok: Mikrokosmos
Bela Bartok: Mikrokosmos

Bartók's Mikrokosmos ("Little World") essentially comprises 153 teaching pieces, divided into six books of progressive difficulty. These works make ideal vehicles for budding piano students who are ready to face the myriad challenges of 20th-century keyboard music. They also reveal the kernels of the Hungarian composer's uncompromising compositional style.

 

Bela Bartok - His Mature Works

His austere, pesimistic and withdrawn philosophy translated into the next couple of his works: The Wooden Prince in 1917, along with the ballet-pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin.

In fact The Miraculous Mandarin has caused quite an uproad in 1926 when it was premiered. The story talks about robbery, prostitution and murder, subjects that the population at that time was not very cozy with. After the premiere the audience left the room in a rage and this very piece was banned from being played again.

Luckily by this time his reputation as an excellent musician and modern composer has already been established, especially with the two violin sonatas that he wrote in 1921 and 1922, and with his Dance Suite that he wrote in the following year, 1923.

As for his private life, he divorced from Marta in the very same year, in 1923, and married right away a pianist student Ditta Pasztory with whom he had a son, Peter, in 1924.

If you are familiar with his important work, Mikrokozmosz, a 6 volume collection of piano pieces, you might not know that he composed it for his son's music lessons.

Bela Bartok's Mikrokozmosz

Have you listened to any of Bartok's compositions?

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A nation creates music--the composer only arranges it.~

Bela Bartok

Bartok Bela's Best Music Between 1930-1940

It is said that his best music was created in the 1930s. Much of his music was commissioned outside of Hungary. For example in 1934 he wrote the String quartet for the American Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge. This was his fifth string quartet.

In 1936 he wrote Music For Strings Percussion And Celesta, commissioned by the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher.

In 1937 he wrote Sonata for Two Pianos and in 1939 Divertimento. Contrast was written in 1938 for the Benny Goodman, a famous clarinetist.

While his work flourished, the difficult political times caused him to leave Hungary in 1940 when he left for American along with many other emigrants. While his wife went along with him, his son Peter went two years later. His first son, Bela Bartok Jr never left Hungary.

Music For Strings Percussion And Celesta by Bela Bartok

Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Hungarian Sketches - by Bela Bartok

Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Hungarian Sketches
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Hungarian Sketches

Even after all these years, the recording remains just as convincing and authoritative. Reiner's superb control of his orchestra and of Bartók's rhythms and textures is still unsurpassed, even by dozens of subsequent conductors in the digital age. Likewise, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta shows just what an incredible ensemble the Chicago Symphony was under Reiner's direction.

 

Bela Bartok's Last Years And Work In America

While he did get his American citizenship in 1945 (the very year he died) he never saw this country as his own. He saw it more as an exile from home. While in Europe he was already quite a famous composer as a pianist, in the US he was practically unknown.

Although he was not completely poor, he was not well off either, and he and his family lived in a relative obscurity, something that he was not quite used to from back home.

His health started to deteriorate right after he went to the US. Pain in the shoulders, stiffness, all these were symptoms that he was fighting with. Only in 1944 doctors diagnosed him with leukemia, however there was too late to do anything about it at this time.

During his last years in the US, he creates some of his best work. He wrote Concerto for Orchestra commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky. This is in fact Bartok's most famous piece. He also wrote in 1944, just one year before his passing, Sonata for Solo Violin commissioned by the famous Yehudi Menuhin.

In 1945 he composed his Piano Concerto No. 3 which was his final completed work. He started in 1945 Viola Concerto, however sadly he never got to finish it.

On September 26, 1945 Bela Bartok passed away in a hospital in New York City. His family was with him, both his son and his wife holding his hands during his final moments. He was only 64.

(Shown here is a plaque of Bela Bartok mounted on the side of his house in Manhattan where he spent the last year of his life. Credits for the photo go to Teckie Kev)

How do you like Bela Bartok's works so far?

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Concerto for Orchestra by Bela Bartok

Main Works By Bela Bartok

Here is a compiled list of Bela Bartok's major works for piano, chamber music, his stage works and his orchestral works.

While he lived a relatively short life, passing away after only 64 year, he created and composed quite a large number of unique and wonderful pieces.

If you are a collector of his work, check what you have against the list below. If you do have something it is not mentioned here, please leave your comments at the bottom of this article.

Main Piano Works by Bela Bartok

  1. 1908 - 14 Bagatelles
  2. 1908 - Children
  3. 1911 - Allegro Barbaro
  4. 1913 - 18 Easy Pieces
  5. 1915 - Romanian Folk Dances
  6. 1926 - Nine Little Piano Pieces
  7. 1926 - Out Of Doors
  8. 1926 - Sonata for Piano
  9. 1933 - Three Rondos
  10. 1926-1933 Mikrokozmosz

Orchestral Works by Bela Bartok

  1. 1903 - Kossuth
  2. 1904 - Rhapsody and Scherzo for Piano and Orchestra
  3. 1905 - First and second suite
  4. 1923 - Dance
  5. 1936 - Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
  6. 1939 - Divertimento for string orchestra
  7. 1943 - Concerto for Orchestra

Stage Works By Bela Bartok

  1. 1911 - Bluebeard's Castle, his only opera dedicated to his first wife Marta
  2. 1914-1916 - The Wooden Prince (balet)
  3. 1918-1919 - The Miraculous Mandarin (balet)

Main Writings by Bela Bartok

  1. 1906 - Hungarian Folksongs together with Kodaly Zoltan
  2. 1923 - The Maramures Romanian folk music
  3. 1924 - The Hungarian folk song
  4. 1934 - Folk music and the music of neighboring people
  5. 1935 - The Roumanian Christmas Carols

Chamber Music by Bela Bartok

  1. 1908 - I String Quartet
  2. 1917 - II. String Quartet
  3. 1921 - I Sonata for violin and piano
  4. 1922 - II. Sonata for violin and piano
  5. 1927 - III. String Quartet
  6. 1928 - IV. String Quartet
  7. 1928 - I and II Rhapsody
  8. 1931 - 44 Duos for Two Violins
  9. 1934 - V String Quartet
  10. 1937 - Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion
  11. 1938 - Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano
  12. 1939 - VI. String Quartet
  13. 1944 - Sonata for Solo Violin

Bela Bartok As He Should Be Remembered

Bela Bartok As He Should Be Remembered
Bela Bartok As He Should Be Remembered

What Do You Think Of Bela Bartok's Biography And Music?

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    • NAIZA LM profile image

      NAIZA LM 4 years ago

      Terrific tribute lens about Bela Bartok life and music.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 4 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Thank you for this very interesting introduction to Bela Bartok

    • Rosaquid profile image

      Rosaquid 5 years ago

      Thanks for the interesting lens. A piano teacher I had in my youth had studied under a student of Bela Bartok. My teacher taught me a hand technique that supposedly came from Bartok originally.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I like Bartok's music, and this lens is very interesting, I learned a lot about him. I'm impressed that you are related. Awesome lens! :)

    • profile image

      entertainmentev 5 years ago

      I can see why you are proud of this lens. What a great connection for you and your family. Thank you for sharing!

    • WildFacesGallery profile image

      Mona 5 years ago from Iowa

      This is an amazing lens. Blessed.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      A truly beautiful tribute lens! Nice to read a lot more about a wonderful composer and nice to know that he was related to you! Very well done indeed! :)

    • gamecheathub profile image

      gamecheathub 5 years ago

      My favorite Bartok piece is "Romanian Folk Dances". This biography was very detailed and a great read. congrats!

    • juditpaton profile image

      Iudit Gherghiteanu 5 years ago from Ozun

      Exceptional lens on Bartok Bela, Biography and Music, well done, Marika.

    • Tamara14 profile image

      Tamara Kajari 5 years ago from Zagreb, Croatia, Europe

      A great man who gave us all great music to enjoy. You did an excellent lens Marcia. Squid Angle blessed!