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Bela Bartok and the Concerto for Orchestra

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Béla Viktor János Bartók (March 25, 1881 – September 26, 1945) was a Hungarian composer and pianist who is considered one of the most important composers of the twentieth century and is regarded, along with Liszt, as Hungary’s greatest composer. Béla Bartók was born in the small Banatian town of Nagyszentmiklós in the Kingdom of Hungary, part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, but since 1920 in Romania, on March 25, 1881. His family reflected some of the ethno-cultural diversities of the country. The father, Béla Sr., considered himself thoroughly Hungarian, but his mother, born Paula Voit, was from a Roman Catholic Serbian family. Béla displayed notable musical talent very early in life: according to his mother, he could distinguish between different dance rhythms that she played on the piano before he learned to speak in complete sentences. By the age of four, he was able to play forty pieces on the piano, and his mother began formally teaching him the next year.

Béla was a small and sickly child and suffered from severe eczema until the age of five. In 1888, when he was seven, his father, the director of an agricultural school, died suddenly. Béla’s mother then took him and his sister, Erzsébet, to live in Vinogradiv, Ukraine, and then to Bratislava, Slovakia, where Béla gave his first public recital at age eleven to a warm critical reception. Among the pieces he played was his own first composition, written two years previously: a short piece called “The Course of the Danube.” Shortly thereafter László Erkel accepted him as a pupil. From 1899 to 1903, Bartók studied piano under István Thomán, a former student of Franz Liszt, and composition under János Koessler at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. There he met Zoltán Kodály, who influenced him greatly and became his lifelong friend and colleague. In 1903, Bartók wrote his first major orchestral work, Kossuth, a symphonic poem which honored Lajos Kossuth, hero of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

The music of Richard Strauss, whom he met in 1902 at the Budapest premiere of Also sprach Zarathustra, strongly influenced his early work. When visiting a holiday resort in the summer of 1904, Bartók overheard a young nanny, Lidi Dósa from Kibéd in Transylvania, sing folk songs to the children in her care. This sparked his lifelong dedication to folk music. From 1907 he also began to be influenced by the French composer Claude Debussy, whose compositions Kodály had brought back from Paris. Bartók’s large-scale orchestral works were still in the style of Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss, but he wrote a number of small piano pieces which showed his growing interest in folk music. The first piece to show clear signs of this new interest is the String Quartet No. 1 in A minor (1908), which contains folk-like elements.

In 1907, Bartók began teaching as a piano professor at the Royal Academy. This position freed him from touring Europe as a pianist and enabled him to work in Hungary. Among his notable students were Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, György Sándor, Ernő Balogh, and Lili Kraus. In 1908, he and Kodály traveled into the countryside to collect and research old Magyar folk melodies. Their growing interest in folk music coincided with a contemporary social interest in traditional national culture. They made some surprising discoveries. Magyar folk music had previously been categorised as Gypsy music. The classic example is Franz Liszt’s famous Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano, which he based on popular art songs performed by Romani bands of the time. In contrast, Bartók and Kodály discovered that the old Magyar folk melodies were based on pentatonic scales, similar to those in Asian folk traditions, such as those of Central Asia, Anatolia and Siberia.

Bartók and Kodály quickly set about incorporating elements of such Magyar peasant music into their compositions. They both frequently quoted folk song melodies verbatim and wrote pieces derived entirely from authentic songs. An example is his two volumes entitled For Children for solo piano, containing eighty folk tunes to which he wrote accompaniment. Bartók’s style in his art music compositions was a synthesis of folk music, classicism, and modernism. His melodic and harmonic sense was profoundly influenced by the folk music of Hungary, Romania, and other nations. He was especially fond of the asymmetrical dance rhythms and pungent harmonies found in Bulgarian music. Most of his early compositions offer a blend of nationalist and late Romanticism elements.

In 1909 at the age of 28, Bartók married Márta Ziegler (1893–1967), aged 16. Their son, Béla III, was born on August 22, 1910. In 1911, Bartók wrote what was to be his only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, dedicated to Márta. He entered it for a prize by the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission, but they rejected his work as not fit for the stage. After his disappointment over the Fine Arts Commission competition, Bartók wrote little for two or three years, preferring to concentrate on collecting and arranging folk music. He collected first in the Carpathian Basin, then in the Kingdom of Hungary, where he notated Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian, and Bulgarian folk music. He also collected in Moldavia, Wallachia, and in 1913 in Algeria. The outbreak of World War I forced him to stop the expeditions; and he returned to composing, writing the ballet The Wooden Prince (1914–16) and the String Quartet No. 2 in (1915–17), both influenced by Debussy.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, by his early adulthood Bartók had become an atheist. He believed that the existence of God could not be determined and was unnecessary. He later became attracted to Unitarianism and publicly converted to the Unitarian faith in 1916. In 1917 Bartók revised the score of Bluebeard’s Castle for the 1918 première, and rewrote the ending. Following the 1919 revolution, he was pressured by the new Soviet government to remove the name of the librettist Béla Balázs from the opera, as he was blacklisted and had left the country for Vienna. Bartók wrote another ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin influenced by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, as well as Richard Strauss. It was started in 1918, but not performed until 1926 because of its content. He next wrote his two violin sonatas, in 1921 and 1922 respectively, which are harmonically and structurally some of his most complex pieces. After nearly 15 years together, Bartók divorced Márta in June 1923. Two months later he married Ditta Pásztory (1903–1982), a piano student, ten days after proposing to her. She was aged 19, he 43. She had their son, Péter, born in 1924.

In 1927–28, Bartók wrote his third and fourth string quartets, after which his compositions demonstrated his mature style. Notable examples of this period are Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and Divertimento for String Orchestra BB 118 (1939). The String Quartet No. 5 was composed in 1934, and the sixth and last string quartet in 1939. After the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, Bartók refused to give concerts in Germany and broke with his publisher there. His anti-fascist political views caused him a great deal of trouble with the establishment in Hungary. In 1936 he travelled to Turkey to collect and study folk music. He worked in collaboration with Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun mostly around Adana. Bluebeard’s Castle received only one revival, in 1936, before Bartók emigrated. For the remainder of his life, although he was passionately devoted to Hungary, its people and its culture, he never felt much loyalty to the government or its official establishments.

In 1940, as the European political situation worsened after the outbreak of World War II, Bartók was increasingly tempted to flee Hungary. He was strongly opposed to the Nazis and Hungary’s siding with Germany. Having first sent his manuscripts out of the country, Bartók reluctantly emigrated to the U.S. with his wife Ditta in October that year. They settled in New York City. After joining them in 1942, their son, Péter Bartók, enlisted in the United States Navy where he served in the Pacific during the remainder of the war and later settled in Florida where he became a recording and sound engineer. His oldest son, Béla Bartók, Jr., remained in Hungary. Bartók never became fully at home in the US. He initially found it difficult to compose. Although well known in America as a pianist, ethnomusicologist and teacher, he was not well known as a composer. There was little American interest in his music during his final years. He and his wife Ditta gave some concerts, although demand for them was low. Bartók, who had made some recordings in Hungary, also recorded for Columbia Records after he came to the US.

Supported by a research fellowship from Columbia University, for several years, Bartók and Ditta worked on a large collection of Serbian and Croatian folk songs in Columbia’s libraries. Bartók’s economic difficulties during his first years in America were mitigated by publication royalties, teaching and performance tours. While his finances were always precarious, he did not live and die in poverty as was the common myth. He had enough supporters to ensure that there was sufficient money and work available for him to live on. Bartók was a proud man and did not easily accept charity. Despite being short on cash at times, he often refused money that his friends offered him out of their own pockets. Although he was not a member of the ASCAP, the society paid for any medical care he needed during his last two years. Bartók reluctantly accepted this.

The first symptoms of his health problems began late in 1940, when his right shoulder began to show signs of stiffening. In 1942, symptoms increased and he started having bouts of fever, but no underlying disease was diagnosed, in spite of medical examinations. Finally, in April 1944, leukemia was diagnosed, but by this time, little could be done. As his body slowly failed, Bartók found more creative energy, and he produced a final set of masterpieces, partly thanks to the violinist Joseph Szigeti and the conductor Fritz Reiner. Bartók’s last work might well have been the String Quartet No. 6 but for Serge Koussevitzky’s commission for the Concerto for Orchestra. Koussevitsky’s Boston Symphony Orchestra premièred the work in December 1944 to highly positive reviews. In 1944, he was also commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin to write a Sonata for Solo Violin. In 1945, Bartók composed his Piano Concerto No. 3, a graceful and almost neo-classical work, as a surprise 42nd birthday present for Ditta, but he died just over a month before her birthday, with the scoring not quite finished. He had sketched his Viola Concerto, but had barely started the scoring at his death. Béla Bartók died at age 64 in a hospital in New York City from complications of leukemia (specifically, of secondary polycythemia) on September 26, 1945.

My collection includes the following orchestral works by Bartok:

Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116/BB 123 (1944).
Dance Suite, Sz 77 (1923).
Divertimento, Sz 113 (1939).
Hungarian Sketches, Sz97/BB103.
The Miraculous Mandarin: Suite, Sz 73/Op. 19 (1919).
Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste, Sz 106 (1930’s).
Piano Concerto No. 1, Sz 83 (1926).
Piano Concerto No. 2, Sz 95 (1931).
Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz 119 (1945).
Romanian Folk Dances, Sz 68/BB 76.

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