Hungarian composer. His works are influenced by folk music and often use modality. His music is highly dissonant and contrapuntal, but not atonal(see atonality). His large output includes six string quartets, a Divertimento for string orchestra (1939), concertos for piano, violin, and viola, the Concerto for Orchestra (1943-44), a one-act opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1911), and graded teaching pieces for piano.
A child prodigy, Bartók studied music at the Budapest Conservatory, later working with Zoltán Kodály in recording and transcribing the folk music of Hungary and adjoining countries. His ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (1918-19) was banned because of its subject matter (it was set in a brothel). Bartók died in the USA, having fled from Hungary in 1940.
Bartók's father was a director of agriculture; his mother, a schoolteacher, was a musician and taught him from an early age. He appeared in public as a pianist at the age of ten. He studied under László Erkel at Porzsony (now Bratislava) until 1899; he then went to the Budapest Conservatory, where he studied piano under István Thomán and composition under Hans Koessler (1853-1926).
Under the influence of Richard Strauss, Bartók wrote the symphonic poem Kossuth (1903), which was conducted by Hans Richter at Manchester, England, in 1904. His first string quartet (1908) begins with some similarity to late Beethoven but soon settles into a characteristic national style. About 1905 he began to collect folk tunes, often with Zoltán Kodály, and showed that the true Magyar music differed greatly from that of the Hungarian gypsies, which was popularly regarded as the only Hungarian folk music. Bartók was appointed professor of piano at Budapest Conservatory in 1907. The powerful opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle was composed in 1911 but not performed until 1918. After World War I he became known in Europe and the USA, and in 1922 was made an honorary member of the International Society for Contemporary Music. Some of his most demanding music was written in the years 1917-34: The Miraculous Mandarin (1918-19), his first two piano concertos (1926, 1930-31), string quartets nos. 2-5 (1917-34), and Cantata Profana (1930). The sensational Miraculous Mandarin ballet was written under the influence of Igor Stravinsky and the expressionist Arnold Schoenberg; it was banned after a single performance in Cologne, Germany.
Increasing political isolation in his homeland (Hungary became fascist before Germany) encouraged Bartók to pursue a career abroad. The first two piano concertos were premiered by him in Frankfurt, Germany, and demonstrate a full range of percussive effects. Bartók's own keyboard style was not appreciated by all - Percy Scholes reported that he had a touch ‘like a paving stone’. Both concertos and the fourth and fifth quartets (1928, 1934) used palindrome patterns (reading the same backwards as forwards) to some extent, which with their formal repetition help to give a unity to chromatically complex music. A more easily accessible idiom, with longer melodic lines and less harsh harmony, was in evidence by 1938, with the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936; one of many masterworks commissioned by the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher) and the second violin concerto (1937-38). The sixth quartet (1939) was the last music he wrote in Budapest, and seems to find the composer in mourning for the world he was about to leave behind; each movement begins with a long, melancholy viola solo.
In 1940 Bartók emigrated to the USA, where he taught briefly at Columbia University and Harvard. He was already suffering from leukaemia and was not in demand as a pianist or, initially, as a composer. A 1943 commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation, for the Concerto for Orchestra, helped to improve his financial difficulties. The third piano concerto was written when Bartók was mortally ill; the central adagio religioso pays direct tribute to Beethoven's ‘Song of Thanksgiving’ from the A minor quartet, although Bartók must have known that in his case there was to be no recovery from illness.
Bartók was one of the foremost composers of the 20th century and his influence can be clearly heard in later Hungarian composers such as György Ligeti. Much influenced by Hungarian folk music, he incorporated its rhythms and melodic characteristics into complex, subtle, and effective forms. Bartók's orchestral music has become relatively popular, although his genius is more fully seen in his innovative approach to the keyboard and especially the string quartets, which are widely regarded as the best since Beethoven.
Duke Bluebeard's Castle, one-act opera (1911); The Wooden Prince, one-act ballet (1914-17); The Miraculous Mandarin, one-act pantomime (1918-19; revised 1924 and 1935).
Dance Suite (1923), piano concerto no. 1 (1926), piano concerto no. 2 (1930-31), Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), violin concerto no. 2 (1937-38), Divertimento for strings (1939), Concerto for Orchestra (1943-44), piano concerto no. 3 (1945), viola concerto (completed by T Serly, 1945).
Cantata Profana for tenor, baritone, chorus, and orchestra (1930), choruses on Hungarian and Slovak folk songs; many solo songs, including five to words by Endre Ady.
six string quartets (1908, 1917, 1927, 1928, 1934, 1939), two piano and violin sonatas (1921, 1922), sonata for two pianos and two percussion (1937, version with orchestra 1940), Contrasts for violin, clarinet, and piano (1938), sonata for solo violin (1944).
14 Bagatelles, Op. 6 (1908), Sonatina (1915), Suite, Op. 14 (1916), sonata (1926), Out of Doors (1926), Mikrokosmos, 153 ‘progressive pieces’ in six volumes (1926, 1932-39).
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