Béla Bartók

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Bartók, Béla


Born Mar. 25, 1881, in Nagyszentmiklós, Transylvania; died Sept. 26, 1945, in New York. Hungarian composer, pianist, musicologist, and folklorist.

Bartók’s father was the director of an agricultural school and an amateur musician who played in the local orchestra. His mother was a teacher. Bartók studied at the Liszt Musical Academy in Budapest (1899–1903). Beginning in 1907 he was a professor at the academy, where he taught piano. He combined his teaching activity with concert performances and study of peasant folklore (Hungarian, Rumanian, Slovak, and others). He collected more than 30,000 songs.

Between 1900 and 1920 his compositions combined elements of archaic vocal folklore with very dynamic contemporary means of expression (the piano pieces Bagatelles, 1908, Burlesques, 1911, and Allegro barbaro, 1911; Portraits for orchestra, 1908; and two string quartets, 1908 and 1915–17). His innovative works, including the opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), were not well received by conservative critics. Public recognition of Bartók began with the ballet The Wooden Prince (composed in 1916). Under the Hungarian Soviet Republic (1919), Bartók and Z. Kodály worked out a democratic reform of the musical life of the country. For this, Bartók suffered repression under the Horthy regime. In 1919, Bartók composed one of his most outstanding compositions, the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (performed in 1926).

Although he assimilated the methods of I. Stravinsky, A. Schönberg, and other contemporary Western composers, Bartók continued to develop the popular folklore elements in his music even in the 1920’s. But in several of his works of this period tendencies toward a radical renewal of the means of musical expressiveness are even more pronounced (two sonatas for the violin, the third and fourth quartets, and many pieces for the piano). This sometimes led to extreme complexity of musical language. These compositions by Bartók are characterized by extreme sharpness and dynamism of language, an inclination toward percussive effects, and, at the same time, refined intellectualism and delicate color. The 1920’s and 1930’s were the high point of Bartók’s concert career as a pianist. (He performed in the countries of Western Europe, the USA, and, in 1929, in the USSR.)

In the 1930’s, Bartók’s work underwent a change in the direction of greater simplicity and classicism of style. Bartók refrained from certain extremes of musical expression and turned toward greater thematic clarity and sharpness of images and emotional concepts (Concerto No. 2 for Piano, 1931; Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, 1936). In the prewar years Bartók took an antifascist position. He created compositions that gave an original expression to the ideas of humanism and the brotherhood of peoples. In the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), the Violin Concerto, and the Divertiment for string orchestra (1939), vivid national themes are combined with dynamic tension, conveying the troubled atmosphere of these years. The general tendency toward democratization in Bartók’s work was expressed in his creation of compositions for amateur musical performances (his treatment of national Hungarian songs and the cantata From the Past, 1935), as well as the pieces for teaching repertoire (44 violin duets, 1931, and the piano cycle Microcosm, 1937). At the time of the fascist dictatorship in 1940, Bartók emigrated to the USA, where he did not receive the recognition of musical circles and died in poverty. The most important works from his American period are the Concerto for Orchestra (1943) and a piano concerto (1945).

Bartók’s instrumental compositions occupy the most important place in his work: piano pieces, six string quartets, sonatas and rhapsodies for the violin, and extended compositions for the orchestra. Bartók’s scholarly research in the field of folklore is of outstanding importance. He had a great influence on the formation of the composers’ schools of the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s in the countries of eastern and southeastern Europe. Bartók was posthumously awarded the Kossuth Prize (1948) and the International Peace Prize (1955).


Martynov, 1.1. Bela Bartok. Moscow, 1968.
Sabol’chi, B. Zhizn’ Bely Bartoka v illiustratsiiakh. Budapest, 1963.
Stevens, H. The Life and Music of Béla Bartók. New York, 1953. (Bibliography, pp. 323–58.)
Moreux, S. Béla Bartók .... Paris, 1949. Second edition. Paris, 1955.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.