Composer. He is regarded as Hungary's greatest 20th Century composer. Bartok was also one of the founders of ethnomusicology (the study of folk music and music of non-western cultures), and his own compositions combined modern techniques with the elemental force of his homeland's rustic songs and dances. He was born in Nagyszentmiklos, Hungary (now Sannicolau Mare, Romania), and studied at the Budapest Academy of Music from 1899 to 1903. He was set for a brilliant career as a concert pianist, with composing as a sideline, when a seemingly trivial observation changed the course of his life. One day he overheard his housekeeper singing a Hungarian folk song; its exotic melody and rhythms, so different from the gypsy songs popularized by Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, fascinated him. Sensing there was an undiscovered treasure trove of such music in the remote regions of Hungary, Bartok (sometimes accompanied by fellow-composer Zoltan Kodaly) made many trips into the field to gather it. From 1905 to 1911 he collected over 6000 folk songs and had them published. Not only would folk music research remain one of his principal occupations, it determined his fate as an artist: he began to write music in a nationalist vein. He didn't copy or imitate folk material but instead absorbed its essence into his own very personal idiom, which was open to new European musical trends as well. By pursuing this individual path Bartok sentenced himself to a lifetime of drudgery and disappointment. His first masterpiece, the one-act opera "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" (1911), was rejected by the state competition it was intended for, and after the lukewarm reception to his first ballet, "The Wooden Prince" (1916), and the downright hostile one to his second, "The Miraculous Mandarin" (completed in 1919 but not performed until 1926), he gave up writing for the stage. After World War I he made a living through teaching and giving piano recitals throughout Europe (he visited the United States in 1927 and the Soviet Union in 1929), which left him only the summers for composing. Bartok eventually earned the admiration of musicians, critics, and musicologists, but his music was considered too barbaric and unusual for mainstream acceptance and was not really appreciated by audiences until after his death. Complicating his personal life was Europe's deteriorating political situation in the 1930s. An ardent liberal, Bartok was alarmed by the rise of Fascism and took measures to protest against it. In 1933, when Nazi sympathizers in the Budapest press started attacking the composer, he withdrew from all musical activity in that city; he later forbade performances and broadcasts of his music in Germany, Italy, and Austria, and switched publishers from the German Universal Edition to the English firm Boosey and Hawkes. Then came the upheaval of World War II. Bartok stayed home for the sake of his aging mother, and only after her death in 1939 did he consider leaving Hungary. He settled in New York City, New York late in 1940. Bartok's last years in American exile were not happy ones. Cut off from his homeland and living on a small research grant from Columbia University, he fell into a depression and wrote nothing for two years. He also began to suffer from the leukemia that would eventually kill him; his medical treatment was financed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). In 1943 Bartok's creative urge was reawakened by a commission for a big orchestral work from Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony; the result, the magnificent Concerto for Orchestra (1944), won its composer the only popular acclaim he enjoyed in his lifetime. It is still his most frequently played work. The year 1945 saw Bartok racing against death to finish his last two compositions, the Third Piano Concerto and the Viola Concerto, even devising a shorthand musical notation to save time. In September he was finally taken against his will to Manhattan's West Side Hospital, where he died a week later. Still bursting with ideas, he lamented, "I'm only sorry that I have to leave with my baggage full." After 43 years at New York's Ferncliff Cemetery, Bartok's remains were brought back to Hungary in 1988, where he was given a state funeral and interred in a grave of honor at Budapest's Farkasreti Cemetery. Bartok's stylistic evolution went through several phases, beginning with an early infatuation with Brahms and Richard Strauss, but one thing remained constant: all the music he wrote after 1907 was influenced in one way or another by his folk research. Among its initial fruits were the First String Quartet (1908), the "Allegro Barbaro" (1911) for piano, "The Wooden Prince", and the Second String Quartet (1917). The end of World War I brought on an experimental period in which he assimilated techniques ranging from Baroque counterpoint to atonality. Key compositions of this phase include the First and Second Piano Concertos (1926, 1931), two of the most hair-raising in the entire repertory; the Third and Fourth String Quartets (1927, 1928); "The Miraculous Mandarin"; and the "Cantata Profana" (1930). At the same time he never completely lost touch with the popular spirit, as evidenced in his "Dance Suite" (1923), the Two Rhapsodies (1928) for violin and orchestra, and especially the "Mikrokosmos" (six volumes, 1926 to 1937), a set of 153 piano pieces for children. In the late 1930s Bartok continued as an innovator in form and color while simplifying his harmonic language; his music became warmer and more lyrical in expression. Traces of this mellower approach turn up in the last two String Quartets (1934, 1939), the outstanding Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1937), thought by many to be his greatest work, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), and the Violin Concerto (1938); and it emerges full-blown in the Divertimento for Strings (1939), the last music he wrote in Europe. Bartok would pick up this thread in his final American compositions, culminating with the Concerto for Orchestra.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards