Famous Hungarians: Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók

Béla Bártok

In any parade of famous Hungarians who have made significant contributions to the wider world, the life of Hungary’s greatest ever composer, Béla Bartók must rank high. His name is worthy of mention for his one single greatest achievement: the preservation of Hungarian folk music. Without him, and his colleague, Zoltán Kodály, the centuries old folk music of Hungary may not have been survived to the extent that it has – it certainly would not have enriched twentieth century classical music without his pioneering efforts. No history of classical music can be written without reference to the life and work of Béla Bartók and the importance of Hungarian folk music.

Bartók was born as the nineteenth century began to close, on 25 March 1881, in the town of Nagyszentmiklós in what is now known as S ânnicolau Mare in Romania. His early life reflects the geography of Hungary of that time : when seven, after his father died, he moved to Nagyszőlős (today Vinogradiv, Ukraine), and later to Pozsony (Bratislava, Slovakia) before moving to Budapest at 18 years old where his musical education and career began in earnest.

As I have written several times in this series, Budapest at that time was a burgeoning city of immense energy, talent and industry. Nearly all the great Hungarian artists and intellectuals spent time in that seething, dynamic, confidant city and it is no wonder that Bartók’s talent emerged quickly and profoundly. In 1903 he wrote his first great work, Kossuth, a tone poem to the great Hungarian who had died a few years earlier. By 1907 his talent was clear and he was teaching at the Royal Academy as piano professor. Sir George Solti was one of his pupils at this time.

It was also at about this time that his greatest achievement: the discovery and subsequent preservation of Hungarian folk music took place. To understand the impact of this discovery, it is important to understand the prevailing view of ‘Hungarian’ music at that time. This view held that authentic Hungarian folk music was that of the Gypsy bands that were such a feature of musical life at that time. In other words, gypsy music was the authentic, organic musical voice of Hungary.

This misconception, for that is what it was, was propagated by for example Liszt whose Hungarian Dances are based on Gypsy themes, rather than what we know today as authentic Hungarian folk music. This mistaken view of what constituted authentic Magyar music influenced many composers of that era, mostly notably Brahms. The music of Bartók would change all that.

It was in the summer of 1904 that Bartók overheard an eighteen-year-old nanny from Kibéd (today Chibed) in the heart of Transylvania sing folk songs to the children under her care. Here Bartok discovered the authentic music and voice of Hungarians. The music he discovered in this village was quite different to that of the Gypsy tones and patterns: it was based on the pentatonic scale (five pitches in each octave, as opposed to that heptatonic found in Gypsy music). This music was similar to that found in Oriental folk traditions, such as those of Central Asia and Siberia. It is tempting to consider that the origins of the original Magyars could be heard in this music.

In 1908 Bártok and Kodály set out to collect examples of this ‘new’ Magyar music. They used a phonograph machine to record songs onto wax cylinders. They quickly began to incorporate their newly found treasures into their music. For example, Bartók’s For Children (A Gyermekeknek) consists of 80 piano pieces based on Hungarian and Slovakian folk tunes were written between 1908 and 1910 (As late as 1945 he was revising this work, reducing the number of pieces to 79 because he had learned that the melodies he used in several were apparently not of genuine folk origin.)

Bartók Collecting Folk Music

Bartók Collecting Folk Music

Those early journeys throughout the Hungarian heartland were the happiest of Bartók’s life. He had found something authentic and as a proud and patriotic Hungarian imbued with the strong nationalism of the time his discovery of the rich traditions of dance, music and song he found throughout the land inspired him. In 1903 he wrote to his mother, “All my life, in every sphere, always and in every way, I shall have one objective: the good of Hungary and the Hungarian nation.” Bartók would spend the next10 years collecting and transcribing the music of his homeland – for the good of his country and Hungarianess.

Bartók Album by Muzsikás

Bartók Album by Muzsikás

Amazingly, many of his original recordings can still be heard today. For example the Hungarian folk group, Muzsikás, produced a CD called the Bartók Album in which their interpretations of Hungarian folk music interspersed with Bartók’s original recordings. It is strange indeed to listen to the first track on the CD, Elindultam a hazámból/ I left my homeland, recorded in 1906 in Békésgyula. Faint and scratchy though the recording may be, it does give one a glimpse into the world Bartók and Kodály were discovering. This song would be the first he reworked and incorporated into Hungarian Folksongs I.

The aftermath of World War I and the loss of much of Hungarian territory and the corresponding hostility of many of the successor states, restricted, if not actually prohibited him from further research. Bartók become increasingly pessimistic and experimented with atonal music that makes much of his music ‘inaccessible’.

1939 was a turning point in Bartók’s life. He felt the coming war deeply and his liberal attitude was at odds with much of the common discourse. When the Nazis came to power in Germany refused to give concerts there and broke from his German publisher. After the war started he and his family immigrated to the United States. He never really settled there. Artistically misunderstood and impoverished, Bartok lived his final years in adversity and ill-health. Exile from one’s homeland is always hard but for Bartok it was the unhappiest part of his life. The pain of separation from the soil that nourished and the destruction of his country were too much for him to bear. His body ravaged by leukaemia, he died in September 1945, with few attending his funeral.[1]

Béla Bartók grave at Farkasréti Cemetery

Béla Bartók grave at Farkasréti Cemetery

Forty-two years later, following the efforts of his two sons, Béla and Péter, his remains were returned to Hungary and reburied in the Farkasréti cemetery in Buda, where his life-long friend Kodály is also buried. He was home at last.

Bartók’s place in the canon of modern classical music is undeniable. But he was forever a Hungarian and his work in preserving the authentic music of his native land is his greatest achievement. But the love of one’s country often comes with a price. His distress and sadness at the state of his homeland in the early 1940s was profound. His view was that he would rather break away from the land that nourished him than remain a witness to its destruction. This most difficult of all decisions, and one all refugees must deal with, came at great existential cost to Bartók.

As his farewell concert at the Music Academy in Budapest, the epicenter of Hungarian musical performance and learning, was ending to thunderous applause, someone in the audience began to sing the words of the folksong Bartók had first heard and recorded in Békésgyula:

“I set off from my homeland
From famous little Hungary
I looked back when I reached halfway
And the tears spilled from my eyes.”

Within moments the entire audience began to sing this quintessential Hungarian folk- song. Bartók had discovered, rescued and preserved this tradition forever. He stopped for a moment, took a few steps backwards, then quietly left the stage.


BACK TO POST 1 I would thoroughly recommend the film of Bartók’s American exile,After the Storm – The American Exile of Béla Bartók which is available from the Kultur Video or the usual sources.

Useful Links

A simple Google search will reveal the useful plethora of links about Bartók, his life and his music. Below are several that are particular useful.

  • Bartók Archive. Comprehensive information about the composer from the Institute of Musicology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In both Hungarian and English
  • The Living Tradition of Bartók’s Sources. A review of the Muzsikás’ Bartók Album from the Hungarian Quarterly. There are lots of other articles in the Hungarian Quarterly so this it is well worth searching this site.
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