140th Birthday of Bela Bartok – A Musical Genius of the 20th Century

On the 25th of March, it was the 140th birthday of late Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. He was born in Nagyszentmiklós in 1881 which is a village located in Romania. Bartok was, without doubt, one of the most influential musicians and ethnomusicologists of the 20th century. As a Hungarian and as a musician, it feels like a duty for me to tell others about his life and his musical genius that clearly and vividly shines through his compositions.

Besides his compositions that were influenced by Hungarian folk music and followed more likely the classical compositional forms, his later composed materials contained the elements of polymodal chromaticism. It made his musical style modern that eventually influenced numerous jazz musicians, this parallel can be sensed in modal jazz compositions that were written and got popular during the 1950s in America.

Rhapsody for Piano, Op. 1. (1904)
This is one of those relatively early compositions of Bartok that was written in a Lisztian style and that follows a classical structure, containing only one movement. Ornamented scales and arpeggios are used within and in terms of tempo and dynamics, they can be separated into two different parts. The first one is written in Adagio molto, the second section could be marked as Poco allegretto. Roughly a year after its publication Bartok submitted the composition as an entry in the composers’ category of the Anton Rubinstein Competition in Paris, 1905. Its Lisztian was praised yet it did not receive significant recognition.

Bela Bartok Brussels
Credit: jmerelo


Compositions with Hungarian Folk Music Elements
I have previously mentioned that besides compositions, Bartok’s ethnomusicological work must be mentioned and praised as well. Alongside Zoltan Kodaly, Bartok set out to the rural regions of Hungary to collect folk songs around 1906. This period heavily influenced his music that can be sensed in the next two pieces that I picked to introduce to you in this article. 

Evening in Transylvania (1908)
The version I included in this article was written for piano and it is the fifth composition in Ten Easy Pieces which was a collection of ten pieces significantly containing elements of music originally from traditional Hungarian folk music that Bartok encountered in Transylvania. Pentatonic scales, modes, novel harmonies and ostinato are used in the composition.

Romanian Folk Dances (1915)
Another piece that shows the folk-influence on Bartok’s music sonically. It has six movements, the first one is called ‘Bot tánc’ in Hungarian a rough translation in English would be like ‘Stick Dance’ which is a reference to a particular type of dance that shepherds used to do in the rural regions of the country and it is common in Hungarian and Romanian folklore as well. The melody of the first movement, according to Bartók, came from the Mezőszabad (present-day Voiniceni) village a commune which was located in the Maros-Torda administrative county within Transylvania, and he first heard it when two gypsy violinists were playing it.

Allegro Barbaro (1911)
It is a piece for solo piano and maybe one of the most well-known compositions of Bartok. It contains Hungarian and Romanian folk music elements. The used pentatonic scale is widely used in Hungarian folk music and Romanian folk melodies contain chromatic scales and Bartok combined the two professionally and gave the piece a very modern sonic identity. It may sound harsh, even rough compared to pieces of other composers like J.S. Bach or Beethoven but this certain compositional and musical style made Bartok unique. Furthermore, similarities can be found between modal jazz and Bartok’s compositions like ‘Allegro Barbaro’.

Emigration & Finding Creativity in the last years in New York

Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945)
The story of this piece is quite bitter, I might say. It is one of the unfinished pieces of Bartok that he started to work on in New York after emigrating to the United States from Hungary due to the Nazi occupation in 1940. During the years in New York, Bartok was nearly completely unknown and was struggling financially constantly, after being diagnosed with leukaemia, he was not even able to pay for health insurance in the American system. Although, despite all the financial hardship Bartok and his wife faced in the Big Apple, his creativity was resurrected in his last years. Piano Concerto No. 3 is one of the last compositions of Bela Bartok. It was written for piano and orchestra, consisting three movements; (I) Allegretto, (II) Adagio religioso and (III) Allegro vivace. He dedicated this piece to his wife, Edith Pasztory. 

Final Word
Bela Bartok was, without question, one of the musical geniuses of the 20th century whose work must not be forgotten. He had done significant work as an ethnomusicologist to preserve Hungarian and Romanian folk musical heritage. Furthermore, he was an excellent composer who found his unique sound and style in the first half of the 20th century. He had to face several issues and hardships in his mortal life yet his life story also shows the mental strength he had as a human being and his music, his legacy makes him an eternal, ever-green leaf on the trees of musical giants in human history. It is only up to us to recognise his value and his artistic greatness. 

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Credit: ’emmma peel’


Aron Debreceni
Aron Debreceni

Aron is a journalist and a student of Utrecht University (NL). He has been doing his own singer-songwriter project 'Aron D' since 2016. Besides music, he is open to write articles about politics, education, health, history and travel.

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