Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

Béla Bartók is one of the most celebrated composers of the twentieth century. He is regarded as one of Hungary’s greatest composers, along with Franz Liszt. Bartók composed chamber works, string quartets and piano music, as well as orchestral and stage works. He also performed as a pianist and researched Eastern-European folk music, a passion which has led to him being called the ‘father of ethnomusicology.’ Although he had supported Hungarian nationalism in his youth, Bartók disapproved of the Hungarian government’s relationship with Nazi Germany, and protested against Hungary’s antisemitic laws. Bartók left for America after Hungary joined the Axis Powers in November 1940.

Bartók was born in Nayszentmiklós, Austria-Hungary (now part of Romania). His mother was German and his father’s family were Hungarian nobility. He learned the piano from the age of five and gave his first public recital aged eleven. After his father died the family moved to Budapest and Bartók studied at the Royal Academy of Music with István Thomán (a former student of Liszt). In Budapest he met fellow composer Zoltán Kodály, who shared an interest in folk-songs and in 1908 the young composers collected Magyar (ethnic Hungarian) folk melodies. Much of Bartók’s compositional output is influenced by folk music, and his early compositions, such as his String Quartet No. 1 in A minor (1908) and the cycle of piano pieces For Children (1908-9) are based on Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian and Bulgarian folk melodies. Bartók’s other early influences include Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. Whilst his use of harmony is not usually described as atonal, Bartók experimented with harmonic language, sometimes using folk harmonies such as pentatonic and mixolydian scales, often moving away from Western harmonic centres altogether.

During the 1930s Bartók became increasingly disenchanted with the Hungarian government’s cooperation with the Nazis. He had performed in Germany from 1903 until Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933; his refusal to perform there after this date caused some suspicion from the Hungarian government. However, there were more than 40 performances of Bartók’s work in Nazi Germany between 1933-1942, because the Reich encouraged the performance of works by composers from countries that supported the regime. A number of concerts and lectures by Bartók were scheduled in the Reich, all of which, for various reasons, did not take place. In 1934 Bartók’s Vienna-based performers’ rights association, AKM, asked its members to provide documentation proving their ethnicity and Bartók was asked to dispel rumours that he was Jewish (he refused).

When Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, Bartók was in a contract with music publishers Universal Edition who were based in Vienna. The publishing house was taken over and ‘Nazified’, as were AKM, who were due to merge with their German counterparts, STAGMA. Meanwhile in London, the music publishers Boosey & Hawkes had become Universal Edition’s UK agent and were subsequently aware of the situation in Europe. Ralph Hawkes planned to approach Jewish composers and others who might be at risk, and flew to Hungary to meet with Bartók and Kodály to arrange for Boosey & Hawkes to become their new publisher.

When the Hungarian government began introducing ‘Jewish laws’ in 1938 which mirrored the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, Bartók joined a group of non-Jewish intellectuals who protested. Dénes Koromzay, violist in the world-renowned Hungarian String Quartet, who specialised in performing works by Bartók, spent the war in the Netherlands. He described Bartók as ‘one of the most direct and outspoken men in the world,’ and commented that Bartók ‘made such strong anti-Nazi statements that he would have been the first to be picked up by the Gestapo when they came, or even by the Hungarian Nazis when they eventually came into power.’ Bartók began to send his manuscripts via Switzerland to Boosey & Hawkes in London, but he did not feel able to leave Budapest while his mother was still alive.

In 1939 he travelled to Italy to perform with his wife, Ditta, and began composing his String Quartet No. 6; 1939 was actually his most productive year. This quartet would be his last work finished in Hungary, and is a very personal, emotional work. All four of the movements begin with the same lamenting theme, and are all marked mesto (sadly). His manuscripts reveal that he intended for the final movement to be a lively dance, but when his mother died in December 1939 he re-wrote the final movement as an elegy.

The following year Bartók received an invitation from the University of Columbia, New York, to work as a research fellow in the ethnomusicology department and in October 1940 the composer, his wife and youngest son emigrated to America, leaving behind Peter, his son from his first marriage. Bartók continued to follow European politics and in 1941, when Hungary declared war on the United States, he (somewhat reluctantly) replaced Tibor Eckhardt as president of the Movement for an Independent Hungary (MIH), representing Hungarian-American artists and intellectuals. His position led to the revocation of his Hungarian citizenship.

In the US Bartók continued to perform, teach and carry out ethnomusicological research, but did not compose as prolifically as he had done in Hungary. He suffered from ill health, and in April 1944 was diagnosed with leukaemia, but in the final year of his life Bartók produced some of his most popular works. His Concerto for Orchestra, premiered in December 1944 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Serge Koussevitsky, quickly became his most popular work, and his Sonata for Solo Violin was premiered in November 1944 by Yehudi Menuhin, to whom it was also dedicated.

Bartók passed away in September 1945, leaving his Piano Concerto No. 3 (intended as a surprise birthday present for his wife) and a viola concerto unfinished. In his will Bartók stated that he would not allow for a street in Hungary to be named for him or a plaque to commemorate him as long as there was a street or square named after Hitler or Mussolini. Originally buried in New York, Bartók’s body was exhumed in the 1980s after the Hungarian communist government requested that he be returned to Hungary for a state funeral. Bartók’s pupil Tibor Serly and son, Peter, have since completed and published his unfinished compositions. There are six streets in Budapest named after the composer, and he appears on the Hungarian 1000-forint banknote.

By Abaigh McKee


Cooper, D. (2001) ‘Bela Bartok and the Question of Race Purity in Music’ Musical Constructions of Nationalism: Essays on the History and Ideology of European musical culture 1800-1945 White, H. and Murphy, M. (eds) (Ireland: Cork University Press)

Dreisziger, N. F. (1994) ‘Émigré Artists and Wartime Politics: 1939-45’ Hungarian Studies Review, 11:1-2, 43-75

Dreisziger, N. F. (2005) ‘A Hungarian Patriot in American Exile: Béla Bartók and Émigré Politics’ Journal of the Royal Musical Association 130:2, 283-301

Foster-Lussier, D. (2007) Music Divided: Bartók’s legacy in cold war culture (Berkeley: University of California Press)

Gillies, M. (2007) ‘Bartók and Boosey & Hawkes: The European Years’ Tempo 200, 4-7

Hewett, I. (2015) ‘The lonely life of Béla Bartók’ The Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11623846/The-lonely-life-of-Bela-Bartok.html; accessed 30/9/2016)

Suchoff, B. (2001) Béla Bartók: life and work (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press)