Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was born in what now forms part of Romania. His father was director of an agricultural college and an amateur musician; his mother gave him his early piano lessons. His father died in 1889 and his mother worked as a teacher and settled them in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. Foregoing Vienna for Budapest study, he joined the Academy of Music teaching staff there in 1907 and remained until 1934 on the piano faculty. With compatriot Zoltán Kodály he developed interest in the folk music of Eastern Europe — the real stuff, not the fake gypsy music of Liszt and Brahms. They collected some 10,000 songs from Hungary and Romania, Central Europe, Turkey, and North Africa. He was one of the founders of Ethnomusicology. Alignment of the reactionary regime of Horthy with National Socialist Germany resulted in Bartók emigrating to the US in 1940. (That year Vassar College held a concert of his music.) He taught at Columbia and Harvard, but refused to teach composition, devoting himself instead to composing and to ethnomusicology. The poverty of exile and leukemia brought about his death in 1945.

Bartók’s music is characterized by defined but loose tonal centers, percussiveness (especially after a return to primitivism in the 1920s), dissonances, tone clusters, and classical forms (more and more so later). He makes use of Eastern European folk themes and rhythms. The later works become less acerbic and more approachable.

Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (Sz 106) from 1937 is worth a listen. Unlike Stravinsky, Bartók likes strings. The first of four movements, “Andante tranquillo,” begins as a fugue and includes a very crabbed, chromatic theme first among the violas. The theme appears in the movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) as a Moriarty clue and is called there an “ancient Inca funeral dirge.” The movement sets out from A but climaxes at the tritone Eb before reversing direction. The second movement, a sonata “Allegro,” is in C but F# functions as the dominant, so the tritone is fundamental again. An “Adagio” nocturne with long pedal points and the “Allegro molto” finale with the first movement’s theme made diatonic complete the piece.

In the Concerto for Orchestra (Sz 116), one of his last works begun in the summer of 1943 at a sanatorium in the Adirondack Mountains, the folk elements are absorbed, not distanced or parodied. After the somber “Introduction” consisting of low muddy strings and an oboe solo, in the second movement, “Allegretto scherzando,” titled “Giuoco delle coppie” (“game of couples”), one may detect a biblical narrative behind the music. Listen for wind duets at different intervals: bassoons in minor sixths, oboes in minor thirds, clarinets in minor sevenths, flutes in fifths, muted trumpets in seconds. Then follows a chorale — a solemn, hymnlike passage involving a brass choir and snare drum. Afterwards come the groups of winds again but this time with embellishment — more developed repetitions. What does this represent?
The fourth movement, “Interrupted Intermezzo,” includes a quotation from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony — descending scale theme — which is ridiculed mercilessly. The symphony was played over and over as a statement of Russian defiance of Nazi Germany and Bartók grew sick of hearing it during his occasional hospitalizations.
The fifth and last movement is in A but Bartók uses a Romanian mode — with sharpened fourth and flattened seventh. He tended to use folk music for its modes rather than its themes.

Works Consulted

Bartók — Concerto for Orchestra. Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, 1993.

Bartók — Piano Concertos Nos. 1 – 3. Jenö Jandó, Piano. Budapest Symphony Orchestra. Munich: HNH International Ltd., 1994. 8.550771.

Béla Bartók: Konzert für Orchester, Musik für Saiteninstrumente, Schlagzeug und Celesta. Berliner Philharmoniker. Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon, 1966. 415 322-2.

Hughes, Peter. “Béla Bartók.” Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. http://www.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/belabartok. 2003.

Morgan, Robert P., ed. Music and Society: Modern Times. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1993.

Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1974.