Teacher, ethnomusicologist, and pianist, Béla Bartók has come to be regarded as one of the most influential Modern composers of the twentieth century, along with Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, and Anton Webern. His influence crossed borders, especially strong in postwar Eastern Europe, where the most talented of the new composers followed him, in France where his disciples included Oliver Messiaën and André Jolivet, and in South and Latin Americas. Schoenberg once confided to his student Oscar Levant that Bartók was the second greatest living composer.
Born in what is now Hungary, Bartók studied piano with Thomán, a Franz Liszt pupil, and composition with Hans Koessler, who in turn had studied with Josef Gabriel Rheinberger. These men also taught Ernõ Dohnányi, with whom Bartók later took advanced study in piano. Dohnányi was the fair-haired boy in modern Hungarian music circles, and Bartók had an ambivalent relationship with the older man's music.
As a composer, Bartók began as a late Romantic, influenced by Liszt and Richard Strauss. His two major works of this period – the symphonic poem Kossuth and the highly Romantic (and dramatic) Piano Quintet. Neither sounds anything like mature Bartók. Indeed, it took the composer years to find his characteristic voice, although even his early catalogue contains masterpieces.
Bartók quickly became dissatisfied with the late Romantic idiom. Indeed, he had to be persuaded not to destroy his Piano Quintet, which for many years counted as his most popular work.. He began to develop an interest in Hungarian folk music and to incorporate elements into his compositions – for example, the finale to the Second Suite, Op. 4 (1907). About this time he also met fellow composer Zoltán Kodály, who had more ethnological expertise and had actually conducted research in the field. One cannot overestimate the importance of this friendship. Although the two men had their own styles, they became each other's greatest cheerleader and most trusted critic. They submitted their compositions to one another for serious criticism. Kodály not only encouraged research collaborations with Bartók, but also introduced him in a serious way to the music of Debussy, a progressive step for conservative Budapest. The great expression of Debussy's sway over Bartók is probably the opera Bluebeard's Castle (1911), which owes much to Debussy's 1902 Pelléas et Mélisande.
The folk influence on Bartók was cemented in 1907, when the composer traveled to Transylvania. Up to this time, he had concentrated on arrangements of tunes. His journey convinced him that he could base his original music on folk elements. This is reflected in his first violin concerto, unfinished, the first movement of which he recycled into his Two Portraits (1907). The movement is based on a theme, known as the "Geyer" motif, written as homage to a serious girlfriend, who dumped him – hence, the difficulty completing the concerto. Nevertheless, Bartók continued to love the theme, which shows up in much of his piano music of the time and most notably in the First String Quartet (1909). For me, this is Bartók's first unequivocal masterpiece. It's one of the few quartets that can bear up to Beethoven's. Indeed, Bartók's entire cycle of six quartets stands among the best ever written, and they take his compositional concerns at the time of creation to the height of expression. In other words, Bartók's quartets sound like his other works of the time, only more so.
After World War I, Bartók underwent a period of "barbarous," Expressionist gigantism, probably influenced ultimately by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. He wasn't alone, as one can see in roughly contemporary works by such composers as Prokofiev and Honegger. His major works of this time include the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (1919; orch. 1924), 3 Studies for Piano (1918), Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs (1922), and the two violin sonatas (1921-22). This most radical phase of his output lasted until 1926.
A fundamental then took place in Bartók's music. As he himself analyzed it, he turned from Beethoven to Bach. The Stravinsky piano concerto decisively pushed him in this direction. Bartók's works became even leaner and formally tighter. This begins his real maturity. Most of the masterpieces we know him for start here: the Piano Sonata (1926), the First Piano Concerto (1926), still tinged with Expressionism, the darkly powerful Cantata profana (1930), the glittering Second Piano Concerto (1931), Mikrokosmos (1931-39), String Quartet #5 (1934), Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936), Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), the Second Violin Concerto (1938), considered in some circles his finest composition, and String Quartet #6 (1939).
In 1940, Bartók fled Europe for, ultimately, the United States. By then, he was a sick man (it turned out to be leukemia) and knew it. Furthermore, he had trouble earning a living. His concerts were not in demand. He refused to teach composition, insisting that it couldn't be taught. He hoped for academic appointments in ethnomusicology and actually had offers, which he never acted on. Columbia University appointed him to a one-year research position in 1941. From 1940 to 1942, he composed almost nothing – his longest fallow period, and considering the stress he suffered for himself and his family, not surprising – but he came back with a roar, writing two of his best-loved works: Concerto for Orchestra (1944) and the Third Piano Concerto (1945). In both, one hears a less austere, warmer Bartók, one who wants to sing as beautifully as he can. Of course, those who suspect popularity give him grief for these two works, seeing them somewhat as sellouts. I doubt it, myself. Not only were Bartók's attempts to sell out somewhat laughable (he arranged his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion as a concerto for two pianos and orchestra), the scores themselves contain the same architectural rigor as his thornier pieces. Some scholars believe that a renewed interest in the works of Edvard Grieg sparked a new accessibility. In addition, he composed a Sonata for Solo Violin, his final chamber masterpiece, influenced by the C-major solo sonata by Bach, in which he returns to his thorny old self. Besides, he composed light works throughout his career. Finally, Bartók began but did not live to finish a viola concerto. His countryman Tibor Serly realized the only authorized completion of the work, but it has many problems, chief among them the incompatibility of Bartók's and Serly's idioms. Far better and far closer to Bartók is the completion by violist Csaba Erdélyi, but through legal maneuvering, Bartók's publishers have kept it from gaining any currency.
Both the Concerto for Orchestra and the Third Piano Concerto received successful premieres and almost-immediate repertory status, among the last works of the Modern era to do so, but it's still early days yet. Performers continue eagerly to play his music, and companies haven't been shy about recording it. Unlike Schoenberg and Stravinsky, he established no compositional "school" and taught composition only when he couldn't avoid it, but his music seems to have helped composers of many different aesthetic orientations to find their individual voices. His work inspires all on its own. ~ Steve Schwartz