Bela Bartok: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Béla Bartók is one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Learn about his love of folk music, his travels to preserve it, and his most important compositions.

Béla Bartók - Composer, Pianist, and Folk Song Collector

Imagine lugging an Edison phonograph over the dusty mountain trails of Hungary and Romania. It would have been heavy and awkward, rattling around in the back of the horse cart. The wax cylinders on which it recorded sound were fragile and needed special care. Yet Béla Bartók was never happier than the years he spent recording the folk songs of his homeland.

An Edison phonograph
Photo of Edison Phonograph

Early Life

Béla Bartók was born March 25, 1881, in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, now modern-day Romania. His family was very musical. His father was the headmaster of a local school and believed in the importance of studying the fine arts. His mother was his first piano teacher. He began composing his own music before the age of ten, and performing in public soon after. Upon graduation from public school he was accepted to continue his studies in piano and composition at the prestigious Academy of Music in Vienna, but he chose to attend the Royal Hungarian Academy of Music in Budapest instead. This would prove to be an important decision as the music of Hungary would become a great influence on his own compositions.

Bela Bartok
Photo of Bela Bartok

Bartók and Folk Music

In 1904 Bartók heard a young girl from Transylvania singing a folk song. He was amazed at the unusual melody and quickly wrote it down. He and his friend, fellow composer Zoltán Kodály, began traveling through the remote corners of Hungary with an Edison phonograph, asking peasants and working folk everywhere they went to sing and play into the recording horn. Bartók listened to the recordings over and over and carefully wrote down the songs he heard. He eventually travelled farther afield, collecting songs from Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and even Turkey and Morocco. At the time of his death he had amassed more than 6,000 recordings. It was inevitable that these recordings would change his creative outlook. His collection and research of folk music also pioneered ethnomusicology, the study of music in its cultural and social context.

A typical Hungarian village
Photo of a Hungarian village

Bartók's Music

Bartók's first musical influences as a composer were the late romantic composers Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Franz Liszt. Thus his early music was highly romantic in style, full of passionate, florid melodies and traditional, lush harmonies. Shortly after he began his studies at the Academy in Budapest he met the French composer Claude Debussy. Debussy had already abandoned romanticism in favor of experimenting with exotic sounds and scales from non-Western European cultures. Bartók soon followed in his footsteps. He had the ideal source material in the folk songs he had been collecting. The rhythms, melodies, and harmonies of Eastern European folk music found their way into Bartok's compositions and became the foundation of his unique and personal style.

Two of his more important large-scale works that epitomize this style are Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. They are rhythmically complex. They have interesting melodies, influenced by Eastern European scales. They also employ different, experimental harmonies not found in traditional Western music. These two compositions are widely held to be modern masterpieces and are performed all over the world.

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