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The Musical World of Bela Bartok

The Hungarian Fine Arts Commission told Bartok in 1911 that his opera, the only one he would ever write, was no good, not suitable for the stage. With only two singers and no set changes, Bluebeard's Castle just wasn't operatic. He'd later tinker with it some, but the immediate effect of the rejection was that, for four years, he almost completely stopped writing music. Now recognized as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, Bela Bartok--just entering the height of his powers--went into a composing blackout.


Bela Bartok (1881-1945): Two Images, Op. 10 (1910). Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez.
Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances (1917). Chicago Symphony Orchestra, George Solti.
Bartok: Four Orchestra Pieces, Op. 12 (1921). London Philharmonic, Leon Botstein.

It may have been the best action he could take. A few years before, he had started to collect folk songs with his friend Zoltan Kodaly. They had been classmates in conservatory, and, discovering a common interest, traveled throughout the countryside to find and transcribe old tunes, sung to them by old villagers and farmers. The music liberated the two students, and started to creep into their own creations.

The effect on Bartok would be profound. He was a devotee of Richard Strauss and Debussy, which can be picked up in his Four Orchestra Pieces, finished and put away in 1912, not orchestrated until 1921. The strange peasant music with asymmetrical rhythms, however, started influencing him right away. We can hear it already in Two Images, with the movements "In full flower" and "Village dance." Bartok and Kodaly discovered that the music wasn't all "Gypsy," either, at least what concert audiences had considered (by way of Liszt) to be Gypsy. There were five-note scales thought only to be Asian, and surprising harmonies that didn't trudge along well-worn European paths.

So instead of giving up after the 1911 disappointment, Bartok decided to be useful. He went back to the field and started collecting folk music again. Recording tunes throughout Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria, he made arrangements of them as he went. And then, when World War I brought his traveling to a halt, he started composing revitalized, original music. The popular Romanian Folk Dances come from this time, 1915, when he put them together for piano, orchestrating them two years later.

In 1918 he would write the century-shifting work The Miraculous Mandarin. Later would come the great Cantata Profana, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and the last four of his six string quartets. His immensely successful Concerto for Orchestra and Piano Concerto No. 3 were decades away, after he was forced, by another war, to leave Europe and move to America. But his self-education from the music of the people was the springboard for his entire output.

That his career was steeped in folk music is no revelation; he talked of it himself. He thought that a composer could use folk music in three ways. It could be lifted, it could be copied (with new tunes sounding just like old ones--no different from the first way), or it could be absorbed to create something completely new.

That is Bartok. His music could be highly dissonant, but it would always remain tonal and vocal, if wildly so. Quirky and relentless rhythms abound, and harmonies follow their own rules. But it took a crashing rebuff and a return to the country for Bartok to absorb and create anew. These three middle-period works show the emergence of a composer who would define the 20th century in entirely new terms.--Kile Smith