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Music / Béla Bartók

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Béla Viktor János Bartók (25 March 1881 – 26 September 1945) was a Hungarian composer, widely regarded as one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. He is widely renowned for his interest in traditional peasant's music, which he collected together with his composer friend Zoltán Kodály, travelling in Eastern Europe and North Africa. Bartók was enarmored by the authenticity and originality of this music. While other Eastern European composers such as Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt and Antonín Dvořŕk had also used influences of traditional Folk Music in their work Bartók was the first to keep the primitive rawness of the peasant's music intact. As a result his music sometimes sounds nightmarish, but there are also moments that are so moving that it makes you cry.

However, he wasn't a traditionalist or nationalist. Bartók recorded all traditional peasant songs he could find, also for folklorist purposes, but used the material as an inspiration for his own Avant Garde Music compositions. Some motifs and melodies in his work are recognizable peasant melodies, but other passages are his own material. He also quickly discovered that there wasn't a true national music at all. Some melodies he heard while travelling in Romania were similar to music he heard in Hungary or even in Morocco. Bartók mixed influences from all over the world, including Balinese gamelan music and Chinese and Japanese influences.

His most famous works are Mikrokosmos, Romanian Dances, Dance Suite, his three Piano Concertos, Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta, and the Concerto For Orchestra.

Bartók's music provides examples of:

  • Alliterative Name: "Béla Bartók".
  • Call to Agriculture: His music is greatly influenced by traditional peasant's music. Bartók felt it wasn't pretentious, cheaply sentimental or as sterile as the music he heard elsewhere.
  • Cut Short: Bartók was working on his third piano concerto and his viola concerto at the time of his death from leukemia in 1945; he had finished all but the orchestration of the final 17 bars of the piano concerto, which his student Tibor Serly polished off before the work's premiere (and which are now accepted as canonical in performances of the work). The viola concerto was in a much more fragmentary state, with much of the instrumentation and texture still to be completed; although both Serly and, fifty years later, the composer's son Peter (in collaboration with Paul Neubauer and Nelson Dellamaggiore) produced performance versions of the work, they are much more speculative than the performance version of the piano concerto.
  • Darker and Edgier: He wasn't the first composer to be influenced by traditional music, but he was the first to maintain the harsh, rural atmosphere of the pieces he heard, not sugarcoating the sound.
  • Folk Music: He used folk music as the basis for his on work, building up a huge collection of field recordings of authentic peasant's music from Eastern Europe, North Africa and Asia.
  • Heavy Meta: "Concerto For Orchestra" is an orchestra played by an orchestra.
  • In Harmony with Nature: Bartók's music is deeply ingrained in nature, even referencing this in individual pieces, such as "Bear Dance". Bartók composed quite some mood pieces, characterised by slow movements, making use of eerie dissonances, comparable to the lonely sounds of nature at night. Musicologists gave them the nickname "night music". One piece of "Out Of Doors" is typical of this style and called "The Night's Music".
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and the Concerto For Orchestra's first four movements all have disturbing and haunting moments. The "Bear Dance" from the Dance Suite is also creepy.
  • Opera: He wrote only work in this genre, Bluebeard's Castle, which was rejected by Hungarian Fine Arts Commission as unstageworthy when Bartok submitted it for an award. It wasn't performed until 5 years later, but is now considered one of Bartok's most important works, and, despite its unusually small cast causing some difficulty - it only has two main characters, and three silent roles, which is a little awkward if you have a large group of performers on retainer - it receives regular performance.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: His compositions frequently quote from traditional music, which he collected on countless field recordings for which he crossed large parts of rural Eastern Europe and Northern Africa, accompanied by his colleague Zoltan Kodàly. Since this music was so ancient he didn't have to pay royalties for it.
  • Rule of Three: In his ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, three tramps coerce a girl into prostitution. The girl then dances to seduce three men, the last of which is the eponymous Mandarin. The tramps then attempt to kill the Mandarin in three different ways: asphyxiation, stabbing (thrice!), and hanging.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": His name is frequently misspelled with either the accents missing or facing the wrong side.
  • Take That!: The fourth movement of the Concerto for Orchestra notably features a mocking parody of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, a piece that Bartók particularly disliked.note 
  • Uncommon Time: This frequently occurs under the heading "Bulgarian Rhythm":
    • The Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos are respectively in (4+2+3)/8, (2+2+3)/8, (2+3)/8, (3+2+3)/8, (2+2+2+3)/8 and (3+3+2)/8.
    • The Scherzo alla bulgarese from the Fifth String Quartet is in (4+2+3)/8; its trio varies between (3+2+2+3)/8, (2+3+2+3)/8 and (2+3+3+2)/8, but is really too fast for the average listener to bother counting metrical divisions.
    • The Intermezzo interrotto from the Concerto for Orchestra has a main theme alternating between 2/4 and 5/8. It rather sneakily shifts into Common Time after a modulation, but this turns out to be the setup for a musical joke.
    • Szelenyi has a piece aptly titled "Changing Bars." There are only four places where it stays in the same meter for two measures in a row. The rest of the time it alternates between 2/8, 3/8, and 4/8 with no apparent logic behind it.
  • World Music: Bartók had the ideal that all music in the world should be brought together as one. And he sure did so in his compositions.

In popular culture

  • Anastasia and Bartok the Magnificent feature a white bat named Bartok. Now that we've mentioned this, forget it, for it has nothing to do with him whatsoever. In fact, the bat character is renamed to "Bartek" in the Hungarian dub of the films, to avoid any confusion with the composer.
  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer covered "Allegro Barbaro" as "The Barbarian", which got them in legal trouble with Bartók's widow.
  • The guitar part during "Every Breath You Take" from Synchronicity by The Police was inspired by Bartók's "Violin Duos".
  • Frank Zappa's line about the "walls weeping greenish drops" during "The Torture Never Stops" from Zoot Allures (1976) is a reference to Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle". Zappa also covered Bartók's Third Piano Concerto live on "Make a Jazz Noise Here" (1988), because it was his favorite Bartók piece. He even claimed "it almost made me cry the first time I heard it."
  • Music For Strings, Percussion & Celesta was also used on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's horror film The Shining, based on Stephen King's novel of the same name.
  • At the start of the music video for "Too Much Blood" from The Rolling Stones' album Undercover (1981) a small snippet from Bartok's "String Quartet No.3" can be heard.

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