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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, while traveling in Eastern Europe and North Africa. Bartók was enarmored by the authenticity and originality of this music. While other Eastern European composers such as Fryderyk Chopin, Franz Liszt and Antonín Dvořák had also used influences of traditional Folk Music in their work Bartók was the first to keep the primitive rawness of peasant music intact. As a result his music sometimes sounds clangorous, but there are also moments that are so moving that it makes you cry.

Although he was initially a traditionalist and nationalist (his earliest works, such as the symphonic poem Kossuth, show strong Lisztian influence), this changed once he discovered traditional Hungarian folk music. Bartók recorded all traditional peasant songs he could find in Hungary and elsewhere, both for folklorist purposes and to use as inspiration for his own Avant-Garde Music compositions. Some motifs and melodies in his work are recognizable peasant tunes, but other passages are his own material. He also quickly discovered that there was significant similarity between Hungarian folk music and that of other cultures, such as those of Romania and Morocco.

His most famous works are Mikrokosmos, Romanian Dances, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, 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 the composer's son Peter (in collaboration with Paul Neubauer and Nelson Dellamaggiore) produced performance versions of the work, they are 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 own work, building up a huge collection of field recordings of authentic peasant's music from Eastern Europe, North Africa and Asia.
  • In Harmony with Nature: Bartók's music is deeply influenced by nature, even referencing this in individual pieces, such as the "Bear Dance" movements from the Sonatina and Ten Easy Pieces (both for piano). Bartók composed several slow movements that use eerie dissonances and quiet, trance-like figuration, evoking sounds of nature at night. Musicologists gave them the nickname "Night Music." One movement from the solo piano suite Out Of Doors is typical of this style and even has a movement titled "The Night's Music."
  • Opera: He wrote only work in this genre, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, which was rejected by the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission as unstageworthy when Bartok submitted it for an award. It wasn't performed until five years later, but is now considered one of Bartok's most important works. Despite its unusually small cast — 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 performances.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: His compositions frequently quote traditional folk music from Eastern Europe and Northern Africa, which he collected on countless field recordings, often accompanied by his colleague Zoltan Kodaly. Since this music was sufficiently 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 Dmitri Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, a piece that Bartók particularly disliked.note 
  • Uncommon Time: One frequently finds the composer using non-standard time signatures, often but not exclusively encountered in movements with titles referencing "Bulgarian Rhythm." He also utilizes changing meter at times.
    • 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 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.

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