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Classical Composers A-Z: Bela Bartok

Continuing his series in which he introduces us to the great classical composers, Peter Wintersgill outlines the life of the Hungarian composer, Bela Bartok.

BELA BARTOK, 1881 - 1945

Born
25th March 1881 in Nagyszentmiklos, South East Hungary.

Father
Headmaster, cellist. Died at 33.

Mother
Paula, gifted pianist.

Family
Sister.

Childhood

Had piano lessons from mother from age of 5, started composing waltzes at age 9. Father died when he was 7, after which mother resumed her piano teaching. The family moved a few times, to try and find a suitable place for her teaching and Bela's schooling.

Adolescence
Moved to Bratislava at 13, had lessons from the conductor, Laszlo Erkel. Moved to Budapest, entered Royal Academy of Music there at 18. Had pneumonia in his second year, took six months to fully recover. Heard R. Strauss' Also Spake Zarathustra at the theatre, the start of his life long admiration of Strauss. Also admired and was influenced by Liszt, Debussy and Stravinsky.

Early Adult Life
Left the Academy at 22, was such a brilliant pupil that he was excused the final exam.
Wrote the nationalistic tone poem Kossuth and a violin sonata in 1903.
He then decided to study the local folk songs, so went to live with his sister in the country;
he toured round with his friend Kodaly, studying and collecting folk songs. He published a book of 20 songs in 1906. He then wrote his first violin concerto (1908).
He was appointed piano teacher at the Academy in 1907. He then had an affair with a young violin student, but nothing came of it: she being a devout Roman Catholic and he an atheist. He then met and married Marta, to whom he dedicated a piano piece, Picture of a Girl. When they married she was but 16 to his 28. A son Bela was born the following year (1910).
He wrote his only opera Duke Bluebeard's castle (1911) and a ballet The Wooden Prince (1917). Being unfit for the army, he continued to compose and collect folk songs in all the Balkan States, as well as Turkey and North Africa.
Later Adult Life
He left Hungary in 1920, owing to the communist coup, but soon returned. He wrote two violin sonatas in 1922, which had their premieres in London. Soon after this he made a concert tour, taking in France, Germany and Italy, where he was more appreciated than in his native Hungary.
About this time he met a 19-year-old student, with whom he fell in love. His marriage to Marta having deteriorated, she obligingly divorced him; he married Ditta in 1922, who gave him a son, Peter, the following year.
In 1923 he wrote his Dance Suite, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the union of Buda with Pest. Next year he published another book of Hungarian folk songs, which was a great success. Later he made a concert tour of Russia; he was now becoming world famous as a pianist, rather than as a composer: In 1940, his mother having died the previous year, he travelled to the USA where he stayed for the rest of his life. He got an appointment at Columbia University, who gave him a small salary for research into folk songs; they also gave him an Honorary Music Doc. In spite of all this, it was not a happy time for him. His health and strength were clearly failing; in addition his finances were low. He had an attack of 'flu', from which he never recovered. This was in fact the start of his terminal illness, leukaemia, though he was not informed of this at the time. His best known work of all, the Concerto for Orchestra, appeared in 1943 and the violin sonata, commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin, the next year.
The works standing out, however, as influencing the course of music most were his six string quartets (1908-1939). His viola Concerto was unfinished at his death, but was completed by Tibor Serly, a fellow student in his academy days. He got gradually weaker and died on 26th September 1945 in New York from leukaemia, aged 64. His funeral was attended by many musicians and other notables.

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