Béla Bartók – the life and music of the Hungarian maverick

Rob Cowan
Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Béla Bartók’s music takes listeners on a journey through folklore and fantasy. Rob Cowan offers a guide to exploring his compelling genius

My baptism into Béla Bartók’s musical world was as a tender 14-year-old. We were about to go on a family holiday. As the suitcases were being loaded into the car, I was twiddling with the radio dial and unexpectedly chanced upon some exotic but absorbing music. A slow, heaving waltz was accelerating by the second. Then, responding to yelps from the brass, a pair of trombones barged in with jazzy syncopations and before I could catch my breath I was sitting goggle-eyed as strings and percussion set out helter-skelter for a fugal riot. ‘I must have this,’ I thought to myself, and with one fell swoop my £2 holiday money was spent – though the other hotel guests didn’t thank me when I commandeered the ballroom radiogram for a sampling of my much-prized LP acquisition. The work in question was the Suite from the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, in a still-unrivalled Mercury recording by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati. It’s powerfully haunting music that for me served as a soundtrack for images of backstreet sleaze and covert violence, the chilling enticements of an unpalatable world where love was sold and there was no added pay-off. It was a life-changing moment.

When it comes to art music and its connection with the modern world, Bartók has no rivals: long thought of as ‘difficult’, he is now considered anything but. With his feet planted firmly among the roots of local folklore (a villager at heart, he was a keen ethnomusicologist), Bartók has become, in symbolic terms, a man of our time, and his candid musical expressions of sexually fraught relationships mean that nowadays he’d pass even the most stringent reality check. Mystery abounds in Bartók’s music, though never in the guise of organised religion. The violinist Stefi Geyer, a favoured squeeze (at least in theory), broke with him principally because of his atheism; though for powerful handling of symbolic myth it would be hard to upstage his raw and mysterious Cantata profana (1930). His was above all a dancing muse who took rhythm as her starting point, often reaching levels of energy that even Stravinsky and Prokofiev would have found difficult to maintain.

Bartók, whose health was invariably frail, was a loner among the musical mavericks of his day. Light years removed from the cerebral adventurers of the Second Viennese School (whose ‘madness’ was more in their methods than in their hearts), he was more red-blooded than the often ritualistic Stravinsky, less belligerent than the young Prokofiev and less politically motivated than his even younger contemporary Shostakovich, though he made a firm political stand in the late 1930s by making the painful decision to leave his native Hungary as the situation in Europe worsened. Bartók’s nearest soulmate was his compatriot and fellow folksong collector Zoltán Kodály, an important educationist, though I suspect that, in spite of Kodály’s many fine musical achievements, posterity will ultimately settle in Bartók’s favour.

Pianistic prowess

Surveying Bartók’s output finds the lion’s share of his greatest music located in two genres: pieces for solo piano and for string quartet. The piano works (around six CDs’ worth) include a boldly uncompromising Piano Sonata (1926) and the suite Out of Doors (1926), which features among its movements an evocative ‘Night Music’ and a wildly cantering ‘Chase’ finale that brings to mind the Mandarin. The Suite, Op 14 (1916) combines a certain playfulness with more sombre colours; the Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs (1920) and Three Studies, Op 18 (1918) demonstrate a wide range of characteristically Bartókian gestures and techniques; and the dazzlingly varied, post-impressionist Bagatelles, Op 6 (1908) still await the wider recognition that is surely their due. There are educational piano miniatures (including the 153 pieces that make up the kaleidoscopic series Mikrokosmos, 1926-39), folk dances, elegies, sketches and children’s pieces – all informed by the same irresistible blend of earth and air, and all deeply personal in their musical language. (And who but Bartók could have made two pianos and a varied battery of percussion – the Sonata of 1937 – tussle, loiter or laugh as effectively and rhythmically as he did?)

Bartók as pianist was the virtual equal of his contemporary Rachmaninov. He first played the piano in public at the age of 11 and in 1907 was appointed piano professor at the Budapest Academy. He toured widely and made a number of 78rpm recordings, but his later records offer only limited evidence of his towering pianistic and interpretative abilities. Best are CD transfers of 78s featuring the Suite, Op 14, the first of the Two Romanian Dances, and a live Library of Congress acetate-derived recording of Debussy’s Violin Sonata (with favoured playing partner Joseph Szigeti); but perhaps most impressive of all is a sonically challenged quarter-hour’s worth of Bartók playing his Second Piano Concerto (released from private sources by Hungaroton), where the combination of what sounds like (but isn’t) ecstatic rhapsodising and effortless virtuosity is fully on a par with Rachmaninov playing his concertos.

A String Quartet odyssey

It’s often claimed that Bartók’s cycle of six quartets is the greatest since Beethoven’s, a viewpoint I heartily endorse. (Not surprisingly, complete sets have featured regularly in the Gramophone Awards: from the Tokyo, the Emerson – Record of the Year in 1989 – and the Takács quartets.) The ‘official’ First Quartet (1908), with its thematic references to Stefi Geyer, is both the most expansive and the most romantic of the set. With the arrival of the Second Quartet (1917), Bartók’s tonality becomes more ambiguous, and the faster music more aggressively driven, specifically in the often eerie second movement. The middle quartets are uncompromisingly austere. The Third (1927) is taut, concise and ultimately apocalyptic; the Fourth (1928), angular, texturally experimental and rhythmically confrontational. That’s the one that youngsters tend to go for, especially the finale, a sort of breathless war dance. Years ago when I ran a record shop, a group of lads came in wanting to sample a particular LP that reminded me of this finale; afterwards I played the Bartók to them, and that’s what they eventually bought! The marginally more amiable and subtle Fifth Quartet (1934; perhaps the highlight of the series) glances sideways towards elements of jazz; and the Sixth (1939) is – miraculously, given Bartók’s state of mind as war grew closer – warmly stoical, mysterious and full of zany humour.

Ballet and opera

The Eternal Feminine was for Bartók something of an idée fixe (his second wife, Ditta Pásztory, was his junior by some 17 years). His First String Quartet includes ideas inspired by Stefi Geyer, for whom he wrote his First Violin Concerto (1907‑08). The Concerto’s first movement is among his most rapturously beautiful early works, later reclaimed for one of his Two Portraits (1907-11) as ‘The Ideal’, whereas the second (based on the last of his 14 piano Bagatelles, Op 6) is a vengeful top-speed distortion of the first’s principal theme, cast as a sort of valse macabre. Bartók’s Dance Suite (1923) – which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the formation of Budapest – employs both eastern European and Arabic folk music, and the stealthy introduction to the last dance, which suggests a hungry predator slowly drawing in on its prey, is both sinister and erotically suggestive.

These two characteristics – the sinister and the erotic – underpin the work that formed my ‘Bartók epiphany’, The Miraculous Mandarin (ballet, 1919; suite, 1927). The story concerns a hapless girl forced to act as a sexual decoy so that one victim after another is ensnared, robbed and thrown back on to the street, until an exotic and majestic Mandarin climbs the stairs, rises to the bait, is harangued and tortured, but will not die until the girl gives herself to him. Lurid or compassionate? Or both? The Suite leaves the story unfinished (the pathetic denouement comes later on in the score), but I’d already learnt enough through it – not least that, for all its implied violence, this was still relatively ‘early’ Bartók and the toughest nuts were still out there waiting to be cracked. Although modernist in concept and provocative in its plot (it was originally banned), Mandarin offered but a hint of the fully ‘mature’ Bartók. In fact all three of Bartók’s stage works predate the painstakingly organised, sophisticated and often barbed sound worlds that formed the core of his work from the 1920s onwards.

His only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle (1911-12, rev 1918), approached eroticism from an entirely different standpoint, Bluebeard himself proud but inwardly tortured, wary and very private (not unlike his creator), fascinated by the beautiful creature who enters his realm and whose unrelenting curiosity inevitably causes her downfall. Here, in Bluebeard, the tone-painting is more overtly theatrical than in the Mandarin, whereas Bartók’s other stage work, the ballet The Wooden Prince(1914-17), is the one most redolent of folk music.

Bartók was perhaps the first major musician to assert the notion that the ‘Hungarian’ element in the rhapsodies of Liszt and the dances of Brahms (not to mention various nationalist composers) was not authentic but rather based on folk-like popular songs. In 1904 he made his first notation of a Hungarian peasant song, sung by a young girl, before striking up a lifelong friendship and collaboration with fellow folksong collector Kodály. He was also one of the first musicians to make practical use of Edison’s phonograph: indeed, the results of his 1906 fieldwork are available on CD.

Suites and concertos

The orchestral masterpieces – and for many people these will be their first encounter with Bartók’s music – are dominated by the Dance Suite, the precisely targeted tone-painting of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and the late, relatively mild-mannered Concerto for Orchestra (1943, rev 1945). With music composed after Bartók had arrived in America (late 1940), the Concerto for Orchestra is ostensibly a commission from the great Russian-born entrepreneur-conductor Serge Koussevitzky (though the idea had originated with conductor Fritz Reiner and violinist Szigeti in a bid to help Bartók’s dolorous financial predicament). It’s a work that seems to take in influences from the wider musical world (including the German Paul Hindemith) in a very peaceable way, even though Bartók defies the dying light with one of his most heroic finales. The Concerto for Orchestra is now among Bartók’s most popular works, largely through its accessibility and the absence of those very qualities that make the middle-period compositions so darkly alluring. Bartók’s health was probably at its best during the three summers he spent at a sanatorium at the expense of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, and even as late as Christmas 1944 he could claim that ‘our modest future is secured for the coming three years’. But it wasn’t to be. The Concerto represents in many respects a last ray of light. Prior to its creation, Yehudi Menuhin had commissioned a solo Sonata (1944), which turned out to be the greatest of its kind since Bach. Other late offerings include a straightforward ‘fleshing out’ (into a concerto) of his Sonata for two pianos and percussion, which Bartók could (and did) play with his wife Ditta (1940).

The other concertos are as unalike as any in the repertoire, with three piano concertos that are by turn boldly experimental (the First, 1926), excitedly conversational (the Second, 1930-31; though wildlife at night take over for the middle movement) and airborne and serene (the not-quite-finished Third Concerto, 1945). They make a wonderful cycle and provide an accurate overview of the composer’s evolving maturity. Of the two violin concertos, the Second (1937‑38) is the true masterpiece, its third movement ingeniously mirroring its first and with a mass of ideas throughout that are both memorable and thematically engaging. Bartók died with his fitfully beautiful Viola Concerto still largely in sketch form, and although what came down to us at least provided Tibor Serly with a workable project for ‘completion’, the piece still sounds relatively sparse.

Bartók on record

So who are the best guides to Bartók’s music on disc? Fellow Hungarians Iván Fischer and Zoltán Kocsis are both perceptive and authoritative – Fischer in the orchestral works, Kocsis in both the piano works and, since he’s been conducting the Hungarian National Philharmonic, the orchestral compositions, including some that Fischer hasn’t yet tackled on CD (the two superb violin rhapsodies, for example, with variants). Pianist András Schiff is a rather gentler Bartókian than Kocsis, and from further back there’s Stephen Kovacevich and, most particularly, Géza Anda (a personal favourite, peerless in the concertos) and Andor Foldes (whose mono DG survey of the solo works deserves a comprehensive CD reissue). Sir Georg Solti and Pierre Boulez are highly rated (Boulez’s Cantata profana is possibly the best ever recorded), but in my book there are two conductors who deserve special mention: Antal Dorati and Ferenc Fricsay. With Dorati you get muscle and drive, with Fricsay energy and, above all, clarity. Both feel the soul of the music, and with Bartók ‘soul’ is probably the most abiding quality.

Bartók for beginners

The fledgling Bartókian should in the first instance track down Iván Fischer’s discs of orchestral works with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, though they have a habit of going in and out of the catalogue. The string quartets are handsomely served, with my own favourites including CDs by the Takács, Juilliard (all three recordings), Végh (both recordings), Tokyo and Hagen quartets; Kocsis’s survey of the piano works would take some beating. Recordings of Bartók as pianist are perhaps best left for a little later, once you’ve absorbed the music and are better placed to appreciate the small print in his playing. The really important thing to remember is that all this music has been crafted by a man with a perfectionist’s ear. It craves very close scrutiny: even in the works that superficially pack the most dizzying punch, the genius is in the detail. Bartók can be appreciated at various levels, but the deeper you probe, the more you realise just what a great composer he was. The last century’s greatest, perhaps? I would say ‘yes’.

Bartók – recommended recordings

Concerto for Orchestra 

BFO / I Fischer 


Gramophone review




Violin & Viola Concertos 

Ehnes vn BBC PO / Noseda 


Gramophone review




Piano Concertos 

Anda pf  Berlin RSO / Fricsay


Gramophone review




String Quartets 

Takács Qt


Gramophone review




The Miraculous Mandarin (complete)

Chicago SO / Boulez


Gramophone review




This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Gramophone.

Bartók’s life

  • The fledgling genius (1881-1900)

    Born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now in Romania), on March 25, 1881, to musical parents. Ernő Dohnányi suggests he should attend the Budapest Academy of Music

  • The ardent nationalist (1900-1910)

    Composes his Strauss-inspired Kossuth, consolidates his interest in genuine folk music and writes his ‘Portrait of a Girl’ for first wife Márta Ziegler. Makes meaningful contact with Kodály

  • Finding a personal voice (1910-1924)

    The stage works: Bluebeard’s Castle, The Wooden PrinceThe Miraculous Mandarin. Accused of lacking patriotism because of his articles on Romanian folk music. Tours as pianist

  • The folksong collector (1922-1928)

    Divorces his first wife and marries his pupil Ditta Pásztory. Prepares a collection of 3000 Slovak folksongs and writes an extensive study on Romanian Christmas songs 

  • Tough thinking (1925-1939)

    Plays Piano Concerto No 1 at the 1927 ISCM Festival and performs No 2 more than 20 times 1934-41. Innovative and combative middle-period piano works and quartets, and Cantata profana

  • A man of principle (1925-1939)

    Forbids his music to be played in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and renounces his membership of the Austrian Performing Rights Society. Mother dies

  • America and the final phase (1940-1945)

    US tour. Records Contrasts with Benny Goodman and Szigeti. Farewell concert in Budapest. Back to US for good. The last concertos. Dies of leukaemia, New York, September 26, 1945

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