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Bela Bartok (1881 1945

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Bela Bartok’s indefatigable strength and spirit are apparent in his distinctive music. Born in Transylvania, Bartok was an ill child who was constantly plagued with bronchial problems. Unable to spend time playing with other children, he became introverted and looked to music for companionship. His mother was his first piano instructor, and she tenderly nurtured Bartok’s obvious proclivity toward music. At the young age of nine Bartok wrote his first waltz, and a year later he gave his first solo performance as a pianist. Bartok’s mother treasured her son’s talent, and despite financial hardships caused by the death of her husband, she moved the entire family to Pressberg where Bartok could study the piano from Laszlo Erkel.

In 1899 Bartok joined the Liszt Academy in Budapest where he began his discovery of Strauss’s tone poems. Desiring to capture the Hungarian spirit through music, Bartok was in search of a nationalistic style. In 1904 he found the inspiration he had been longing for. While traveling through a small Hungarian town, Bartok heard a young maid sing an unusual melody as she worked. Intrigued by her lyricism, Bartok asked where her music was from. After learning that it was a local folksong, Bartok began the investigation and study of Hungarian folk music. He journeyed through Hungary, writing down and recording all that he heard. Very different from traditionally accepted Hungarian music, the regional pieces that Bartok discovered were irregular, passionate, and strong. Mesmerized by the unique sounds and melodies of the Hungarian peasants, Bartok initiated a revitalization of Hungarian music.

In 1909 Bartok found himself teaching and structuring musical arrangements in order to support himself financially. He married one of his adored students, Marta Ziegler, and the couple quickly had a son. During this time, Bartok’s greatest joy was to write pieces that explored the possibilities of Hungarian folk music. Unfortunately, audiences were not ready for such music. Bartok’s pieces deviated from the norms of traditional composition, and incorporated unusual techniques and sounds.

During Bartok’s first trip to the United States he presented his most significant pieces. Sadly, audiences were not impressed by Bartok’s works. Nonetheless, Bartok persevered and continued incorporating Hungarian folk songs into his music. Thirteen years later, he returned to the United States, setting up a home in New York. By this time he had produced many noteworthy pieces such as his Fifth and Sixth quartets, and had undergone a divorce and remarried Ditta Pasztory. Attempting to distance himself from the war in Europe, Bartok seized a research grant in folk music at Columbia University. For a few years the grant’s meager allowance allowed Bartok to maintain a reasonable standard of living. However, once the grant came to a close, he found himself on the verge of poverty. His performances were not met with enthusiasm, and he began to suffer from leukemia.

Nevertheless, this frail man had a formidable spirit that gave him the strength to compose until the very end of his life. Although he was in constant physical pain, his interest in music and intellectual pursuits could not be crushed. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers took on his medical bills, allowing Bartok to receive the hospitalization and medication that he required. While he was in hospital, Koussevitzky, Menuhin, and Primrose all commissioned the writing of separate pieces. The production of these works occupied the rest of Bartok’s life. He wrote constantly, relentlessly attempting to complete all three commissions before he passed away. In order to save time Bartok developed a shorthand method of writing out measures and chords. His son would often sit by his bedside, transcribing the shorthand or adding markings to the music. Bartok passed away when he had completed all but the last few bars of his final piano concerto.

This amazing individual did not live to see his work embraced by audiences. Demanding and intense, Bartok’s pieces evoke the humanity of their listeners. Today they are performed throughout the world, memorializing the power and vision of a remarkable man.

Notes by Shanaira Udwadia (July-2001)