Béla Bartók:
A Hungarian at Heart

by Brent Edelman




In a 1925 American journal called League of Composers, one author stated boldly, "It is well known that there are no people so unmusical as the Hungarians." (4) Béla Bartók, with the aid of several other great Hungarian composers and musicians, forced this writer to seriously reconsider his opinion. While living, Bartók was considered by all a virtuoso pianist and a distinguished concert artist. Within twenty-five years of his death, musical connoisseurs regarded Bartók's compositions as classics of Western music. (2) Nearly every great composer preceded by Bartók has perceived his weighty influence on the musical world. (1) Hungarians consider him a national hero; his legacy has been immortalized on the one thousand-forint banknote. (3) Clearly, Béla Bartók has played and continues to play a prominent role in shaping Hungary's national identity. To this day, his impact resonates throughout the world of music.

Béla and Paula Bartók gave birth to Béla Viktor János Bartók on March 25, 1881, in Nagyszemtmiklós, Hungary (now Sinnicolau Mare, Romania). Young Béla lost his father at the tender age of seven. He therefore developed an extremely strong bond with his mother, who would prove to be a great symbol of stability for the developing boy. This relationship remained intimate until her death in 1939. Maladies, however, recurrently plagued young Bartók; he was constantly under close medical supervision. He suffered from such illnesses as colitis and pneumonia. (3)

Bartók's parents presented him with a drum at age three. He accompanied his mother while she played piano, keeping immaculate beat and even recognizing transitions from 3/4 to 4/4 time. By age ten, Bartók was publicly performing works he had written himself. (3) Béla honed this raw talent into fine musical skills at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. All recognized his immense potential as a pianist. (1


In 1905, Bartók discovered folk music. This interest motivated him lifelong; it as well aided him in achieving an international reputation as a musical scholar. He then began his career as one of the great piano mentors at the Budapest Academy of Music in 1907. He would instruct there for another twenty-seven years. (1) Two years after taking his post in Budapest, Bartók fell in love with one of his students. He took Marta Ziegler as his wife in November of 1909. Together they had one son, Béla. The marriage, however, could not endure more than fourteen years of strain and struggle, much due to the First World War. Shortly after parting with Marta, Bartók took Ditta Pŕsztory, another of his students, to be his wife. His second son, Peter, was born in 1924. (3)

The rise of Nazism throughout Central Europe in the 1930s acutely concerned Bartók. He began sending his most meaningful manuscripts out of Hungary in 1938. Only after losing his mother in 1939, however, did Bartók join his works in exile. He and his wife boarded a ship bound for the United States in 1940. They docked at New York City, where Bartók was granted a research fellowship at Columbia to study Serbo-Croatian folk materials. In 1942, however, Bartók fell severely ill. This malady eventually developed into leukemia. Bartók's life ended in New York City on September 26, 1945, at the age of sixty-four. (3)


During these sixty-four years of toil, Bartók composed nearly one hundred works. 1904 marked the release of his first major work, the Kossuth Symphony. (3) This symphonic poem was inspired by Lajos Kossuth, a great Hungarian patriot who led the revolution of 1848-49. This work drew much public attention, for Bartók had taken "certain liberties" with the Austrian national anthem. (1) Perhaps Bartók's finest works are his six quartets (1910-1939); many compare these to Beethoven's late quartets. Most, however, consider the Concerto for Orchestra (1943) and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste (1936) Bartok's masterpieces. These works "defy description; . . . they comprise some of the undeniably greatest music written this century." (5) Bartók wrote one one-act opera, Bluebeard's Castle (1911), and two ballets, The Wooden Prince (1916) and The Wonderful Mandarin (1919). (2) In addition to his numerous compositions, Bartók published many book-length studies involving Hungarian and Romanian folk music. He was as well renowned as a concert pianist throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States. (1)

Nothing could corrupt this musician, be it money, power, or social status. He toiled ceaselessly, never allowing himself a break; he even studied on the beach, perfecting one of the ten languages he knew. (3) But Bartók's devotion to his motherland was perhaps his most dominant trait. He tirelessly delved into Hungary's soul, its folk music; his compositions "became suffused with the folk spirit." (2) Bartok's every major musical work exhibited this bond. As Laszlo Lajtha stated so eloquently, "Above all, Bartók was Hungarian." (3)



  • (1) Encyclopedia Americana: Volume 3. Grolier Incorporated. Danbury, CT: 1994.

  • (2) Encyclopedia Britannica: Volume 1. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Chicago: 1989.

  • (3) Gillies, Malcolm. Bartók Remembered. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. London: 1990.

  • (4) Laki, Peter. Bartók and his World. Princeton University Press. Princeton, N.J.: 1995

  • (5) http://classicalmus.com/composers/bartok.html (thanks to Professor Kyn for this site and helpful comments)






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