In an article on the influence of peasant music on modern music, Béla Bartók once declared: ‘The right type of peasant music is most varied and perfect in its forms. Its expressive power is astonishing, and at the same time it is devoid of all sentimentality and superfluous ornaments... A composer in search of new ways cannot be led by a better master.’ For Bartók, the ‘right type’ of music was not the sophisticated urban style of the gypsies, which Brahms and Liszt had mistaken for genuine Hungarian folk music, but the less refined traditional melodies that had been passed down through the generations in rural communities.
Bartók was born on 25 March 1881, in the town of Nagyszentmiklós (which translates as ‘Great St Michael’), now part of Romania. In his early teens, he and his mother moved to Bratislava – or Pozsony, as it then was – where one of his older fellow-students at the Gymnasium (a senior school) was Erno˝ Dohnányi. At Dohnányi’s advice, Bartók enrolled at the Budapest Academy of Music. As a young composer, he fell under the spell of Richard Strauss, and then folksong after hearing a peasant girl singing a Transylvanian tune during a summer visit to Gerlice Puszta, south-eastern Hungary, in 1904. ‘I now have a new plan,’ he told his sister. ‘I shall collect the most beautiful Hungarian folksongs and raise them to the level of art songs by providing them with the best possible piano accompaniments.’
The following year, Bartók met his compatriot Zoltán Kodály, who was completing a dissertation on Hungarian folksongs, and his life took a new direction. In 1906 he set out on what was to be the first of many field-trips collecting folk melodies. His researches soon led him further afield. Between 1907 and 1912 he visited Transylvania, Romania and Bulgaria; and 1913 found him in the Biskra region of North Africa, to the east of the Atlas Mountains, in what is now part of Algeria. Finally, in 1936, he paid a visit to Turkey. In all, he collected some 10,000 melodies, cataloguing them with scientific meticulousness. His aim to create a brotherhood of peoples was expressed in his orchestral Dance Suite (1923) which makes use not just of Hungarian ‘imaginary’ folk melodies, but also of tunes that are Romanian and Arab in flavour.
Bartók drew on Hungarian speech-rhythm in many of his works, from the central slow movement in his Fourth String Quartet, to the third movement of the wonderful Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1936. But he was no less fascinated by the fast Bulgarian rhythm which divides the bar into a pattern of unequal units, such as 4+2+3 quavers. That curiously limping rhythm runs throughout the scherzo of the Quartet No. 5, for example; or the first in the group of Bulgarian Dances that ends the long series of progressive piano pieces Mikrokosmos. He was also influenced by the unusual scales he found in the music he collected, inspiring him to fashion material out of different scale-patterns: chromatic, whole-tone, pentatonic (equivalent to the pitches produced when you play just the black notes on the piano) and octatonic (an alternation of whole tones and semitones).
Bartók’s praise of peasant music as being ‘devoid of all sentimentality’ is significant when it comes to his own musical aesthetic. In 1938 he declared that ‘all efforts ought to be directed at the present time to the search for what we will call “inspired simplicity”.’ He urged composers to defend themselves against the excesses of Romanticism. No one could accuse Bartók’s music of lacking warmth, but it’s significant that for a long period he avoided the conventional symphony orchestra. Between the Dance Suite and the Concerto for Orchestra composed 20 years later, his only original orchestral works were the first two piano concertos, which avoid Romantic string writing, and the Violin Concerto of 1937-8. Influentially, he explored percussive sonorities in works such as the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and his six string quartets – perhaps the 20th century’s greatest series of works in this genre.
Hand in hand with Bartók’s interest in folk music went a fascination with the sounds of nature, and of night-time. The Out of Doors suite for piano contains a movement called ‘Night Music’; and a similar mysteriously flickering world is conjured up in different ways in the slow movement of all three of the piano concertos. Such nocturnal atmospheres are contained within meticulously organised structures. The typical Bartókian design is a symmetrical arch-like form in five movements or sections, in which the outer movements share the same material, and the second and fourth movements are also related to each other, leaving the central movement as the kernel of the work. That design is found in the Second Piano Concerto, as well as the Fourth and Fifth Quartets, and a similar shape, less rigorously applied, also informs the two great stage works: the opera Bluebeard’s Castle and the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin.
Given his deeply ingrained humanism, it’s not surprising that Bartók was a fervent anti-fascist. He gave the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto in Frankfurt, in January 1933; but once Hitler came to power, Bartók refused to set foot in Germany again and banned any performance of his music there. After Hungary capitulated to fascism in the wake of the 1938 Anschluss, Bartók and his wife set sail for New York. By 1942 he had fallen seriously ill and his last works, such as the unaccompanied Violin Sonata he wrote for Yehudi Menuhin, were written in difficult circumstances. Yet the music Bartók composed during his American exile – and in particular the Concerto for Orchestra and the Third Piano Concerto – shows a determination to address a wider audience, though without ever losing sight of his distinctive style.