Bartók: discover six of his lesser-known works

Here are six little-known compositions from Hungarian composer Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók composer

Cantata profana (1930)

Premiered by the BBC Symphony in 1934, the Cantata profana, subtitled ‘The Nine Enchanted Stags’, sets Bartók’s own Hungarian translation of two Romanian Christmas folk tales and tells the story of two sons who, transformed into stags, refuse their fathers’ pleas to return home. The music is unsettling in places, majestic and touching in others.

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Piano Quintet (1904)

This early chamber work is Bartók finding his feet after becoming fascinated by Richard Strauss’s music. Unmistakably late-Romantic in style, the Quintet dogged the young composer for a while – audiences found it more appealing than many of his other chamber works and he threatened to destroy it.

Kossuth (1903)

This tone poem is another Straussian early piece – Bartók met Strauss at the Budapest premiere of Also sprach Zarathustra and was ‘aroused as by a flash of lightning’. Kossuth is a memorial to politician Lajos Kossuth and his failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848 that sought to overthrow Austrian rule. The music is full of dramatic detail, including a parody of the Austrian national anthem, a vivid battle and desolate final bars.

Suite Op. 14 (1916)

This set of four skittering miniatures was written during Bartók’s self-exile in Hungary – his despair at his country’s intolerance of progressive music and the breakdown of his first marriage no doubt plays into the overall mood. Following three quicker movements, the suite finishes on a reflective note.

For Children Sz 42 (1909)

Bartók’s collection of short pieces for children was originally published in four volumes and contained 85 pieces – by the 1930s, Bartók had made considerable revisions, writing 13 new pieces and reducing the whole collection to 79. Each is designed to be played by a beginner with no stretches bigger than an octave, and each draws on either a Hungarian or Slovakian folk song.

The Wooden Prince (1916)

Taking its cue from the opening to Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Bartók’s ballet creeps into view before exploring the tale’s mystical qualities with music of imaginative textures and moods. It tells the story of a princess who falls in love with the wooden facsimile of an infatuated prince. Bartók hones in on the prince’s devastation and his realisation that love isn’t always what it seems. You can hear the swirling, dizzying effects that went on to define much of the composer’s orchestral work.

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