Bela Bartok

Bela Viktor Janos Bartok (March 25, 1881 – September 26, 1945) was a Hungarian composer and pianist. He is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century; he and Liszt are regarded as Hungary’s greatest composers (Gillies 2001). Bartók’s family reflected some of the ethno-cultural diversities of the country.


His father, Béla Sr., considered himself thoroughly Hungarian, because on his father’s side the Bartók family was a Hungarian lower noble family, originating from Borsod county (Móser 2006a, 44; Bartók 1981, 13), though his mother, Paula (born Paula Voit), had German as a mother tongue, but was ethnically of “mixed Hungarian” ancestry (Bayley 2001, 16) of Danube Swabian origin. Béla was a small and sickly child and suffered from severe eczema until the age of 5 (Gillies 1990, 5).

 In 1888, when he was seven, his father (the director of an agricultural school) died suddenly. Béla’s mother then took him and his sister, Erzsébet, to live in Nagyszőlős (today Vinogradiv, Ukraine) and then to Pozsony (German: Pressburg, today Bratislava, Slovakia).


From 1907, he also began to be influenced by the French composer Claude Debussy, whose compositions Kodály had brought back from Paris. Bartók’s large-scale orchestral works were still in the style of Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss, but he wrote a number of small piano pieces which showed his growing interest in folk music.


The first piece to show clear signs of this new interest is the String Quartet No. 1 in A minor (1908), which contains folk-like elements.

In 1911, Bartók wrote what was to be his only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, dedicated to Márta. He entered it for a prize by the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission, but they rejected his work as not fit for the stage (Chalmers 1995, 93). In 1917 Bartók revised the score for the 1918 première, and rewrote the ending.


Following the 1919 revolution, he was pressured by the new Soviet government to remove the name of the librettist Béla Balázs from the opera (Chalmers 1995, 123), as he was blacklisted and had left the country for Vienna. In 1940, as the European political situation worsened after the outbreak of World War II, Bartók was increasingly tempted to flee Hungary.


He was strongly opposed to the Nazis and Hungary’s siding with Germany. After the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, Bartók refused to give concerts in Germany and broke away from his publisher there. His anti-fascist political views caused him a great deal of trouble with the establishment in Hungary.


Having first sent his manuscripts out of the country, Bartók reluctantly emigrated to the U.S. with his wife Ditta in October that year. They settled in New York City. After joining them in 1942, their son, Péter Bartók, enlisted in the United States Navy where he served in the Pacific during the remainder of the war and later settled in Florida where he became a recording and sound engineer.


His oldest son, Béla Bartók, III, remained in Hungary where he survived the war and later worked as a railroad official until his retirement in the early 1980s.

Bartok’s health started deteriorating in 1940 and he noticed that his right shoulder is increasingly becoming stiff. This was followed by bouts of fever and only in 1944 did subsequent medical examinations diagnosed that he had Leukemia.


But by then the cancer was at an advanced stage. Though his body was weak, his creative energy was strong as ever. Bartok took his last breath on the 26th of September 1945, in New York. Despite being a famous composer, only ten people attended his funeral including wife Ditta, their son Peter and his pianist friend György Sándor.


His body was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, in Hartsdale, New York. In late 1980, when Hungary was no longer under the Nazi or Communist regime, the government requested the U.S that his remains be disinterred and brought to Budapest for burial.