Béla Bartók, 1881 -1945, is thought of as one of the greatest Hungarian composers. He was born and raised in Budapest. He was put in isolation due to small pox at an early age, due to this he had little chance to interact with other children and spent his time listening to his mother play the piano.
He showed his musical abilities early on and by the age of about nine he was composing dances, his first dance “The Course of the Danube” helped him be awarded a place as a student of Laszlo Erkel. Due to this teaching Bartók became interested in the “high art” music. This music was mainly German music such as Wagner and Brahms. Franz Liszt also joined Bartók’s list of main influences in his life time. Bartók studied under the observation of Istavan Thoman who was a pupil of Liszt and also for composition, his teacher was a great enthusiast of Brahms.
At this time his influences were obvious. He wrote many chamber music and piano compositions. The “heavy influences of Schumann and Brahms” are clear in these pieces especially in his “Scherzo for piano and orchestra”, Op.2.
When Bartók lost out in the Rubenstein Music composition he changed his career almost at once, going from a virtuoso piano player to original composition. Also at this time he was collecting Hungarian folk music. These pieces of music collected are the main reason why we remember Bartók today, for his use of the folk music in his own compositions. It was not only Hungarian folk music he collected, he also travelled to Slovakia, Bulgaria and places like Turkey and Morocco.
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The folk music and also the music of Debussy, with their irregular metre and the “new, modal kinds of harmony” had an influence on Bartók from the early 1900’s. We see these influences clearly in all of his work but it will be his two most famous pieces that I will look at in more depth, his “Concerto for Orchestra” and “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.”
When Bartók was in New York he was commissioned to write a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as a result, the “Concerto for Orchestra” was composed in 1943. The word ‘concerto’ means to show of a solo instrument; in this case Bartók gives a chance for each section off the orchestra to play a solo.
This piece has five movements and much of the material used is obtained from the folk music that he had studied earlier in his life. The 1st movement and the 5th movement are both in sonata form whilst the 2nd is a chain of 5 independent sections. The third also chain-like, similar to the 2nd but the ideas originates from the introduction of the 1st movement. The 4th movement could be described as ABA – interruption – BA.
The first movement, “Introduzione” is made up of an introduction and then sonata form. In the introduction, which is the opening 75 bars, Bartók does not use predictable harmony, but a series of interlocking 4ths and major 2nds.
In the lower strings he uses this device. This reappears many times, each time; it expands in range and he augments it. (Example 1)
He introduces the upper strings at bar 6. The violins move in contrary motion, using the whole tone scale, creating a whole tone cluster at the beginning of bar 8. These strings are played with mutes and also tremolando.(Example 2)
The flutes enter at bar 10 with a C. Bartók creates a diminished octave here with the lower strings having the C#. The flutes also move in contrary motion creating a diminished octave in bar 11. (Example 3)
In the opening 28 bars, we see the extent use of symmetry that Bartók uses frequently, not only in this piece but in his earlier work, such as music for strings, percussion and celesta. This is not the conventional use seen by most composers, but it is clear by looking at the sonata form later in this movement that this is Bartók’s style.
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At bar 76 we see the sonata form and the exposition. The main theme in the first subject group here is made up of two ideas, a tritone and the 4ths and the 2nds idea. (Example 4)
The tritone is half an octave, a total of 6 semitones; this is played by the upper strings in the opening bar of the sonata form. The 4ths and 2nds idea follows straight afterwards, up a perfect 4th, down a major 2nd, and up a perfect 4th. This in completion would create the octatonic scale.
This idea is inverted straight afterwards having a descending tritone and then going down the 4th instead of up. We see the use of these ideas again at bar 90 we have a horn call with the use of the 4ths and 2nds, followed by the rising tritone over three bars. Bartók uses these ideas but varying them to give a unique style to his music. At bar 101 we see the tritone inverted for variation.
The idea of the 4ths and 2nds continues through the movement until we reach the second subject. The first subject of the exposition was in the key of F, it is common for the sonata form to then move to the dominant key, which in this case would be C. Bartók for this second subject moves to the key of B to create a bigger contrast between the two subjects, F and B are as far apart as it is possible, a tritone apart.
The second subject appears at bar 154, with the oboe having the main tune; this pastoral second theme , Arabic in style is only alternating between going up and down in major 2nds. This idea is transferred onto the clarinets as they move in the same pattern but in octaves apart and with a different rhythmical pattern. (Example 5)
Bartók uses imitation in canon as we reach bar 248, between the violin 2 and the cello, the violin 2 then ascends through the octatonic scale at bar 259.
The first movement continues with the idea of tritones and 4ths and 2nds. Bartók brings back the use of symmetry when we enter the recapitulation. Instead of bringing the 1st subject back first, to begin with, Bartók brings subject 2 back in the key of A. This adds variation to the piece and a contrast from when we first heard the second subject in the exposition. When the 1st subject re-enters, it is in the key of F, the tonic.
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In the 4th movement of this piece, Intermezzo Interrotto, we see the influence of Debussy clearly. The irregular time signatures are seen here as well as the obscure harmony. The strings play the opening bars, playing in unison/octaves. The folk like tune enters in the oboe in the 4th bar. Violin 1 at this time plays a continuous pedal in octaves on the note E, whilst the lower strings play pizzicato. (Example 6)
The tune is repeated in the flute but an octave lower but still with the pedal in the 1st violin. To enhance the folk like melody, the flute repeats the tune nearly exactly but inverted. (Example 7) This time there is no pedal from the strings but arpeggios on the harp to add the depth. Bartók adds variation to the tune by giving it back to the oboe whilst the flute plays a countermelody on top of it at bar 32.
The second folk tune comes in at bar 43 in the violas whilst the harp plays full chords as backing harmony. The harmony changes twice each bar, generally on the strongest beats of the bar, or when the melody moves. (Example 8)
The clarinet plays at bar 76 the march-tune in Shostakovich’s “Leningrad Symphony” . At this time we also see an accelerando in the music, this march-tune is accompanied by the strings which play arco or pizzicato syncopated rhythm. (Example 9)
This is not the only piece of Bartók’s music that we see the influences of other artists, with the occurrence of folk like melodies or the irregular metres. In Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” we see not only Hungarian folk music but that of other countries also.
This piece written in 1936 is a chamber work made up of four movements. The third movement in F sharp, in a symmetrical style, is the form of ABCDCBA (Brueckenform) plus coda. Symmetry plays an important role in this movement, on a small and large scale . Not only is the form symmetrical but the opening bars are a mirror image of the next bars.
The xylophone opens this movement, and pivots on a roll in the 3rd bar. (Example 10) The composer notes, “rubato” meaning in a speaking style and free, this comes from the influence of the folk music, which is made clear when the Hungarian tune enters at bar 6. (Example 11)
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It is not only Hungarian folk tunes that Bartók uses. Since he collected music from all over the western world he uses them in his music. At the B section of this piece we see a Bulgarian Dance. The dance rhythm 2 + 3 + 3 is used which is common in Bulgarian dances. (Example 12) This section we see the use of pizzicato and also a chromatic section in the celesta. In the strings we see a trill acting as a pedal note, this is the back bone of the section.
The C section sees the use of different pentatonic scales. (Example 13) The running semiquavers on the celesta also have the use of contrary motion between the two staves. This section is an example of Bartók’s “night music” due to association with the “Musique nocturnes” which is from one of his piano suites “Out of Doors.”
We enter the D section at bar 45. It goes into 5/4 time, presumably due to Debussy’s who was common for irregular time changes and influenced Bartók. In this section we see mirror writing on a smaller scale. Bars 49 and 50 are nearly a mirror image of bars 47 and 48. The use of doubling octaves is used in most parts but also the use of drones as seen previously in other sections.
As we work our way back through the sections we see the same distinct features that were present the first time round. The coda finishes this Adagio 3rd movement of Bartók’s music for strings, percussion and celesta.
Symmetry, mirror writing, changes of time signature and most importantly folk tunes are why we remember Bartók today. Whether he took his ideas from the countryside or from another composer, he did something extraordinary with each little idea that he had. The folk music was obviously his main influence which is clearly seen in all his music. But the influences on Bartók when he was young still played an important role even in his last piece. The irregular time signatures taken from Debussy work in Bartók’s favour in music and he uses them with great discretion. That is why although he was influenced greatly in life by other composers and general working class people he still gave each piece an individual and unique character.
Bartók, B (1944) COMPOSER’S NOTE featured in BARTÓK CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA. England: Halstan & Co.Ltd.
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MacDonald, M (1997) BARTÓK CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA. England: Halstan & Co. Ltd.
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Sacher, P (1937) BÉLA BARTÓK MUSIC FOR STRINGS, PERCUSSION AND CELESTA. London: Boosey and Hawkes Inc.