Born March 25, 1881 in Hungary
Died September 26, 1945
Kossuth, String Quartets, Concerto for Orchestra
Béla Bartók was born to a musical family in Hungary in 1881. His father was director of an agricultural school, but also a talented amateur musician who played piano and cello and composed short dance pieces. Bartók’s father even founded a music society and an amateur orchestra in his town. Bartók’s mother also played the piano. It is no surprise that Béla quickly became a musician himself! He had great talents for rhythm and memory, and began taking piano lessons on his fifth birthday. Bartók began composing when he was nine years old, writing short dance pieces named after friends and family members.
Bartók’s father died when Béla was only seven years old, leaving the family in a difficult financial situation. Bartók’s mother began teaching piano lessons to support the family, and they had to move from place to place depending on where teaching jobs were available. In 1898, Bartók began his studies at the Budapest Academy of Music. While there, he gained a reputation as a fantastic piano player. He was especially known for extraordinary performances of Liszt’s piano pieces. Everybody at school thought Bartók would be most famous for playing piano and that composing would be more of a hobby.
In 1904, Bartók overheard a young girl singing a Hungarian peasant song. Bartók immediately realized that Hungarian folk songs could provide wonderful material for classical music. In 1905, he contacted Zoltán Kodály, and the two composers began travelling around Hungary collecting and publishing folksongs. Soon, Bartók began travelling around other countries looking for folk music as well. He developed a scientific system for collecting and analyzing folk music from around the world.
In 1940, Bartók moved to the United States to work on a folk collection at Columbia University. In 1942, he became sick with leukemia and died in September of 1945. Bartók is remembered as one of the two great Hungarian composers, along with Franz Liszt. He combined traditional folk melodies and experimental harmonies to create modern, Hungarian music. His scientific classification of folk music is often considered the beginning of ethnomusicology.