Bela Bartok (1881-1945)

Short biography

Bartok was a Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist.  Along with Liszt, he is considered to be the greatest Hungarian composer.  He and his fellow composer, Zoltan Kodaly, completed the definitive collection of Slovakian, Romanian, and Bulgarian folk melodies.  In 1907 he was appointed Professor of Piano at the Royal Academy, where he had studied.  He remained in this post until he emigrated to the United States.

Bartok left Hungary to escape the Nazis.  Bartok had been an outspoken anti-Fascist, and friends pleaded with him to leave while he still could.  Bartok settled in New York City in 1940, but this meant that he had to give up his position at the Academy.  His life in the US was clouded by lack of financial resources coupled with failing health. 

Bartok suffered from leukemia and was unable to make public appearances in the US.  The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) provided Bartok with care in nursing homes and enough funding to continue composing.  During this period, Bartok composed the Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He also completed all of his Third Piano Concerto, with the exception of a few bars at the end, and left unfinished a Violin Concerto, commissioned by William Primrose, and later completed by his friend and disciple, Tibor Serly.

Bartok’s music was rooted in the Classical heritage, but he adapted old forms to accommodate his protest to the tyrannical rule of major and minor.  Bartok chose modal scales as the melodic bases for his works, and accompanied these melodies often with dissonant harmonies.   Classical and Romantic elements of construction intermingle with Bartok’s dissonant language.  Polytonality is often present in Bartok’s music.  In Bartok’s music, one can also find the primitivism of Stravinsky. 

Bartok chose classical forms in his music.  His orchestral palette emanated from the work of Richard Strauss and Debussy.  Bartok was a piano virtuoso and was one of the masters of modern piano writing.  In his Mikrokosmos (1926-1937), Bartok codifies his melodic writing.


Mikrokosmos,  Sz. 107, BB 105, consists of 153 progressive piano pieces in six volumes written between 1926 and 1939. The individual pieces progress from simple exercises to pieces suitable for professional recitals.  They were composed by Bartok to be used in an educational setting.  According to Bartók, each piece “appears as a synthesis of all the musical and technical problems which were treated and in some cases only partially solved in the previous piano works.”  Often, the pieces explore modal melodies and complex rhythms found in the folk music of Hungary and Romania.  He also explores the ostinato, which is a continuously repeating motive or short melody.

Volumes one and two are dedicated to his son Peter, while volumes five and six are intended as professionally performable concert pieces. Bartók also indicated that these pieces could also be played on other instruments and some feature singable melodies.

In 1940, shortly before they emigrated to the United States, he arranged seven of the pieces for two pianos, to provide additional repertoire for himself and his wife to play.

Bartok Opus Numbers

Bartok’s music is numbered in several different ways. 

1.  List 1 – Bartok began numbering his youthful works at Op. 1

2.  List 2 – Bartok began a second numbering system as he matured

3.  List 3 – Bartok began with Op. 1, his piano Rhapsody, and his mature works continue with this numbering system.

4.  The catalogue numbering by Andras Szollosy (Sz.)  Szollosy was a student of Zoltan Koday and professor of music at the Franz Liszt Academy of music in Budapest.  He numbered Bartok’s compositions as well has his writings.  He died in 2007.

5.  The catalogue numbering by Laszlo Somfai (BB.)  Somfai is a professor of music at the Franz Liszt Academy and has also taught at CUNY and at UC-Berkeley.

6.  The catalogue numbering by Denijs Dille (DD.)  Dille founded the Bartok Archive in 1961.  He wrote more than 300 articles and 20 books on the composer.  He died in 2005 at the age of 101.

Night Music

Night music is a direct imitation of the sounds of nature at night.  It can be portrayed through melodies that represent music heard at night, but more often occurs as ostinati or as repetitive dissonances.  It can be represented as curt motives at irregular intervals in the meter signature.  The sounds of birds, insects, and other wild animals are portrayed in night music.  The use of glissandos and odd octave doubling occur in night music.

This technique occurs in the second movement of Bartok’s Third Concerto.


Bartok used Neo-Baroque techniques in his compositions.  Fugato is the occurrence of a fugue as a section of a larger work.  Fugato sections are included in Concerto for Orchestra and the Third Piano Concerto.  While dissonant, the fugato sections are tonal and resemble the fugues of Bach. 

Concerto for Orchestra

The Concerto for Orchestra was completed in October of 1943.  The work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky, who offered a $1000 commission and guarantee of a first performance.  The work is of a symphonic dimension and is arranged in five movements in a concertante fashion.  Concertante style is reminiscent of the concerto grosso of the Baroque Period.  Groups of instruments from the orchestra are presented in a soloistic manner.  The work is very difficult and features all of Bartok’s compositional techniques.  Bartok composed the Concerto to represent a gradual transition of sternness in the first movement to the joy of the final movement.

The second movement is called “The Game of Pairs”.  Pairs of instruments are featured at various intervals, thirds, seconds, sevenths, and sixths. 

The fourth movement is the “Interrupted Intermezzo”.  Bartok interrupts his beautiful melody with that of a Shostakovich melody that Bartok particularly disliked.  Bartok uses muted brasses to imitate laughter.  Part of the reason for Bartok’s musical diatribe is that he was jealous of Shostakovich’s fame when Bartok himself was having so much financial trouble coupled with his health issues.

Allegro barbaro, BB 63 (Sz. 49)

Allegro barbaro was composed in 1911.  It is one of Bartok’s most frequently performed solo pieces. The composition utilizes folk elements, combining the Hungarian and Romanian scales, including pentatonic and chromatic.  The work also utilizes the Phrygian Mode.  The work is an example of Bartok’s interest in primitivism.

Allegro barbaro is one of Bartok’s pieces that utilizes the Fibonacci sequence.  The ostinato f-sharp minor chords occur in groups of 3, 5, 8, or 13 bars. 


1.  Discuss Bartok’s life.  (10)

2.  Discuss concertante style. (3)

3.  Discuss the Fibonacci sequence and Bartok’s use of it in Allegro barbaro. (4)

5.  Discuss aspects of Concerto for Orchestra, the Third Piano Concerto, and The Viola Concerto in relationship to Bartok’s difficulties after he had moved to the United States. (10)

6.  Define fugato and discuss how Bartok used the fugato style. (3)