Béla Bartók

Artist / Band / Musician
Autobiography written by Béla Bartók in 1921.

I was born on March 25, 1881, in a small place called Nagyszentmiklós, which now, together with the whole county of Torontal, belongs to Rumania. My mother gave me my first piano lessons when I was six years old. My father, who was the head of an agricultural school, was gifted musically and active in many directions. He played the piano, organized an amateur orchestra, learned the cello in order to play that instrument in his orchestra, and composed some dance music. I was eight years old when I lost him. After his death my mother had to work as a schoolmistress and struggle hard for our daily bread. We first went to live at Nagyszöllõs (at present Czechoslovak territory), then to Beszterce in Transylvania (at present Rumanian territory) and in 1893 to Pozsony (Bratislava, at present Czechoslovak territory). I began writing piano music when I was nine years old and made my first public appearance as a “composer” and pianist at Nagyszöllõs in 1891 ; it was therefore a matter of some importance for us to settle at last in a biggish town. Among Hungarian country towns at that time it was Pozsony that had the most vigorous musical life, and by moving there I was given the possibility of having lessons in piano and composition with László Erkel (Ferenc Erkel’s son) and also of hearing a few operas, more or less well performed, and orchestral concerts. I had the opportunity, too, of playing chamber-music, and before I was eighteen I had acquired a fairly thorough knowledge of music from Bach to Brahms (though in Wagner’s work I did not get further than Tannhäuser). All this time I was also busy composing and was under the strong influence of Brahms and Dohnányi (who was four years my senior). Especially Dohnányi’s youthful Opus I influenced me deeply.

When my education at the Gymnasium (high school) was concluded the question arose at which musical academy I should continue my studies. In Pozsony, at that time, the Vienna Conservatorium was considered the sole bastion of serious musical education, but I took Dohnányi’s advice and came to Budapest and became a pupil of István Thomán (in piano) and of Hans Koessler (in composition). I stayed here from 1899 till 1903. I started studying with great enthusiasm Wagner’s work, till then unknown to me – The Ring, Tristan, The Mastersingers – and Liszt’s orchestral compositions. I got rid of the Brahmsian style, but did not succeed via Wagner and Liszt, in finding the new way so ardently desired. (I did not at that time grasp Liszt’s true significance for the development of modern music and only saw the technical brilliance of his compositions.) I did no independent work for two years, and at the Academy of Music was considered only as a first-class pianist.

From this stagnation I was roused as by a lightning stroke by the first performance in Budapest of Thus Spake Zarathustra, in 1902. The work was received with real abhorrence in musical circles here, but it filled me with the greatest enthusiasm. At last there was a way of composing which seemed to hold the seeds of a new life. At once I threw myself into the study of all Strauss’s score and began again to write music myself. Other circumstances entered my life at the same time which proved a decisive influence on my development. It was the time of a new national movement in Hungary, which also took hold of art and music. In music, too, the aim was set to create something specifically Hungarian. When this movement reached me, it drew my attention to studying Hungarian folk music, or, to be more exact, what at that time was considered Hungarian folk music.

Under these diverse influences I composed in 1903 a symphonic poem entitled Kossuth, which was at once accepted for performance by János Richter, and was performed in Manchester in February 1904. Other compositions of the same period are a Violin Sonata and a piano Quintet. The former was performed by Rudolf Fitzner in Vienna, the latter by the Prill Quartet. These three works remain unpublished. In 1904 I composed my Rhapsody for piano and Orchestra (Opus I), which I entered for the Rubinstein competition in Paris but without success. In 1905 I wrote my first Suite for Large Orchestra.

Meanwhile the magic of Richard Strauss had evaporated. A really thorough study of Liszt’s --uvre, especially of some of his less well known works, like Années de Pélerinage, Harmonies Poétiques et religieuses, the Faust Symphony, Totentanz, and others had after being stripped of their mere external brilliance which I did not like, revealed to me the true essence of composing. I began to understand the significance of the composer’s work. For the future development of music his --uvre seemed to me of far greater importance than that of Strauss or even Wagner.

In my studies of folk music I discovered that what we had known as Hungarian folk songs till then were more or less trivial songs by popular composers and did not contain much that was valuable. I felt an urge to go deeper into this question and set out in 1905 to collect and study Hungarian peasant music unknown until then. It was my great good luck to find a helpmate for this work in Zoltán Kodály, who, owing to his deep insight and sound judgment in all spheres of music, could give me many a hint and much advice that proved of immense value. I started these investigations on entirely musical grounds and pursued them in areas which linguistically were purely Hungarian. Later on I became fascinated by the scientific implications of my musical material and extended my work over territories which were linguistically Slovakian and Rumanian.

The outcome of these studies was of decisive influence upon my work, because it freed me from the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys. The greater part of the collected treasure, and the more valuable part, was in old ecclesiastical or old Greek modes, or based on more primitive (pentatonic) scales, and the melodies were full of most free and varied rhythmic phrases and changes of tempi, played both rubato and giusto. It became clear to me that the old modes, which had been forgotten in our music, had lost nothing of their vigour. Their new employment made new rhythmic combinations possible. This new way of using the diatonic scale brought freedom from the rigid use of the major and minor keys, and eventually led to a new conception of the chromatic scale, every tone of which came to be considered of equal value and could be used freely and independently.

When an appointment to the chair of piano teaching at the Academy of Music in Budapest was offered to me in 1907 I considered this a happy event because it enabled me to settle in Hungary and to continue my studies in musical folklore. In 1907, at the instigation of Kodály, I became acquainted with Debussy’s work, studied it through thoroughly and was greatly surprised to find in his work “pentatonic phrases” similar in character to those contained in our peasant music. I was sure these could be attributed to influences of folk music from Eastern Europe, very likely from Russia. Similar influences can be traced in Igor Stravinsky’s work. It seems therefore that, in our age, modern music has developed along similar lines in countries geographically far away from each other. It has become rejuvenated under the influence of kind of peasant music that has remained untouched by the musical creations of the last centuries. My works which, from Opus 4 onward, tried to convey something of the development just described were received in Budapest with animosity.

This lack of understanding had many reasons, one of which was the inadequacy of the performances in which our new orchestral works were heard. We could find neither a conductor who would understand our works nor an orchestra able to perform them. In 1911, when these controversies became very heated, a number of young musicians, Kodály and myself among them, tried hard to found a New Hungarian Musical Society. The chief aim of the new organization would have been to form an orchestra able to perform old, new and recent music in a proper way. But we strove in vain, we could not achieve our aim.

Other more personal disappointments were added to this broken plan and in 1912 I retired completely from public life. With more enthusiasm than ever I devoted myself to studies in musical folklore. More than one daring journey to faraway countries was planned in my head, out of which, as a modest beginning, one only was carried out. In 1913 I travelled to Biskra [Algeria] and the surrounding countryside, collecting Arabic folk music. Then came the outbreak of the war, which - apart from general human considerations - hit me very hard because it put an end to my work. Only a small part of Hungary remained open to my studies and I worked there under hampered conditions till 1918.

The years 1917 marked a turning point in Budapest’s audience attitude about my works. I had the chance to hear my ballet The Wooden Prince, brilliantly performed by the master Egisto Tango who, in 1918, conducted also the performance of my opera in one act, written in 1911 : The Bluebeard’s Castle

This auspicious turning point was unfortunately followed by the political and economical collapse of 1918 autumn. The period of unrest that followed and lasted about 18 months didn’t allows to work seriously.

Even the current situation doesn’t allow to think about the resumption of the works related to folk music. We can’t afford this luxury ; on the other hand, the scientific exploration of territory detached from Hungary is almost impossible for political reasons and because of mutual hostility. As for to visit faraway countries, it’s an unrealisable dream.

Besides, no real interest appears in the world for this branch of musicology. Who know ? Maybe it hasn’t the importance that these fanatics assign to it.
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