Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartók (1881-1945) is best known for his use of Hungarian folk music to create a distinct individual style.

The folk music of Hungary was central to the music of Béla Bartók. He was not the first composer to make use of this music (we can see it as far back as Haydn), but he was one of the first to take it at face value, and to exploit its idiosyncrasies. More important, he integrated it fully into his own style, so much so that one of his biographers talks about Bartók's music as "imaginary folk music"—music that is wholly his own, yet of a piece with the folk music that was its inspiration.

Bartók was born into a musical family and received good pianistic training from his mother. He was something of a prodigy, and began composing at the age of ten. In 1898 he was accepted at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory, but chose instead to stay in Hungary at the Budapest Academy. His early work was influenced greatly by Strauss and Liszt, but his first major work, the symphonic Kossuth (1903), also stands out for its telling of a nationalist story.

In 1904 Bartók began collecting folk music by recording musicians on wax cylinders. This had a profound impact on his compositional style, for in these pieces he found elements that he began to incorporate into his own writing. The melodies of these folk tunes, removed from the traditional major/minor tonality of Western music, provided new melodic and harmonic resources, and the powerful and often asymmetrical rhythms (often freely mixing groupings of twos and threes) became a hallmark of Bartók's rhythmic style.

In 1907 Bartók was appointed professor of piano at the Budapest Academy and he continued his compositional activity, creating works of greater complexity. By the early 1920s his music was verging on an atonal style. He gained international success with a less challenging work, The Wooden Prince (1917), and by the late 1920s his music started to take on more of a neoclassical approach.

The crises leading up to World War II forced Bartók to flee Hungary and settle in the United States. The move caused both financial and personal difficulties, and failing health heightened these. Nonetheless, in his final few years he created a group of important pieces, including the Concerto for Orchestra.

Bartók's music is marked by its precision of execution. His forms (especially in his later works) are intensely symmetrical. Often they create an arch or palindrome (ABACABA, for example). He also exploited different sonorities and instrumental effects, including an antiphonal orchestra in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). His tonal language continued to be colored by his work with folk music, and in some cases he made use of quarter tones. Although Bartók wrote in all mediums, he may well be best remembered for his six string quartets. These works, a summation of his compositional style and development are often viewed as the logical successors to those of Beethoven.


Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | January 24, 2015
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | March 6, 2010
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | October 5, 2001

News and Press

[Concert Review] From BMOP, new music with a Hungarian accent

Hungarian music, Liszt once wrote, “is divided naturally into melody destined for song or melody for the dance.” Saturday’s ambitious “Magyar Madness” program, presented by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, had representatives of both. It also had two alluring world premieres.

The Boston Globe Full review
[Concert Review] Rock-solid But Not Maniacal

Though the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s “Magyar Madness” certainly delivered on the first word by presenting four works of Hungarian or Hungarian-descended composers including two premieres at Jordan Hall on Friday, we’ll give BMOP a pass on “Madness,” as the alliterative sobriquet was oxymoronic considering the event’s rock-solidity.

The Boston Musical Intelligencer Full review
[Concert Review] BMOP’s “Magyar Madness” delivers rewarding range of music with two premieres

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, having promised a night of “Magyar Madness” Saturday at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, delivered world premieres of two outstanding, if well-behaved, works by Boston-based composers of Hungarian birth or ancestry and of Generation X vintage. The madness was supplied by the old-timers, Béla Bartók and Gyorgy Ligeti.

Crazy or sane, violent or poetic, all the music in Saturday’s concert touched on Hungary’s distinctive culture as a place apart, isolated by geography and language, yet also bubbling with a mix of European and Asiatic influences.

Boston Classical Review Full review
[Concert Review] The hidden life of strings

The string section is a staple of any orchestra: The largest of the instrumental sections, the strings are the most prominently displayed. Strings are usually the most constant factor in any orchestral score, while woodwinds, brass, percussion are the variables. Perhaps it is ironic that the fate of the string section is to play some of the least sonically interesting parts. Strings are often consigned to betraying their vast range of timbre and tone color to complement and support more strident colors of other sections of the orchestra.

The Tech Full review
[Concert Review] String theory

I was feeling a little, well, strung out this weekend (having seen both Itzhak Perlman and the Artemis String Quartet), so perhaps I simply wasn’t in the mood for “Strings Attached,” the latest concert by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (last Saturday at Jordan Hall). Or then again, maybe the concert was simply as mixed a bag as it seemed. At any rate, it proved a rather rambling evening, with perhaps no very deep lows, but only one real high.

The Hub Review Full review
[Concert Review] Strung out: BMOP's "Strings Attached"

As the BMOP nears the close of its season, Boston lowbrow was treated to—in keeping with the “instrumental” theme of their programming this year—a concert of string music with the paronomastic title “Strings Attached.” Saturday night started with Stained Glass (2009), a brand new short and accessible piece by NEC grad student Nathan Ball—a smooth start to the night with its passages of shuddering violins and folky vibrato.

Boston lowbrow Full review
[Concert Review] For Modern Orchestra, strings tie it all together

It was probably the touchy economy, in part, that inspired Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project to build concerts this season around subsections of the orchestra rather than the full group; on Saturday, it was works for strings. And the orchestra’s most homogeneous group, its lyricism and opulence self-reinforcing, made for pretty classy thrift.

The Boston Globe Full review