On the 25th of March, the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra will commemorate the birthday of Hungarian musician Belá Bartók, as part of the Budapest Festival. The event pays homage to the great musician, and his cultural legacy, and the contribution to Hungarian music he made through his exploration of the folkloric music of his country, which made him a key figure of contemporary music, as well as the founder of ethnomusic.
Belá Bartók of Szuhafo was born in Nagyszentmiklós – the then part of Hungary which is today the Romanian Sannicolau Mare – in 1881. The son of a farmer and governess, he was moved around a lot as a child, after the death of his father – an experience which affected him profoundly, creating in him a strong sense of affinity with the sounds of folk music, and popular music which would go on to mark his profession and personal life.
His interest in the sad sounds of gypsy music took him to study at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, where he specialised in piano and composition. His first steps into the musical profession were to give piano concerts, and in 1905 he entered the prestigious Rubenstein piano competition, but was beaten by German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus. His interests soon turned towards composition inspired by Hungarian folk music.
Along with Zoltán Kodály, he began to study folkloric music passionately. The two set out on a journey with the basic equipment of an old phonograph and lined paper, with which they were going to record the sounds and popular styles of different villages. The influence of this project on his own work turned out to be immeasurable – it came to define his style, and allowed him to break away from the previous romantic music tradition, particularly that represented by Liszt, Brahms and Richard Strauss, musicians who he had initially sought to imitate.
Bartók revolutionalised contemporary music, and inspired new waves of musical creativity and experimentation during the first half of the 20th century, which up until that point had been based around the neo-classic styles of Stravinski. His musical works were a point of departure, towards a new, more original style, away from the grand concert halls, which was more experimental. This interest in new sounds took him beyond Hungarian folk music, and into investigations of the popular music of Slovakia, Romania, Turkey and the Arabic world.
He was a piano teacher, and co-director of the Budapest Music Academy, until in 1934 when he abandoned his duties in order to explore ethnomusic, perform recitals, and follow his creative instincts.
The Second World War forced him to take refuge in the United States, where Bartok encountered serious economic problems, made only worse by the leukemia which would eventually kill him. In spite of his tireless work, he left behind various incomplete compositions, such as Concerto for Piano Nº 3 and Concerto for viola.
Budapest is music, joy, vast monuments and history, which is why the wonderful music festival cannot be missed if you are visiting Hungary. Rent one of the apartments in Budapest and complete the experience.
Translated by: Poppy