Béla Bartók is a composer who cannot be pigeonholed. One can justifiably recognise in Bartók – and often in one and the same work – both the expressive musician and the constructivist, the resolute progressive as well as the cautious conservative, and finally also the composer of art music with a passion for the music of the common people, whose intensity can be unsettling. Although a specific musical rationality such as the building up from the smallest motivic cells or working with symmetrical scale and chord formations play an important role in his works, there are always elements that can only be understood as involuntary, subjective creative impulses.
Bartók was born into a household of enthusiastic amateur musicians. His mother gave him his first piano lessons, followed by a succession of teachers. Gradually, a career as a pianist emerged as a realistic possibility for earning a living. In 1902, he encountered the work of Richard Strauss, which provided a decisive impetus for his own compositions. Inspired by Strauss, he wrote the symphonic poem "Kossuth", which was performed in Budapest and very well received by the audience. A period of searching followed. When he was offered a position as piano professor in Budapest in January 1907, Bartók accepted. He settled in Budapest, where he taught at the Academy of Music until 1934.
Right before, however, something artistically decisive had happened. In the summer of 1906, Bartók first came into contact with authentic Hungarian folk music. This encounter's first fruit was a small collection of folk arrangements Bartók had compiled with his friend Zoltán Kodály, which was published in December of the same year. From then on, the scholarly study of the folk and peasant music of Eastern Europe figured prominently in Bartók's life. Between 1906 and 1918, Bartók collected about 10,000 folk and peasant melodies, mainly from various regions of the former Greater Hungary. Many characteristic features of his musical style can be traced back to his preoccupation with this music, or at least touch on it.
Inspired by his encounter with folk music, Bartók achieved a creative breakthrough. In the piano works written from 1908 onwards, such as the "14 Bagatelles" or the "Allegro barbaro", he first discovered his own unmistakable style. Even though, in retrospect, we can see the beginning of a rich creative phase in 1908, which led from the opera "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" to expressionist masterpieces such as the ballet "The Miraculous Mandarin", Bartók's path was rocky, accompanied by intense self-doubt and serious creative crises. The reception of his works was ambivalent and on the whole not very encouraging; successes were offset by fiascos and disappointments. Nevertheless, Bartók was generally perceived as a leading composer from the 1920s onwards.
Another watershed moment in his oeuvre occurred in the summer of 1926, when he composed several piano works. They mark the beginning of a new, classical period in his works, in which Bartók found a balance between traditional forms and his own personal tonal language. Bartók followed Austria's annexation by National Socialist Germany and the rise of the Far Right in Hungary with concern. He decided to abandon his homeland, even though he was not directly facing racial or political persecution. In October 1940, Bartók emigrated to the USA, where he settled in New York. There, Bartók had great difficulty establishing himself on the musical scene inundated with European refugees. After initially being unable to finish a new piece, he began composing again in 1942, producing exclusively commissioned works such as the "Concerto for Orchestra" for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His music of this period, which now stands out clearly from that of the "classical" period, is in the nature of a confession, at times deeply despairing, at others ostentatiously cheerful and optimistic. The composer, who had been suffering from leukaemia since 1942, died in New York on 26ths September 1945.