Bela Bartok

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Concerto for Orchestra and The Miraculous Mandarin

Bartok's music is both primitive and modern. His Hungarian roots inspired him to mix Eastern European melodies with the throbbing, pulsing beat of exotic, primitive rhythms.  It is wild, but controlled; frenzied, and serene, expressing every human mood and emotion.


1.     Bartok The Miraculous Mandarin Part I       

2.     Bartok Concerto for Orchestra Finale           

3.     Bartok Concerto for Orchestra Intermezzo Interrotto       

4.     Bartok The Miraculous Mandarin Part IV       

5.     Bartok The Miraculous Mandarin Part III       

6.     Bartok The Miraculous Mandarin Part II       

7.     Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Elegy           

8.     Bartok Concerto for Orchestra Introduction 
  Bartok Concerto for Orchestra,Game of the    Pairs

10.    Bartok: A Modern Master               

11.    Bartok: Living in Troubled Times           

12.    Early Life of Bartok               

13.   Guide to Concerto for Orchestra Movement I   

14.    Guide to Concerto for Orchestra Movements II-V   

15.   Listener’s Guide to Bartok: Elusive Success       

16.   Listener’s Guide: The Miraculous Mandarin.

17.    Listener’s Guide: Exploring Folk Songs           

Tradition and Modernism 

During the course of his career, Béla Bartók’s compositional style evolved from a Romantic nineteenth-century idiom indebted to Liszt and Richard Strauss to a decidedly modern one. The composer expanded his musical vocabulary with modal scales and with new types of harmonies based on traditionally dissonant intervals — seconds and sevenths — as well as on fourths, as Gerard Schwarz discusses on the Conductor’s Guide CD of this album. He developed new rhythmic patterns modelled on those of Balkan and North African folk music, and he explored unusual instrumental colors and textures. Especially during the 1920's and early 1930's, when his innovative tendencies reached their height, these innovations earned Bartók a reputation as an uncompromising modernist with a penchant for harsh, unfamiliar sounds. To more conservative listeners, this was as much as being a musical anarchist, and for many years Bartók went unappreciated and largely unperformed, particularly  in his native Hungary.
But Bartók was no revolutionary. He had a deep knowledge of and regard for musical tradition, and certain traditional ideas and procedures remained part of his work as a composer. He favored sonata form, the venerable pattern of thematic exposition, development and reprise so characteristic of the classical masters, which he used in his Concerto for Orchestra and other compositions. He also valued traditional counterpoint and often developed his melodic ideas through fugal imitation.Beginning in the late 1930's Bartók shed the most acerbic elements of his style and moved toward an accessible modernism that placed a premium on expressive and even pleasing melodies. In place of pungent dissonance he offered an original use of conventional chords and traditionally consonant intervals, and the formal clarity of his compositions grew even more pronounced. These qualities inform his Concerto for Orchestra and other late works. Today it seems odd that Bartók’s music was once dismissed as the scribblings of a musical fanatic. The freshness of his melodic invention, the keen interest his rhythms provoke, the colorful qualities of his orchestration, the beauty of his compositional architecture and the deep expressiveness of his best music is self-evident. For all this and more, Bartók stands among the great figures of twentieth-century music. 

Bartók’s Early Life and Career 

Bartók came of age during the end of the nineteenth century and the twilight of Romanticism in the arts. He matured with the age of modernism. Although he became acomposer of international stature, his soul and music were rooted in his native
Hungary. Bartók was born in 1881 in Nagyszentmiklos, a provincial town that today lies in Rumania, just across the border from Hungary. His mother played the piano and gave young Béla his first lessons in music. In 1888, Bartók’s father died, an event that put considerable strain on the family. For five years the Bartóks led a peripatetic existence, as Béla’s mother tried to make ends meet on a school teacher’s salary. Finally they settled in the Hungarian city of Poszony. There Bartók was able to cultivate his already well-developed musical aptitude. He studied piano, harmony and composition, and when he was eighteen he gained admission to the Vienna Conservatory, one of the most prestigious music schools in Europe. Surprisingly, he declined the opportunity to study there, enrolling instead at the Academy of Music in Budapest. Hungary was, at this time, part of the Hapsburg empire, ruled by Austria. As was true also in Bohemia (the main part of what became Czechoslovakia), many Hungarians resented Austrian domination, feeling themselves relegated to second-class status within the empire. That resentment gave rise to nationalist sentiments, a pride in Hungarian ethnicity and culture. These feelings were beginning to exert a strong influence on Bartók. His decision to reject the offer to study in Vienna and remain in Hungary instead was the first clear sign of the patriotic impulse that would guide much of his subsequent work.When Bartók graduated from the Academy of Music, in 1903, he had taken only a few hesitant steps as a composer. But he soon came to understand some of the difficulties composers would face in the new century. Although the harmonies of his early works ventured nothing more audacious than Liszt and Richard Strauss had already written, this was still too daring for much of the concert-going public. But he was an accomplished pianist, and he soon began to make concert appearances in Hungary and elsewhere. The young musician might have been satisfied to divide his energies between composing and performing, but a new interest would soon claim his attention. 

Nationalism and Folk Music 

In 1904, Bartók heard an authentic Hungarian folk song that quite captivated him. Upon further investigation, he began to understand that the rural villages of
Hungary constituted a vast repository of folk music generally unknown to the outside world, even to the residents of Budapest. Bartók was fascinated with this music. Although much of it was centuries old, it sounded startlingly fresh to his ears. Moreover, it seemed to Bartók the musical embodiment of his nation’s soul. As such, it resonated with the spirit of Hungarian nationalism that had already taken hold of him. Bartók spent a number of summers traveling through the rural parts of his country and recording the songs of the peasants who lived there. At first he did this simply by writing the melodies on paper as best he could. Soon, however, he began using a portable gramophone recorder, a device advocated by Zoltán Kodály, another Hungarian composer who shared Bartók’s love of folk music. Kodály and Bartók became collaborators in an monumental effort to record, classify and publish the folk songs of the Hungarian peasants. Later they broadened their research to include Slovakia, the Balkan peninsula (most of Rumania, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia and Albania), and eventually parts of North Africa and Turkey. Bartók spent years working on folk music. During this time he recorded and transcribed into written form thousands of songs from many hundreds of villages. He also wrote scholarly articles about the village music of southeastern Europe. He was passionately devoted to this work and became a major contributor to the new field of ethnomusicology.Bartók’s research proved extremely important for the preservation and appreciation of Hungarian and Balkan folk music. But aside from its intrinsic value, this work also had a great impact on his composition. Just as Dvořák, a generation earlier, had appropriated certain rhythmic and melodic characteristics of Czech folk song into his orchestral and chamber music, so Bartók began to draw ideas from the village songs and dances he recorded during his field trips. Remarkably, these traditional melodies propelled his music beyond the late-Romantic idiom of his earliest pieces and into a more modern style. Their modal scales and irregular rhythms provided a fresh alternative to the dependable meters, smooth lines and familiar chordal harmonies that had been the hallmarks of music during the nineteenth century. Bartók often evoked the sound of Hungarian, Balkan or north African folk music in his compositions, writing passages that clearly imitate village songs or dances. But even apart from such obvious simulations, folk music brought a freedom to Bartók’s compositional thinking, a willingness to consider new rhythmic and melodic formulations. 

Growing Mastery 

In the first flush of excitement over his ethnological research, Bartók abandoned composition for two full years. When he returned to writing his own music, it bore the influence of the folk melodies he had come to know and love. It also grew more assertively modern, prompted by the examples of Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg as well as the peasant musicians he had encountered on his field trips. Significantly, however, Bartók never became a follower of any other important composer of the early twentieth century. Schoenberg surrounded himself with a school of disciples, Debussy and Stravinsky had many imitators. But Bartók pursued his own path, developing a musical style that was wholly original.
Bartók gained skill and assurance as a composer gradually over the first decade and a half of the new century. By 1917, when he completed his ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, he had developed a colorful and expressive style and an ability to use this with considerable virtuosity. Recognition of his stature as a composer was slow in coming, but during the 1920's and 1930's Bartók began to gain admirers among musicians throughout Europe and eventually even in America. Among those who thought highly of his work was the clarinetist Benny Goodman, who commissioned Bartók to write a work featuring his instrument. 

Dark Days

During this time, Bartók continued to perform as a concert pianist. He also taught at the
Academy of Music in Budapest, where he had received his advanced musical training. Although he might easily have moved to Paris, Vienna or some other city with a more cosmopolitan musical life, Bartók retained an abiding loyalty to his homeland. He remained in Hungary even in the face of a right-wing government he found repugnant. Bartók was not active in political affairs, but he had strong ideals about peace, freedom and universal brotherhood. In protest to the government’s efforts at censorship and repression of dissent, he refused to perform as a soloist in his native country. Later, he instigated similar boycotts of Nazi Germany and Fascist Spain and Italy.As the 1930's grew to a close, the political situation in Hungary and the rest of Europe deteriorated alarmingly. The outbreak of World War II brought the crisis to a head, and Bartók decided it was time to leave. He managed to obtain passage and visas for the United States, and in October 1940 he and his wife sailed for America.Settling in New York,  Bartók secured part-time work doing research in ethnomusicology at Columbia University. With only a modest salary, no students and very few concert opportunities, the composer and his wife lived in precarious financial circumstances. Discouraged and tired, Bartók composed no new music during his first three years in this country. In the spring of 1943 he was hospitalized with the first signs of leukemia.     

Final Years 

It was at this low point in Bartók’s life that something like a miracle happened. In May 1943, the composer received a visit in his hospital room from Serge Koussevitzky, the renowned conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who brought with him a request for a new orchestral work. Actually, this commission had been arranged by two of Bartók’s supporters, the conductor Fritz Reiner and violinist Joseph Szigeti, but knowledge of their intervention had to be kept from the composer, since it was certain that his pride would prevent him from accepting an offer he suspected of being tainted by charity.
In the event, the identity of Bartók’s benefactors was kept a secret, and the commission proved a formidable tonic. Bartók worked on it throughout the summer of 1943, finding that the return to composition dramatically restored his spirits and health. “Through working on this [piece],” he told a friend, “I have discovered the wonder drug I needed to bring about my own cure.” By autumn his Concerto for Orchestra was complete, and on December 1, 1944 Koussevitzky led the premiere. Since then, the Concerto for Orchestra has emerged as one of the most frequently played orchestral scores from the modern era.Bartók spent his last two years pursuing the two activities that always meant the most to him: conducting researching into folk music and composing. He wrote his Third Piano Concerto for his wife to perform after he was gone, and composed a violin sonata on commission from the celebrated performer Yehudi Menuhin. He had nearly finished a viola concerto when he passed away in September 1945. Only a relative handful of musicians recognized his genius at that time, but Bartók’s reputation has grown steadily since his death. Today he stands among the giants of twentieth-century music. 

Concerto for Orchestra 

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is his most popular orchestral composition and one of the most familiar of all his works. Of it, the composer wrote:
The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concordant or soloistic manner. The “virtuoso” treatment appears, for instance, in the fugato sections of the development of the first movement (brass instruments) or the perpetuum mobile-like passage of the principal theme in the last movement (strings), and especially in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages. The piece opens with a somber declamation by the low strings; they are answered by atmospheric tremolo and scale figures in the violins and flutes and, presently, by an ominous motive from the trumpets. This last figure is taken up by the bulk of the orchestra, the music accelerating to an impressive climax. All this serves as an introduction to the main body of the first movement, which launches forth on an energetic melody presented by the violins. Two other ideas are prominent during the course of the movement: a vigorous subject heard in the trombones and a gently rocking theme introduced by the oboe.  Bartók titled the second movement “Game of Couples,” a reference to the succession of duet passages that forms the bulk of this portion of the work. We hear in turn pairs of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes and trumpets, leading at last to a chorale melody for the brass. The ensuing third movement is a haunting elegy, stark and funereal.Bartók also gave a title to the fourth movement, calling it an “interrupted intermezzo.” It begins with a folk-like melody given to the oboe and proceeds to a more pastoral subject in the strings. Into this placid music, however, comes the clarinet with a melody rather similar to the march theme in Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, a work Bartók had heard during its famous radio broadcast in 1942. Soon the entire orchestra has taken up this tune, enjoying a humorous romp before the more sedate initial material reasserts itself.  Bartók then closes the composition with a colorful finale. The flavor of its themes is distinctly Hungarian, and a brilliant fugal development forms its central episode.  

The Miraculous Mandarin, Opus 19 

Throughout his life, Bartók had reason to complain of the public’s refusal to approve his compositions. Criticized for their supposedly harsh modernism and for their use of Balkan folk music, many of the scores now regarded as the composer’s most important achievements were either ignored or condemned outright when they first appeared. Few suffered so complete a failure as did his pantomime ballet The Miraculous Mandarin.  Bartók wrote this work in
Budapest during the winter of 1918-19. Like many dramatic compositions that emerged from central Europe in during the dark years surrounding World War I, it employed a kind of lurid Expressionism in which sex, violence and the macabre contributed to an air of decadence and mystery. (Other famous works of this kind included such operas as Richard Strauss’ Salome, Alban Berg’s Lulu and Bartok’s own Bluebeard’s Castle, as well as Arnold Schoenberg’s song cycle Pierrot Lunaire.) The story on which it was based yields nothing to our present-day films or TV dramas in terms of shock value. Its action takes place in a shabby room in the slums of some nameless city and centers on a trio of thieves and a young girl in their keeping, she being forced to sit provocatively in a window and lure passers by inside, where the thieves can rob them.  In Bartók’s ballet, her first victim is an old libertine who has seen more prosperous days.  When he is discovered to have no money, the thieves rudely throw him out. Next comes a youth who proves equally impoverished. The third catch is a strange-looking man in Eastern dress, the Mandarin, who stares with piercing eyes as the girl entices him with an erotic dance. His lust finally aroused, he reaches for his temptress, but she, put off by his weird appearance, starts to flee. The Mandarin pursues her, but suddenly the thieves, armed to the teeth, jump out of hiding. Astonishingly, the violence they wreak on the Mandarin has no effect: he just continues to stare passionately at the girl. At last she takes him in her arms and kisses him. Only then do the Mandarin’s wounds begin to bleed, and he perishes in an ecstatic love-death.The sordid character of this plot prevented The Miraculous Mandarin from being premiered in Bartók’s native Hungary. When a production finally was mounted in Cologne, Germany, in 1926, the ballet received such scathing notices that it was withdrawn after a single performance. A subsequent performance in Prague fared no better. Bartók was extremely proud of his score, however, and with good reason. It is a tour de force of vivid and original orchestral sonorities, executed with great skill. The opening passage of The Miraculous Mandarin sets a sinister and frenetic tone; the three extended clarinet solos, representing the girl luring her victims from the street, are convincingly seductive; the Mandarin’s appearance is marked by imposing outbursts from the low brass, and his dance with the girl progresses from tentative waltz steps to a wild contrapuntal chase, leading to the ballet’s powerful conclusion. Throughout all of this, Bartók’s strong harmonies and orchestral colors compliment the rhythmic energy of his ideas.  

Suggestions for Further Listening
 If you enjoyed the music of Béla Bartók presented on this album, you may wish to hear other works by this composer. Here are some of Bartók’s major compositions. All are readily available on compact disc recordings. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta: Scored for a double string orchestra with percussion and the bell-like celesta, this four-movement composition opens with a fugue worthy of Bach and proceeds through dynamic and witty developments, some atmospheric “night music” to a finale that includes evocations of a Hungarian village dance. Not just one of Bartók’s most accomplished works, this is one of the landmarks of twentieth-century composition.  Concertos for Piano and Orchestra: Bartók’s three piano concertos stand among the outstanding compositions in this genre from the twentieth century. The first two, written in 1926 and 1931 respectively, show Bartók’s modernist tendencies at their height. Much of their music is marked by driving rhythms, sharp, angular textures and a sense of tremendous power. By contrast, the Third Piano Concerto, which Bartók composed in his final years for his wife to perform, is mild and melodious. The second movement, in particular, has the character of a hymn to nature. Dance Suite: Composed for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the union of the cities Buda and Pesth to form the Hungarian capital, this work has a strong nationalist flavor. Although all the melodies Bartók employs here are his own, their kinship with folk songs and dances of
Hungary and its neighboring countries is unmistakable. Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra: Bartók composed his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion in 1937 to perform with his pianist wife, taking the unusual step of including a substantial part for a large percussion battery. In 1943 he expanded the music into a concerto, which he and his wife performed with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of his former student, Fritz Reiner. Like the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, this work features haunting “night music” and passages that imitate the sound of the peasant dances Bartók recorded during his years of folk music research. Contrasts (for violin, clarinet and piano): Bartók wrote this piece to perform with the famed clarinetist Benny Goodman and the violinist Joseph Szigeti. Two of its three movements are approximately in the style of East European folk dances, while the other presents a lyrical meditation. 

String Quartet No. 4: Bartók’s six string quartets are the most original and important body of music in this venerable genre since Beethoven. In these works, Bartók extended the tradition of quartet composition into a new era and revitalized it through a wide range of formal and expressive innovations. While all of Bartók’s quartets are highly regarded, the Fourth is widely considered the finest of the six. Its music represents an extraordinary synthesis of expressive intensity and taut formal control. The work’s tonal idiom is generally chromatic and dissonant, but its workings are clarified by lucid motivic development and contrapuntal rigor.