Béla Bartók

1881–1945

20th Century

Béla Bartók was a major composer of the early 20th century. Bartók was Hungarian, and he was always very interested in folk music from his native country. He became known for combining this folk music with the sounds of late-Romantic composers, like Richard Strauss, and the Impressionist composers, like Claude Debussy. In fact, he collected folk songs from all over Eastern Europe! He would wander from village to village with his friend Zoltán Kodály and his wax cylinder phonograph, a kind of old-fashioned recording device. Today he’s remembered as one of the founders of ethnomusicology, which means the study of different types of music around the world and what the music means to the people who play and sing it. He was a true pioneer – most of the music he collected had never, ever been recorded or written down before. People used to hand it down from generation to generation just by singing it and teaching it to their children. We call this process ‘oral history’. Think about how easy it would be for this music to be forgotten or get changed by accident along the way. Perhaps there are songs you’ve been taught like that? What about nursery rhymes or playground songs?

A lot of Bartók’s music uses the tunes he collected. He wanted to preserve them and make sure they didn’t get lost – and he wanted people in other countries to hear them. But more than just the tunes, his music gets into the feel of Hungarian folk music, so that even pieces that don’t quote from it still feel like they do! Some of his most popular music includes six string quartets, the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, the Divertimento for String Orchestra, and a piece called Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. (A celesta is like a little piano with high, tinkly, bell-like sounds.) And at the end of his life he composed his most popular work: Concerto for Orchestra.

Béla Bartók, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Here are some Bartók tracks to try.

The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19, BB 82: Opening: The Girl and Three Tramps

This fierce, intense piece is part ballet, part pantomime – Bartók is trying to tell a story through music.

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.571201

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz. 106: IV. Allegro molto

One of Bartók’s best-loved works, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta features unusual and inventive orchestration. Hear, in this movement, how he liked folk dance!

Performers: Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.550261

String Quartet No. 6, BB 119: I. Mesto –Più mosso, pesante – Vivace

This is Bartók’s final string quartet. He wrote it at a sad and difficult time – he mother was very ill, and World War II had begun. Can you hear that sadness in the music?

Performers: Vermeer Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.557543-44

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What is the name of Bartók’s only opera?

a. Greenbeard’s Castle
b. Bluebeard’s Castle
c. Greybeard’s Castle

 What type of musical study did Bartók help to discover?

a. Cognitive musicology
b. Music therapy
c. Ethnomusicology

 Who was the friend who accompanied Bartók on his folk-music-gathering trips round Eastern Europe?

a. Franz Liszt
b. Zoltán Kodály
c. György Ligeti

 What instrument that is not often found in the orchestra does Bartók’s ballet The Wooden Prince use?

a. Saxophone
b. Flugelhorn
c. Synthesiser

 How many string quartets did Bartók write in total?

a. Five
b. Two
c. Six


Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Bartók is considered one of the founders of ethnomusicology – the study of different kinds of music around the world, including what it means to the people writing and performing it.
  2. Bartók was a real prodigy – he could play the piano by the age of four.
  3. In addition to being a composer, Bartók was an excellent concert pianist.
  4. Bartók was interested in teaching children to play the piano, and he wrote a series of pieces called Mikrokosmos to help them.
  5. Bartók left Europe in 1940 and moved to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Stage Works


The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19, BB 82 (excerpts)

This fierce, intense piece is part ballet, part pantomime – Bartók is trying to tell a story through music. The piece was so controversial it was banned!

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.571201


Bluebeard’s Castle, BB 62 (excerpts)

Bluebeard’s Castle is based on the fairy-tale about a terrifying nobleman with a dark secret. Bartók’s music is quite scary in places!

Performers: Gustav Belacek, bass; Andrea Melath, mezzo-soprano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.660928


The Wooden Prince, BB 74: Opening

This ballet from 1917 was also strongly influenced by pantomime. The orchestra it calls for is massive – probably the biggest in all Bartók’s oeuvre!

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.570534

Works for Solo Piano


Mikrokosmos, BB 105: Vol 2. No. 37: In Lydian Mode: Allegretto

Bartók wrote lots of tiny pieces for children, intended to teach them how to play the piano. Listen to how simple yet inventive this one is.

Performers: Balázs Szokolay, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550451


3 Rondos on Slovak Folk Tunes, BB 92

These three short pieces show Bartók’s interest in folk music. They were written while he was gathering traditional melodies from around the country.

Performers: Balázs Szokolay, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550451


Allegro barbaro, Sz. 49

Written in 1911, this is one of Bartók’s most popular works for piano. But it’s very difficult to play!

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.555329


Piano Sonata, Sz. 80

Dating from 1926, this is Bartók’s only surviving sonata for piano. It sometimes uses extra notes at the bottom of the keyboard – only some pianos have them!

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554717

Chamber and Solo Instrumental Music


String Quartet No. 4, BB 95

Bartók wrote six string quartets (for two violins, a viola and a cello), but this fourth one is probably the most famous. The players have to make unusual sounds on their instruments.

Performers: Vermeer Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.557543-44


Violin Sonata, Sz. 117

Often a sonata will have a piano accompaniment but this one is written for solo violin – no piano. Bartók wrote it for legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Performers: György Pauk, violin

Taken from Naxos 8.550868


String Quartet No. 3, BB 93

Even though this string quartet has four sections there is no break between them, so the music never stops. In a concert, where the audience is meant to be quiet during the music, people often cough and shuffle about in their seat when they get a little break between sections. In this piece they would have to control themselves!

Performers: Vermeer Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.557543-44


Piano Quintet, Sz. 23

A fairly early work, this Piano Quintet shows how Bartók’s music could be quite rich and Romantic. He was influenced by the earlier Hungarian composer Franz Liszt – an amazing pianist and bold composer.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano; Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550886

Orchestral Music and Concertos


Piano Concerto No. 2, Sz. 95

This concerto is incredibly difficult to play! Bartók brings in so many different ideas and parts, making for one super-complex piece of music.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano; Budapest Symphony Orchestra; András Ligeti

Taken from Naxos 8.550771


Violin Concerto No. 2, Sz. 112

Bartók wrote this famous concerto at a difficult time in his life, in 1937–38. He was worried about what was happening in his country of Hungary, as it sided with Germany before World War II.

Performers: György Pauk, violin; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.554321


Dance Suite, Sz. 77

The five dances in this suite are all very characterful and different, with a finale that somehow draws everything together.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.557433


Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz. 106

One of Bartók’s best-loved works, this features unusual and inventive ideas for the instruments, such as glissandi (slides!) on the timpani. Timpani are kettle-drums, so a glissando makes them go borrrrooooooooooom!

Performers: Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.550261