In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Béla Bartók

  • Introduction
  • Archives and Legalities
  • Critical Edition
  • Facsimiles
  • Collections of Essays about Bartók
  • Bartók as Teacher and Composer of Pedagogical Works

Music Béla Bartók
Lynn Hooker, Peter Laki, Alexis Witt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0284


Béla Bartók (b. 1881–d. 1945) was one of the most influential musical figures of the 20th century, particularly from outside the historic musical centers of Germany, France, and Italy. Now remembered principally as a composer, he was also an international concert pianist, teacher of piano, and pioneer in folk music research. Bartók was born and educated in the provincial periphery of late-19th-century Hungary; when he was admitted to institutions in both Vienna and Budapest for his advanced education, he made the fateful decision to enroll in Budapest’s Royal Academy of Music. In 1907 he joined its piano faculty, continuing until 1934, when he transferred to a full-time position doing folk music research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He performed his works widely, especially during the interwar period, though after 1934 his performances in Germany ceased, in part due to his refusal to certify his Aryan origins. As Bartók grew uneasy about Hungary’s alliance with the Third Reich, he and his wife left after his mother’s death, landing in New York in 1940. He died there of leukemia in 1945. After modeling his early works on the chromaticism of Richard Strauss combined with 19th-century Hungarian-style motifs, Bartók changed his musical direction after his discovery of the folk songs of isolated peasantry, first by chance in 1904 and then in systematic fieldwork with Zoltán Kodály beginning in 1905. Bartók studied village music of not only Hungarians but also other ethnic groups around East-Central Europe, North Africa, and Turkey. His study of these materials along with the music of earlier composers, particularly Debussy, Liszt, and Beethoven, were his sources for new modes of organization of pitch, rhythm, and form. He also responded in music and words to other modernist musicians of his time; several scholars have investigated the issue of who influenced whom. At the height of his career, he departed radically from tonality and reinterpreted classical forms in some works, while at the same time writing a variety of more accessible and frequently performed character pieces, folk song settings, and pedagogical works. Some of the large-scale works he produced at the end of his life, most notably the Concerto for Orchestra (1943), combined ambition of scale and accessibility in a way that made for great success with the public. However, some postwar modernist critics, who debated the issue of accessibility through a Cold War lens, saw Bartók’s popularity as a sign of selling out to audiences rather than following the “mandate of history.” Bartók scholars have addressed a wide range of topics, from cultural studies of his interactions with other artists in Hungary and abroad, to his folk music research, to close readings of his compositions from biographical, literary, or source-studies perspectives, to a multitude of music-theoretical analyses. This bibliography provides a representative survey of the voluminous Bartók scholarship.

General Overviews

Overviews of Bartók’s work began to appear within a few years of his death. This section includes Reference Works, including thematic catalogues; print life-and-works Biographies; and various Multimedia Overviews of Bartók’s life, context, and contributions.

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