Béla Bartók's Musical Style

Background / Influences

Bartók set out from the influence of Wagner, Liszt, Brahms, and Richard Strauss.  Through his development, he mastered and outgrew the devices of French Impressionism.  He drew some inspiration from Stravinsky and Schoenberg but was bound to the classical heritage because of his ties to the beauty and logic of form.  (See Neoclassicism)

Taking Liszt as his first model, he explored the musical traditions of his homeland and ultimately achieved a remarkable personal synthesis of elements drawn in approximately equal measure from Hungarian folk and Western art sources, thereby charting one of the most characteristic lines of 20th-century musical development.

He studied piano and composition at the Budapest Academy, at first distinguishing himself primarily as a pianist.  A performance of Strauss's "Also sprach Zarathustra" in 1902, however, reignited the spark of composition, the result being the symphonic poem "Kossuth" (see below).

Liszt had been exclusively concerned with the music of the Gypsies, whom he considered the founders of an indigenous Hungarian national style.  The music of the Hungarian peasants, on the other hand, he considered to be not only inferior in quality but entirely derived from -- and thus a perversion of -- Gypsy music.  In 1904, however, when Bartók began to go out in the countryside to hear and write down folk melodies, he found that the opposite was the case:  the music of the farmers and peasants was the true folk music of Hungary, of which Gypsy music was an urban and largely commercial adaptation, incorporating numerous Western influences.


Bartók, upon studying the Hungarian folklore, felt freed from the restraints of traditional major/minor tonality.  The peasant tunes, based on old modes and pentatonic scales, were very liberating for him.  His characteristic melodies seemed to circle around a given note and move within a narrow range.  He was fond of repeating fragments on different beats of the measure, producing primitive effects like a melody turning in on itself.  The influence of folk songs was also manifest in his use of the intervals of seconds, fourths, and sevenths.

He loosened the old modes through chromatic ornamentation.  He also experimented with polymodality.  His fondness for the simultaneous use of major and minor sonorities was a result of his experimentation.  Characteristic is his technique of superimposing independent streams of chords, as well as quartal harmony, cluster chords, and parallel seconds, sevenths and ninths.

From the folk dances of southeastern Europe, he incorporated numerous asymmetrical formations.  He had a fondness for repeated notes and passages based on alternating patterns.  He, along with Stravinsky, played a major role in the revitalization of western rhythm.  His orchestration exemplifies the contemporary tendency to use color for the projection of ideas rather than an end in itself.

Bartók was preoccupied with formal unity and coherence, which he attained through the cumulative development and continuous variation of themes and motives.

The compositions of the late 1920s and the 1930s incorporate a wealth of different scalar resources -- including diatonic, whole-tone, octatonic, and chromatic types -- into a remarkably flexible new stylistic amalgam.    By arriving at complex pitch configurations through the addition of simpler and more basic building blocks, Bartók was able to integrate a remarkable varied fund of pitch material, ranging from the simplest diatonicism to full twelve-tone chromaticism.  (See "Mikrokosmos" below)

Musical Works

Significantly, the program for the symphonic poem, "Kossuth" (1903), concerns the life of a Hungarian national hero; and the music, despite affinities to Strauss, also reflects the influence of Liszt.  The Lisztian strain becomes yet more pronounced in the "Rhapsody," Op. 1, originally for piano solo, later arranged for piano and orchestra (1904).  Its form is based on the traditional structure of Hungarian Gypsy music -- a slow introductory section followed by a fast, dancelike one -- which Liszt had employed in his Hungarian Rhapsodies.

Bartók's preoccupation for classical form is evident in his "First String Quartet" (1908).  It represents his first mature and fully successful realization of an extended developmental form.  It inaugurates a series of six quartets that, taken as a group, form one of the major musical achievements of the first half of the century.

"Allegro barbaro" (1911) is a keyboard piece of elemental rhythmic force whose character and title suggest a strong kinship with "The Rite of Spring," which Stravinsky began composing in the same year.

The first completely convincing synthesis of the full range of Bartók's compositional influences was achieved in the one-act opera "Bluebeard's Castle" (1911).  Although it contains no actual folk material, the score is pervaded with the character of the native music Bartók had been intensively studying.

Bartók, incorporating his native folk tunes, tended to devise more and more elaborate accompaniments for the melodies, shifting the emphasis from the original tune to the total effect of its presentation.  In "For Children" (a set of 85 folk tune settings - 1909), the accompaniments are still relatively simple in texture, but in the "Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs" (1917) one finds a wealth of pianistic variety, including doubling and elaborate registral layouts.  In the "Sonatina for Piano" (1915) the accompaniment represents a completely integrated component of a complex compositional conception, each movement of which far transcends the formal scope and expressive intent of the folk material on which it is based.

After the temporary retreat from public life brought on by the rejection of "Bluebeard's Castle," Bartók achieved a resounding success in 1917 with the premiere of his ballet "The Wooden Prince."  This in turn stimulated the production of the opera the following year.  His next work, another ballet, "The Miraculous Mandarin" (1919), was banned because of the eroticism of it scenario.  The ballet's heated aggressiveness and morbid tone may well reflect the emotional stress attendant upon life in Hungary at the time.

Passages from "Mikrokosmos," a graded six-volume series of short pieces for piano students, illustrate different solutions to the integrations of opposing scalar configurations, such as octatonic and diatonic.  In the opening phrase of the piece "Diminished Fifth" the entirely octatonic scale is generated by a combination of two diatonic tetrachords a diminished fifth apart, each assigned to one of the pianist's hands in a quasi-imitative texture.  At the beginning of "From the Island of Bali" the octatonic material is again generated by combining two four-note units in an imitative texture, but here the individual units are essentially chromatic rather than diatonic.