(c) Copyright Bartók Archives of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Institute for Musicology, 2004-2005 


Portraits of the Man









At the age of 3 he was given a drum, and was very pleased with it. When I played the piano he sat on his little chair, with his drum in front of him on the footstool, and gave out the exact beat. If I changed over from 3/4 to 4/4 time, he left off drumming for a moment, then resumed in the proper time. Even now I can visualize just how seriously and attentively he accompanied my playing.


From the letter of Bartók’s mother to her grandson, 1921; Malcolm Gillies, Bartók Remembered (London, 1990), 6



Possibly, precise people are not content with the impressionistic pictures offered by poets and they crave, first of all, for the positive facts of science. Let us see what we should write about him on the basis of the group divisions of Kretschmer’s characterology. None of the cyclothyme traits refer to him. There are, however, features of the other, the schizothyme group, that fit him: fragile, fine, sensitive, cool, severe, withdrawn, cold, dull, indolent. ... Up to the attribute cold, all fitted him. The categories of psychic tension ...: fanatical, pedantic, unyielding, persevering, systematic. Only the upper extremes—capricious and confused—do not fit him, whilst the rest hit the nail right on the head. The agility aspect, speed in reactions to stimuli: inadequate, that is to say, reactions to stimuli quicker than customary. The subtitles of this heading are: restless, precipitate, hesitating, awkward, aristocratic, contrived, angular, rigid. With the exception of this last, all the rest more or less fit him. With respect to social relations: self-contained, reserved. Grades: idealist, reformer, revolutionary, systematic, organiser, self-willed, crotchety, dissatisfied, restrained, mistrustful, lonely, unsociable, misanthropical, brutal, anti-social. With the exception of the last three there is none that could not have been attributed to him with more or less reason. The categories of psychic tension: ingenious, lively, susceptible, energetic, inhibited. He could have been a typical example of the schizothyme mental form. ... That is what characterology says of him. It sounds fairly precise, though ... the conditions of life are such that science cannot catch up with life. For even if it is true that these qualities emerged at times, man is not so simple a phenomenon that his eternal secret can be solved by a label with a few lines on it. ...  


Zoltán Kodály, “Béla Bartók the Man,” in The Writings of Zoltán Kodály (Budapest, 1974), 97–98





Bartók’s figure imprinted itself with unforgettable sharpness on the minds of all who ever met him, although he never sought to draw attention to himself or acted conspicuously. He could permit himself the greatest luxury of his age: to be true and sincere. And though there is hardly any evidence of it in his art, his family, his acquaintances, his peasant singers and young pupils all bear witness to the warm and simple human feelings concealed in the depths of his infinitely complicated creative personality. He was of middle height and had a nervously delicate build, but his frail body bore a head radiant with inner light; his hazel eyes had a penetrating look. They dilated and blazed up in the heat of discussion or when he was playing the piano; his forehead domed, and the once wavy, later short-cropped hair turned prematurely grey, especially at the temples; his nose was finely shaped and his lips thin and energetic—all this gave the impression of a medieval, ascetic monk.

Bence Szabolcsi, “Introduction,” in Ferenc Bónis, Béla Bartók:

His Life in Pictures (Budapest, 1964), 5







... I still preserve the characteristic note he wrote to me (in English) shortly before my visit, of which the following is an extract:


Dear Mr. Gray, ...Please let me know exactly by a telegram the time of your arrival. I shall expect you at the station and guide you to Mr. Kodály. Here I send a more recent photograph of mine to you: you must try to address me on your arrival—I am very thin, have grey hairs, and am wearing spectacles. Besides, I shall have with me a copy of The Sackbut in order to make for you easier to find me. ...


All these secret code instructions proved unnecessary. He was charmingly unaware of the fact that, even in the vast surging crowd which confronted me on my arrival at the central station in Budapest, without the necessity of sending me a recent photograph or carrying ostentatiously a copy of The Sackbut, even with my more than myopic eyes, would be able to identify at a glance the personality whom I had immediately recognized, from a mere glance at his works, to be one the most outstanding masters of contemporary music.

From Cecil Gray, Musical Chairs (London, 1948), quoted in Malcolm Gillies, Bartók Remembered (London, 1990), 69



  ...we of the younger musical generation were captivated by Bartók, and to listen to a fresh work of his became an event, alas too rare, of capital importance. Most writers have agreed to hold Schönberg and Stravinsky responsible for the reaction which set in after Debussy. Some have included Erik Satie. I personally would nominate Bartók instead. These three are the authentic representatives of the musical revolution of that generation. Less direct and sparkling than Stravinsky, less dogmatic than Schönberg, Bartók is perhaps the most profoundly musical of the three and best manifests a close-knit organic development.

From Arthur Honegger, “Preface,” in Serge Moreux, Béla Bartók (London, 1953), 10



Whoever met Bartók, thinking of the rhythmic strength of his work, was surprised by his slight, delicate figure. He had the outward appearance of a fine-nerved scholar. Possessed of fanatical will and pitiless severity, and propelled by an ardent spirit, he affected inaccessibility and was reservedly polite. His being breathed light and brightness; his eyes burned with a noble fire. In the flash of his searching glance no falseness nor obscurity could endure. If in performance an especially hazardous and refractory passage came off well, he laughed in boyish glee; and when he was pleased with the successful solution of a problem, he actually beamed. That meant more than forced compliments, which I never heard from his mouth...

From Paul Sacher, “Béla Bartók zum Gedächtnis,” quoted from Malcolm Gillies,

Bartók Remembered (London, 1990), 100