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


Private Life


One of Béla Bartók’s characteristic qualities was that he was always teaching, he gave of his own experience and wanted to make his circle more developed and learned. He acquainted my older sister and me with the Pest museums and galleries while we were still his pupils. He taught us the names of the stars, how to prepare the insects and moths that he collected, he acquainted us with the poetry of Endre Ady’s and his beloved French writers: Flaubert, Maupassant, Daudet and one of his best-loved books Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne.
            He used to play unknown works for me on the piano on the evenings he was not too busy and I had to guess the composer ... When I asked what his first thought was on receiving the telegram about the birth of our son Béla, he replied (with tears in his eyes): “My thought was that I would teach him to write.”

Márta Ziegler, “Thirteen Years,” originally published as “Über Béla Bartók,” in Documenta Bartókiana 4, ed. Denijs Dille
 (Budapest, 1970), 173–79


With the lowest class, the folk, it is all the nicer the more they stick to tradition. But people of the highest class must strive to free themselves from it, as far as possible. There is no middle way. ... So the middle class, which stands between the highest people and the peasant class, is, owing to its stupidity, actually unenjoyable. We like the childlike naivety of the peasants, which manifests itself in everything often with primitive strength; the intellectual strength of the highest people is impressive, but the idiocy of the middle class—including most of the “gentry”—which lacks natural naivety, is insufferable.

Bartók to violinist Stefi Geyer, July 27, 1907, in Bartók Letters. The Musical Mind,
ed. Malcolm Gillies and Adrienne Gombocz, unpublished




I strongly believe and profess that every true art arises under the influence of impressions—“experiences”—which we gather from the external world. ... I cannot visualize artistic productions in any way other than the creator’s manifestation of his boundless zeal, despair, grief, rage, vengeance, twisted irony, sarcasm. I did not believe this until I experienced for myself that one’s work actually shows more exactly than a biography the noteworthy events and driving passions of a life. ... It is strange that hitherto in music only zeal, love, grief and perhaps despair—that is, the so-called sublime emotions—have acted as motivations. While it is only in our time that vengeance, hyperbole and sarcasm do or will live in music. So, perhaps, in contrast to the idealism evident in earlier times it is possible to call contemporary composition realistic when it candidly and indiscriminately admits truly every human emotion within its expressive repertory. ...
            Another completely different factor makes contemporary (20th-century) music realistic: that, half consciously, half intentionally, it searches for impressions from that great reality of folk art, which encompasses everything.


Bartók to his future first wife Márta Ziegler and her sister, Hermina, February 4, 1909, Bartók Letters. The Musical Mind,
ed. Malcolm Gillies and Adrienne Gombocz, unpublished


On one occasion, walking towards the Ortler ... we settled down for lunch; our dining room of the day was an area of thick grass, surrounded by trees and bushes all around, well off the path and promising complete privacy. Coats were spread out, bottles opened, sandwich packages unwrapped, appetites ready, when my father suggested that we move along and find some place else. My mother and I protested:
            “But why? This is just right?”
            “I am so hungry!”
            “It is not quite right for me,” said my father and we had to pack everything up, somewhat displeased at my father’s apparent finickiness that we both judged excessive; but there was no choice, for his orders had to be followed, even if reluctantly. Only when we had already gotten a considerable distance away did he provide an explanation:
            “There was a snake in the grass, whom I recognized from the pattern on his back as poisonous, but I did not want you to know it then so you would not become frightened.”
            All the time, while we collected our things, he swallowed our grumbling without a word while keenly watching us both to make sure we would not step anywhere near the snake only he could see.

Peter Bartók, My Father (Homosassa, Florida: Bartók Records, 2002), 77



















Somehow I felt now, after a long time of no work, like a man who lies in bed over a long, long period, and finally tries to use his arms and legs, gets on his feet and takes one or two steps. A man like this cannot just suddenly walk up a hill. I, too, gradually grew accustomed to movement: and so in this manner I only produced piano pieces. But even this was something. Because, to be frank, recently I have felt so stupid, so dazed, so empty-headed that I have truly doubted whether I am able to write anything new at all anymore. All the tangled chaos that the musical periodicals vomit thick and fast about the music of today has come to weigh heavily on me: the watchwords linear, horizontal, vertical, objective, impersonal, polyphonic, homophonic, tonal, polytonal, atonal, and the rest; even if one does not concern one’s self with all of it, one still becomes quite dazed when they shout it on our ears so much. ... But now things are all right; you can imagine how pleased I am that at last there will be something new, and something I myself can play, on my own, instead of the eternal Allegro barbaro, A Bit Tipsy and Rumanian Dance.

Bartók to his second wife, Ditta Pásztory, June 21, 1926, quoted in Tibor Tallián, Béla Bartók.
The Man and His Work (Budapest, 1988), 141









  Only the day before yesterday I received the notorious questionnaire about grandfathers, etc., then: “Are you of German blood, of kindred race, or non-Aryan?” Naturally neither I nor Kodály will fill in the form: our opinion is that such questions are wrong and illegal. Actually it’s rather a pity, for we could give answers that would make fun of them; e.g., we could say that we are non-Aryans—because (according to my lexicon) in the last analysis “Aryan” means “Indo-European”; we Hungarians are Finno-Ugrians, or ethnically, we might possibly be northern Turks, that is we are a non-Indo-European people, and consequently non-Aryans. Another Question runs like this:

            “Where and when were you wounded?” Answer:
            “On the 11th, 12th and 13th of March, 1938, in Vienna!”

But I’m afraid we cannot allow ourselves to joke like this, for we must insist on having nothing to do with this unlawful questionnaire, which therefore must remain unanswered.

Bartók to Mme Müller-Widmann, April 13, 1938, in Béla Bartók Letters, ed. János Demény (Budapest, 1971), 267–68



This voyage is, actually, like a plunging into the unknown from what is known but unbearable. If only on account of my none too satisfactory state of health; I mean my periarthritis, still incompletely cured. God only knows how and for how long I’ll be able to work over there.

            But we have no choice; it isn’t at all the question whether this has to happen (muss es sein); for it must happen (es muss sein).


Bartók to Mme Müller-Widmann, October 14, 1940, in Béla Bartók Letters, ed. János Demény (Budapest, 1971), 284–85