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


Public Life

With his private student in composition, Gizella Selden-Goth, 1908

With violinists Jelly (left) and Adila (right) d'Arányi in London, 1923 (Photo: Sidney J. Loeb)

At the Contemporary Chamber Music Festival in Salzburg, 1922

On board the “Colombus,” setting out for a concert tour of the US, 1927

With Gertrud and Paul Hindemith and Jenő Takács at a congress on Arab music in Cairo, 1932

On a banquet following his concert in Bucharest, 1934

A BBC concert with singer Maria Basilides transmitted from Dohnányi's home in Budapest, 1935




I was born on March 25, 1881, in a small place called Nagyszetmiklós, which now, together with the whole county of Torontal, belongs to Rumania. My mother gave me my first piano lessons when I was six years old. My father, who was the head of an agricultural school, was gifted musically and active in many directions. ... I was eight years old when I lost him. After his death my mother had to work as a schoolmistress and struggle hard for our daily bread. ... I began writing piano music when I was nine years old and made my first public appearance as a “composer” and pianist at Nagyszöllős in 1891. ...




Bartók's autobiography published in 1919 with the composer's markings and revisions                Bartók's autobiography published in 1919 with the composer's markings and revisions



In my studies of folk music I discovered that what we had known as Hungarian folk songs till then were more or less trivial songs by popular composers and did not contain much that was valuable. I felt an urge to go deeper into this question and set out in 1905 to collect and study Hungarian peasant music unknown until then. It was my great good luck to find a helpmate for this work in Zoltán Kodály, who, owing to his deep insight and sound judgment in all spheres of music, could give me many a hint and much advice that proved of immense value. I started these investigations on entirely musical grounds and pursued them in areas which linguistically were purely Hungarian. Later on I became fascinated by the scientific implications of my musical material and extended my work over territories which were linguistically Slovakian and Rumanian.

            The outcome of these studies was of decisive influence upon my work, because it freed me from the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys. The greater part of the collected treasure, and the more valuable part, was in old ecclesiastical or old Greek modes, or based on more primitive (pentatonic) scales, and the melodies were full of most free and varied rhythmic phrases and changes of tempi, played both rubato and giusto. It became clear to me that the old modes, which had been forgotten in our music, had lost nothing of their vigour. Their new employment made new rhythmic combinations possible. This new way of using the diatonic scale brought freedom from the rigid use of the major and minor keys, and eventually led to a new conception of the chromatic scale, every tone of which came to be considered of equal value and could be used freely and independently.


Bartók, “Autobiography” (1921), in Béla Bartók Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (London, 1976), 409–410




Bartók playes Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg in Budapest, April 23, 1921

Bartók's letter to Henry Prunières about the performance of Schoenberg's op. 11, March 12, 1922

With violinist Zoltán Székely in Székely's home in Nijmegen, Holland, 1925




I also want to write a few lines about the developments in Paris and London. In the “Temps” review, not only do they not “scold” me, but they write about me in a most kindly manner. They begin with this “Schönberg’s and Bartók’s talents are now irrefutable facts.” When compared with the others, the things they write about Dukas’s piece and mine are the most favourable. On the other hand, the importance of the matter lies in how they see it: they also included me in the list of the ten representative contemporary composers. ...

            However, the London article (in the “Sackbut”) is absolutely sensational, in its appearance too: 8 dense pages of small print; not to mention its content: e.g. it says that the 1st Suite is a youthful work, in the best sense of the word, as there is such a degree of excellence apparent in it, as is only usually achieved by composers when the youthful freshness of their conceptions has already faded. It states that the 1st quartet is the best quartet since Beethoven ... It is also very interesting that the article emphasizes my being a “melodist” par excellence; that I belong among the few new composers who are capable of creating large-scale grandiose pieces (N.B. although he does not yet know my most monumental pieces, the 3 stage works) and finally, that my pieces are influential in the development of music. No Hungarian artist, not only no musician but no sculptor, painter or writer has ever been written of like that abroad. ...

            I do not think Márta has mentioned that I have received a letter form Gatti, Italy’s most influential music critic of our time, who says he wants to promote my works in Italian periodicals and so wants those pieces published in Pest, which he does not know (naturally, he already knows the ones that were published in Vienna; he has already written short reviews about some of them). Zoltán’s extensive article about me will be published in the March edition of “Revue Musicale,” I do not know what he wrote yet, but his will doubtless be the best, simply because he has been the most involved in all that has influenced my development.


Bartók to his mother, January 8, 1921, in Bartók Béla Családi levelei (Family letters), ed. Béla Bartók, Jr. and
Adrienne Gombocz (Budapest, 1981), 310–11




A two-piano recital with his second wife Ditta in Budapest, March 24, 1939                  At a rehearsal of Contrasts with Joseph Szigeti and Benny Goodman, April 1940                  As honorary doctor of Columbia University, November 1940                 With his piano pupil Ann Chenée, 1940s (Photo: G.D. Hackett)


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