Without doubt the greatest Hungarian composer of the 20th century, Bartók was also a formidably accomplished pianist and a renowned collector and arranger of folk song from Hungary and beyond. And, of course, he taught.
Bartók learnt the piano and began composing at a very young age. He went on to study at the Budapest Academy of Music but was slow in developing his own musical language. His most accomplished pre-Academy works show the influence of Brahms and Schumann; those of his student years betray the marks of Richard Strauss. The subject matter of the early symphonic poem Kossuth was already unmistakably Hungarian, but it wasn’t until 1904 that Bartók heard his first genuine Hungarian folk song. The deep acquaintance with his native folk music resonated in his own work. He had found his real musical identity and proved as much in a sequence of hugely accomplished scores: the First and Second String Quartets (1909 and 1914–17), the one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), and the ballets The Wooden Prince (1914–17) and The Miraculous Mandarin (1918–19).
His fame as both composer and pianist spread fast. Between 1926 and 1931 he wrote the first two of his three piano concertos as vehicles for his own playing. Typically, though, he resisted adopting the life of a touring composer-virtuoso. He continued with his folk-music studies and with developing his own musical language, exploring the nature of variation, the viability of symmetrical forms and a whole array of novel sounds in pieces such as the Third, Fourth and Fifth Quartets (1927, 1928, 1934), the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and the Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1937). His later music veers towards a more diatonic sound-world, though formal process and proportion always remained important issues.
Bartók fled to the USA in 1940. Although he found work lecturing and giving concerts, he failed to re-establish his reputation. Depression, financial worries and severe health problems followed. He died in New York on 26 September 1945 from leukaemia, leaving his Third Piano Concerto 17 bars short of completion and his Viola Concerto still in sketch form. Thanks to a far-sighted commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation, though, he had in 1943 completed his Concerto for Orchestra, a masterpiece that betrays no sign of the distress that this sensitive, reluctant émigré was suffering.
Profile by Stephen Pettitt © BBC