"All of my music […] is guided by instinct and feeling."
The Hungarian composer, pianist, and ethnomusicologist is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Around the year 1904, he and his compatriot Zoltán Kodály discovered that what they – like Franz Liszt in his Hungarian Rhapsodies and Johannes Brahms in his Hungarian Dances – had believed to be Hungarian folk music was actually the music of the Roma as it was performed in cities. Bartók travelled throughout Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Transylvania, and the Near East, collecting over 10,000 songs that he and Kodály recorded on phonograph, notated, and transcribed for various instruments. These studies provided new impulses for the musical languages of both composers.
Bartók’s music is characterized by its rhythmic sophistication, brilliant and transparent instrumentation, and individual harmonic language that makes use of diatonic scales outside the major-minor system (for example, the Dorian and Mixolydian modes) and forgoes the “gestures of late Romanticism,” while occasionally including bitonality (when two keys are heard simultaneously) and pentatonicism (five-tone scales). Orchestras and conductors were initially challenged by the asymmetrical rhythms that Bartók borrowed from folk music.

© Peter Kislinger, ORF - Radio Österreich 1


  • Born on March 25, 1881 in Gross-Sankt-Nikolaus/Nagyszentmiklós, Austria-Hungary (now Romania)

  • 1888 death of Bartók’s father; moves with his mother to Nagyszőllős (currently Wynohradiw, Ukraine) and Beszterce (Bistritz), then to Pozsony (Pressburg, currently Bratislava, Slovakia) in order to attend school

  • 1893 music and composition lessons in Pozsony

  • 1899 piano and composition studies at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest

  • 1902 Hungarian premiere of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra in Budapest, which initially had a great influence on his orchestral style; soon, however, he felt that its "Romantic exuberance" was outdated

  • Is impressed by the harmonies of Maurice Ravel and particularly of Claude Debussy

  • 1908 to 1934, Professor of Piano at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest

  • The opera Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), ballet The Wooden Prince (1914–16), and pantomime ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (1918–24) were Bartók’s only stage works

  • Fearing that Hungary could become "a German colony," Bartók moves in 1940 "away from the vicinity of this pestilent country" to the United States. (His son Béla did not emigrate)

  • September 26, 1945 Bartók dies of leukemia in Manhattan

  • July 7, 1988 Bartók’s mortal remains are buried at the cemetery in Budapest during a national funeral ceremony

Did you know?

  • Grew up bilingual (Hungarian and German), learning Slovakian as well starting at the age of eight; spoke or wrote English, French, Russian, "South Slavic", Finnish, and Turkish

  • 1903 hoped to "devote his life to serving the Hungarian nation, the Hungarian homeland" with his music

  • 1931 described his "actual" mission as "the brotherhood of peoples […]. I try […] to serve this idea in my music; therefore I don’t reject an influence, be it Slovakian, Romanian, Arabic or from any other source. The source must only be clean, fresh, and healthy!"

  • Invited to serve on the jury of the art competition at the Eighth Summer Olympics in Paris in 1924, which he turned down due to lack of time

  • Collected insects (which he first anesthetized) and minerals

  • 1926 premiere of the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (1918–24); further performances are prohibited by mayor Konrad Adenauer due to "moral concerns", presumably due to its themes (prostitution, murder, and robbery)

  • The 153 pieces of Mikrokosmos (1926–1939) are a pedagogical cycle for piano that is regarded as an "encyclopedia of modern piano playing"

  • Bartók’s most often-played works include the String Quartets nos. 4-6, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Second Violin Concerto, Divertimento for String Orchestra, Concerto for Orchestra, and Third Piano Concerto – all works from the last seventeen years of his life

  • 1961 a glacier in Antarctica is named after Bartók

  • 1989 "Asteroid (4132) Bartók"