Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók

by David Cooper


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The definitive account of the life and music of Hungary’s greatest twentieth-century composer

This deeply researched biography of Béla Bartók (1881–1945) provides a more comprehensive view of the innovative Hungarian musician than ever before. David Cooper traces Bartók’s international career as an ardent ethno-musicologist and composer, teacher, and pianist, while also providing a detailed discussion of most of his works. Further, the author explores how Europe’s political and cultural tumult affected Bartók’s work, travel, and reluctant emigration to the safety of America in his final years.
Cooper illuminates Bartók’s personal life and relationships, while also expanding what is known about the influence of other musicians—Richard Strauss, Zoltán Kodály, and Yehudi Menuhin, among many others. The author also looks closely at some of the composer’s actions and behaviors which may have been manifestations of Asperger syndrome. The book, in short, is a consummate biography of an internationally admired musician.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300234374
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 05/22/2018
Pages: 456
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

David Cooper is professor of music and technology, and dean of the Faculty of Performance, Visual Arts and Communications, University of Leeds. His publications include Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra. The author lives in Liversedge, UK.

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Béla Bartók

By David Cooper


Copyright © 2015 David Cooper
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21307-2


'Sweet was my mother's milk': 1881–1902

Béla Viktor János Bartók was born on 25 March 1881 in Nagyszentmiklós (Great Saint Nicholas) in Torontál County of the 'Kingdom of Hungary within the Lands of the Crown of Saint Stephen'. At that point in the country's chequered history the town lay in the Bánát region of central Hungary and such celebrity as it had within Austria-Hungary largely resulted from the 'treasures of Nagyszentmiklós'. These comprise a group of first-and early second-millennium decorated golden vessels that were discovered in the town in 1799 by a Serbian peasant called Vuin Neru and taken to the imperial capital of Vienna, where they remain on display in the city's Kunsthistorisches Museum. Beyond this, Nagyszentmiklós was a relatively prosperous if unremarkable agricultural and market community. The population statistics for 1880 indicate that of its 10,836 inhabitants, around one third were ethnically Romanian and just over two fifths were German, with Hungarians and Serbs each forming slightly more than a tenth of the population; in terms of religious affiliation, half of the inhabitants were Roman Catholic and most of the rest were Eastern Orthodox. This racial and religious mix reflected the diversity of late nineteenth-century Hungary as a whole, in which Magyars, the ethnic Hungarians, formed the minority in Magyarország, the country that bore their name.

The Hungary (or alternatively 'Transleithania') of the composer's early years was heterogeneous in terms of the racial origins of its inhabitants, and in 1890 the Magyars formed just 42.8 per cent of a population approaching twenty million. Romanians, Germans, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs, Ruthenians, Jews and Gypsies coexisted as the majority in a state that to at least some degree repressed and penalised them for their non-Magyar ethnicity. Jürg Hoensch has argued that the policy of Magyarisation adopted after the Ausgleich (or 'compromise') of 1867 effectively denied them full citizenship, for 'only Hungarian citizens "of a separate mother tongue" were formally recognised and nominally accorded equal civic rights, the unrestricted use of their native language in the lower levels of the administration, the judicial system, and elementary and secondary schools'. In order to promote political integration, the primary language required to be taught in schools at every level was Hungarian, and schools serving the non-Magyar communities had to demonstrate their ability to teach in Hungarian or face the threat of closure. Social and political advancement was thus dependent upon assimilation.

The process of integration of some non-Magyars appears to have been rather more spontaneous than some earlier historians have suggested. Géza Jeszenszky remarks that it was 'due to economic transformation, urbanization and "embourgeoisement"', resulting from 'the demands of society, the interests of the individual, and internal migration' rather than as a consequence of coercion. For parts of the population assimilation was initially relatively unproblematic. In particular Jews, who had been emancipated in 1849 and 1867, rapidly adopted both the Hungarian language and the national ideals of the gentry. Many were absorbed into the developing urban middle classes as doctors, lawyers, bankers and merchants, and by 1910 they formed around 25 per cent of the population of Budapest. Although the government policy was actively to encourage integration and oppose anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish feeling was openly exhibited. As Iván Berend and György Ránki note:

on this fertile ground of the antithesis of agriculture and industry, of countryside and town, of rural and urban values, nationalism flourished. It fed on hatred of aliens, both insiders and outsiders, and was conjoined to a kind of conservative, romantic anti-capitalism.

Other ethnic groups, especially the Romanian peasantry of Transylvania (a region ceded to Hungary in 1867 as a result of the Ausgleich), regarded Magyarisation as a much greater threat. Demands increased for the restoration of the autonomy of the Transylvanian principality, either as a constituent of a federal 'Greater Austria' or in union with the kingdom of Romania (which had been part of the Ottoman Empire until 1878). These were fuelled in the first decade of the twentieth century by irredentist Romanian popular politicians who 'were openly proclaiming the annexation of Transylvania as the supreme object of the nation's policy'.

Nagyszentmiklós held a liminal position, sitting almost exactly on what would become the border between Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia after the post-war Treaty of Trianon of 1920. To the west and north, the population was predominantly Magyar, to the east, Romanian, and to the south, Serbian (Slavic), though with a very substantial pocket of ethnic Germans. This latter group, descendants in the main of the so-called Schwabenzug (the waves of German immigrants who arrived from many parts of Europe after 1723), tended to occupy a section of the town known as Németszentmiklós (German St Nicholas). Citizens of Nagyszentmiklós would naturally have been fully aware of issues of racial, ethnic and linguistic difference, but in the context of largely peaceful coexistence within county, kingdom and empire (Fig. 1).

The Bartók family name derives from Bartalan or Bertalan, the Hungarian form of Bartholomew, and the composer's ancestry can be traced over the previous five generations from the far north to the deep south of the country. His paternal great-great-grandfather, Gergely (or Gregorius, c. 1740–1825), was apparently a man of modest means – Tibor Tallián describes him as a serf – and he lived in the village of Borsodszirák, close to Miskolc in northern Hungary. Despite his poverty, as Denijs Dille notes, the fact that Gergely could count on a notary, a cantor (or precentor) and organist, and a priest among his three sons who survived infancy, suggests that he was likely to have been a man of at least some educational attainment.

János (1785–1876), the eldest son of Gergely and his wife Mária (née Gondos, c. 1753–1820), was an adventurous youth. According to family lore, he left home when he was only eleven or twelve years old, and was present at the Battle of Gyor on 14 June 1809, when Napoleon's troops roundly defeated the Austro-Hungarian forces. By 1822 János seems to have been employed as a notary in Magyarcsernye (now Nova Crnja in Serbia), clearly an achievement of note if he did come from such a humble background. Having survived into his nineties, he died in the town of Nagybecskerek, three hundred kilometres to the south. Baron József Eötvös de Vásárosnamény's three-volume novel, The Village Notary: A Romance of Hungarian Life, both describes the nature and significance of the notary in public life and elucidates the complex social hierarchy of the time. An endnote from the first volume outlines the latter aspect:

We will take this opportunity to say a few words about the terms 'nobleman' and 'peasant', which frequently occur in The Village Notary, and indeed in most Hungarian works. The term nobleman, in the general Hungarian acceptation, means neither more nor less than a freeman; and the peasant, as the unprivileged class of the population, may be said to be in a state of villanage. The privileges of the Hungarian constitution, namely, liberty of speech, freedom from unwarranted arrest, the privilege of not being subjected to corporal punishment, the right to elect their own magistrates, and a variety of similar immunities, are, in all the charters, described in terms which for a long time caused them to be confined to the ancient conquerors of the country, or to those persons who obtained the freedom of Hungary by a grant of royal letters patent.

The rest of the community, the Jews, Razen [Serbs], gipsies, Russniaks [Ukrainians], and other tribes, are mentioned as 'hospites', guests or strangers, who have no political rights. Whether bound to the soil, like the peasants, or migratory like the Jews and gipsies, the 'hospites' were alike unprotected by law and at the mercy of all the whims, neglects, and cruelties of a legislature, which bears traces at once of the Turkish neighbours and the pedantic vindictiveness of the Hapsburgs. It was to break the yoke that for many centuries weighed down upon the unfortunate 'villains' and 'aliens' that the Reform party exerted itself against the Hungarian Conservatives and the Court of Vienna.

Both János Bartók's son, who was also called János (1816–1877), and his grandson, Béla (1855–1888), were educators by profession and were the headmasters of the Magyar Királyi Földmuves Iskola (Royal Hungarian Agricultural School) in Nagyszentmiklós. This school was established in 1800 by the local aristocrat Kristóf Nákó (or Nacu) to serve the needs of the peasants on his estate. The era during which Bartók's father and grandfather served as headmasters of the agricultural school was a significant one. In 1868 the reformist minister József Eötvös (author of The Village Notary) had introduced an Elementary Education Act that profoundly affected both the delivery of education and its impact on the ethnic minorities in Hungary. As Pál Body notes, 'This law assured organizational autonomy and self-government to all churches, associations, and school systems, with particular guarantees of freedom of choice in the language of instruction and religious education. The law also authorized townships to establish tax-supported public schools, where all children would receive instruction in their native language.' Statistics published in 1876, in The Year-Book of Education for 1878, record overall literacy rates of 74 per cent for school leavers across the Hungarian system, some indication of the effectiveness of the government's policy.

What kind of institution, then, was the Magyar Királyi Földmuves Iskola in Nagyszentmiklós? Lajos Lesznai describes the composer's grandfather János rather grandly as 'Professor of Economics', whereas for Tallián, both his father (Béla) and his grandfather were the headmasters of 'a college for local Swabian peasant boys having completed, according to the rules, four forms of elementary school, but who, for the most part, had finished only two. The headmaster supervised twelve resident pupils in a central building some three kilometres from the village.' Writing in 1902, Alexander Vörös, the director of the Agricultural Academy in Magyaróvár, notes that such farming or tillage schools were intended to 'educate the sons of small farmers and peasants in a way which will enable them to make a living as managers of small farms, or as foremen and head-labourers on large estates. The course of these schools is of two years duration and of an entirely practical character.'

Béla was the seventh of eleven children born to János and his wife Matild (née Ronkovics); Dille was not able to trace her date of birth accurately – it may have been 1825 or 1828 – but she is attested to have died in January 1885, when the composer was three. It is quite possible, as Dille notes, that it was from his grandmother Matild that Bartók inherited his slight build as well as a familial peculiarity of the hand that has been labelled 'la main Bartók-Ronkovics'. This involves an average-sized hand having index, middle and ring fingers of almost equal length. From the paternal side of the family he seems to have inherited a thumb that he could stretch an unusually large distance from his palm.

Béla senior's secondary education was at the Piarist high school in Budapest and the Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca) reáliskola (real school) 240 kilometres northeast of Nagyszentmiklós, and he studied for a year at the Agricultural Academy of Mosonmagyaróvár (near Gyor, to the south of Pozsony). Two photographs present him as apparently somewhat distant and intense respectively. In the first he has his right hand thrust into his jacket in a vaguely Napoleonic pose, while he rests his head on his left hand and exhibits a rather glazed expression; in the second, a three-quarter profile, his arms are folded on the back of a chair, his left hand lightly grasping his coat sleeve, and the body language suggests some unease. It is unwise, however, to draw too subtle a psychological reading from these portraits, for they are carefully staged and reveal the standard ploys of photographers of the day to avoid the blurring that resulted from movement during the relatively long exposures required. Certainly, though, a very clear physical likeness between Béla senior and his son is evident.

Dille remarks of the composer's father that:

With lively manners, he had a typically Hungarian character: passionate, very cheerful, enjoying luxury and the good life, dancing and the distractions of company, always very neat in his appearance, dressing with taste and in a distinguished style (apparently a characteristic of the Ronkovics); he was spoken of as being 'all collar and cuffs', in the family. All in all, he was a gentleman such as was found in the middle class of the time.

Despite, or indeed perhaps because of, his seemingly humble antecedents, Béla senior claimed ancestry from the Hungarian gentry that formed nearly 5 per cent of the population towards the end of the nineteenth century. This group sat in the middle of the highly stratified social pyramid which had at its top the nobility and at the bottom the agrarian proletariat, but with an extraordinary degree of granularity that included land-owning nobility, the haute bourgeoisie, the rich middle class, the gentry, lesser artisans, land-owning peasants and agricultural workers. His position as a significant local figure may have encouraged Béla senior to feel that he needed to be able to demonstrate a rather more fitting social status, and the title he adopted was Szuhafoi (indicating 'of Szuhafo', associated with the village of the same name, around twenty kilometres to the north-west of Borsodszirák). Although the composer apparently assumed the same title in his youth and would later encourage his own eldest son Béla to undertake genealogical research to verify it (even making use of it as late as 1923 in his marriage to Ditta Pásztory), there seems to have been no justifiable basis for it.

The composer's mother, Paula Voit, was born on 16 January 1857 in Turócszentmárton in Turóc County (now Martin in Slovakia), some 200 kilometres north-east of Pozsony (Bratislava). She was the eighth of ten children born to Moritz Voit (1818–1873) and his wife Terézia (née Polereczky, 1821–1873), who were of German stock. Both her parents had died by the time Paula was sixteen, leaving her to look after herself as a young woman. She trained as a teacher at the Pozsony Teacher Training College, developing as a reasonably proficient pianist, albeit one who does not seem to have particularly relished the public stage. She undoubtedly placed a very strong emphasis on personal integrity and modesty, characteristics she would instil in her children and grandchildren. The composer's youngest son, Péter, writes of his grandmother being responsible for his father's development 'both as a musician and a man of certain principles', and he remembers how she invented an impossibly saintly imaginary child to act as a role model for him while he was growing up.

After graduating, Paula took up a teaching post in Nagyszentmiklós in 1876, having been invited to the town by a local dignitary called Adolf Kós. Her move to the south of Hungary was strongly influenced by the presence there of her brother Lajos, who was the steward on the estate of Count Géza Wenckheim in nearby Csorvás. (Lajos had befriended Wenckheim when they were both students at the agricultural school in Mosonmagyaróvár.) Béla Bartók senior took over as the director of the agricultural school when his father died in 1877, assuming at the age of just twenty-two the financial responsibility for his mother and his siblings. He met Paula as a result of the piano lessons she gave to his sisters and the pair married on 5 April 1880. Béla, their first child, was born on Friday, 25 March in the following year.

Béla senior took up the cello and organized an amateur band of his social peers, directed by a local Gypsy musician, to play dance music. There is little objective evidence to suggest that he exhibited any great prowess as a musician, and when he died his son was still rather too young to have been able to form a particularly sophisticated judgement of his ability. However, it seems that in retrospect his father's musical tendencies took on significance for Béla junior and in an autobiographical note written in 1921 he would remark that:

My father, the director of an agricultural school, demonstrated quite considerable musical talent; he played the piano, organized an amateur orchestra, learnt the cello, so that he could perform in it as a cellist, and even tried his hand at composing dance pieces.


Excerpted from Béla Bartók by David Cooper. Copyright © 2015 David Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, viii,
Preface, xi,
1 'Sweet was my mother's milk': 1881–1902, 1,
2 'Now I came from the battlefield': 1903–1904, 22,
3 'Two roads are before me': 1905–1906, 43,
4 'Because my love has forsaken me': 1907–1909, 74,
5 'Crossing the borders of Transylvania': 1910–1913, 98,
6 'To plough in winter is hard work': 1914–1918, 131,
7 'The time to rove has come': 1919–1925, 167,
8 'The forest rustles, the fields rustle': 1925–1928, 207,
9 'The wreath is wound around me': 1929–1935, 237,
10 'Stars, stars, brightly shine': 1936–1938, 276,
11 'From here is seen the graveyard's border': 1939–1942, 309,
12 'I see the beautiful sky': 1942–1945, 345,
Postlude, 375,
List of Works, 382,
Notes, 392,
Bibliography, 410,
Index, 417,

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