Bela Bartok’s Music: Mystery and Visceral Excitement

Hungarian composer Béla Bartók in 1927.(Photo: unknown)
Hungarian composer Béla Bartók in 1927.(Photo: unknown)

Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was born on this date in 1881 and died in 1945. He wrote some of the most viscerally exciting music of the 20th Century.

His most popular work, written near the end of his life in 1943, is the virtuosic Concerto for Orchestra, and there are numerous other significant works.

His six string quartets are considered a ground-breaking and important musical development in the 20th Century – what Joseph Haydn’s were in the 18th Century and Ludwig van Beethoven’s were in the 19th century.

The string quartets are powerful, strange, mysterious and visceral in their intensity and utilize new techniques to extend the traditional range of sounds for this genre.

This reflects, perhaps, the inner experience of this nationalist inspired composer at a time of turbulent political and social change in his country, when his homeland was splintered after World War I.

It was Bartok’s interest in folk and gypsy music that transcended the more artificial new boundaries that were created by the political realities. Hard-driving at times and mysterious and eerie at others, with unusual sounds of bow sticks striking the instruments and long glissandos, Bartok’s quartets take us to a strange world of sounds expressing struggles, fears and, at times, peace.

String Quartet No. 4

Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4, a five movement work, has striking energy and rhythmic drive in the outer movements and a mysterious central one.

The finale is ferocious:

The sheer physical energy of this music brought to mind music of more recent vintage, also affected by turbulent social upheaval.

Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze from 1967, when performed more recently by the Kronos Quartet in their famous arrangement, reminded me quite a bit of the last movement of Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet:

If you’re game to plunge into the more mysterious parts of Bartok’s Fourth Quartet, here are the 3rd and 4th movements:

Bela Bartok, a fascinating composer of his time, and ours.

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