It is good to get away from the famous names to explore the lesser known names of classical music. Even better when they draw on traditional folk melodies of their homeland so here is a selection from the Hungarian Béla Bartók.
Béla Bartók was born in the Hungarian town of Nagyszentmiklós (now Sînnicolau Mare in Romania) on 25 March 1881, and received his first instruction in music from his mother, a very capable pianist; his father, the headmaster of a local school, was also musical.
Bartók’s earliest compositions offer a blend of late Romanticism and nationalist elements, formed under the influences of Wagner, Brahms, Liszt and Strauss, and resulting in works such as Kossuth, an expansive symphonic poem written when he was 23.
Around 1905 his friend and fellow-composer Zoltán Kodály directed his attention to Hungarian folk music and, coupled with his discovery of the music of Debussy, Bartók’s musical language changed dramatically: it acquired greater focus and purpose. But as he absorbed more and more of the spirit of Hungarian folk songs and dances, his own music grew tighter, more concentrated, chromatic and dissonant – and although a sense of key is sometimes lost in individual passages, Bartók never espoused atonality as a compositional technique.
His interest in folk music was not merely passive: Bartók was an assiduous ethnomusicologist, his first systematic collecting trips in Hungary being undertaken with Kodály, and in 1906 they published a volume of the songs they had collected. Thereafter Bartók’s involvement grew deeper and his scope wider, encompassing a number of ethnic traditions both near at hand and further afield: Transylvanian, Romanian, North African and others. Bartók died from polycythemia (a form of leukemia) on 26 September 1945 in New York.
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