b. Sînnicolau Mare, Hungary, 25 March 1881; d. New York, 26 September 1945
Hungary’s leading composer of the early 20th century, Bartók wrote just one opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, but it survives not only as one of the very few Hungarian operas to have achieved international fame but as one of the 20th century’s most powerful and intensely concentrated works of music-theatre.
Although a Hungarian national opera had been established by Ferenc Erkel in the middle of the 19th century, Bartók was not encouraged to study Hungarian music while studying at the Budapest Academy, but was instead steered firmly towards the German classics. As a young man, he was a fervent admirer of Brahms and Wagner, and almost all his early works reflect the central European tradition, with the influence of Richard Strauss especially prominent.
Then in 1905 Bartók began his systematic exploration of Hungarian folk music, and his detailed field research inspired him to cultivate a musical style in which Magyar song was treated not as an atmospheric device but as raw material. This idea was central to all his subsequent works but the first, and for many the most impressive, example of his conception of Hungarian musical nationalism was Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.
Bartók entered Duke Bluebeard’s Castle for a competition shortly after its completion in 1911 but it was rejected as unperformable. Even with revisions it had to wait until 1918 for its first performance – in a double bill with his ballet The Wooden Prince, premiered the previous year. The opera received no further Hungarian performances for nearly 20 years because the writings of Bartók’s librettist, Béla Balázs, were prohibited by the reactionary Horthy regime and Bartók would not agree to performances if Balázs was denied credit for his libretto.
Not surprisingly, Bartók’s enthusiasm for opera was rather dampened by these experiences, and he wrote just one more theatre piece, the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (1918–19). Béla Balázs tried, at various times, to interest him in other operatic projects but Bartók henceforth concentrated almost exclusively on orchestral and instrumental music, and indeed vocal writing constitutes a very small fraction of his output.
In 1940 Bartók fled fascist-overrun Europe for the USA, where his music was sadly under-appreciated and his health rapidly began to fail. Thanks to a grant from the Koussevitzky Foundation, he was able to complete his most popular concert work, the Concerto for Orchestra, but his Viola Concerto was left unfinished at his death, from leukaemia, in 1945.
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