Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto: A Radiant Farewell Gift

Béla Bartók composed the Third Piano Concerto during the summer of 1945. He was in the final months of his life, battling terminal leukemia and financial hardship. The music which emerged can be heard as a radiant musical “farewell” at a time of personal darkness and defeat. Five years earlier, Bartók and his wife, Ditta Pásztory, fled their native war-torn Hungary and emigrated to the United States. For a while, Bartók found …

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Bartók’s Suite, Op. 14: The Percussive Piano

The piano music of Béla Bartók is filled with the hard edges and exhilarating, swirling motion of Eastern European peasant dances. It strips away Romantic embellishment in favor of something more direct, austere, earthy, and primal. The piano, with its hammer-striking mechanism, becomes a full-fledged percussion instrument. All of this can be heard in Bartók’s solo piano Suite, Op. 14, composed in 1916. In a 1944 radio interview, Bartók said, When this work …

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Bartók’s “Out of Doors”: Ancient Rustic Sounds

The vibrant hum of nature blends with distant, ghostly echoes from ancient Hungarian villages in Béla Bartók’s Out of Doors (Szabadban). Written in 1926, the work is a collection of five brief and atmospheric pieces for solo piano. Taken together, the movements unfold in a symmetrical arch form, a structure Bartók used in multiple pieces, including the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets, Concerto for Orchestra, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and the Second Piano Concerto. Bartók …

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Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto: A Musical Farewell to Hungary

Béla Bartók completed his Second Violin Concerto in 1938 as the storm clouds of fascism gathered in his native Hungary. That year, he wrote to a friend in Switzerland, What is most appalling is the imminent danger that Hungary too will surrender to this system of robbers and murderers… Hungary, where unfortunately the ‘educated’ Christian people are almost exclusively devoted to the Nazi system. I am really ashamed that I come from …

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Five Examples of Bartók’s “Night Music”

Strange, haunting, nocturnal sounds emerge throughout the music of twentieth century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. These passages, which are known as “Night music,” evoke the hum of insects and other distant murmurs we might hear in a lonely field on a summer night. Bartók held a spiritual reverence for “Nature, Art, and Science.” But the “Night music” doesn’t offer the kind of poetic tone painting we hear in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Instead, these moments contain something more vague and terrifying. They surround …

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Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta”: A Haunting Symmetry

From an intricately woven spider web, to the crystalline perfection of a snowflake, to the proportions of a sea shell, nature is filled with logical structures, pleasing mathematical ratios, and stunning symmetries. In the natural world, there is a sense that it could only be as it is. Nothing is wasted. The closer you look, the more you become aware of an infinite and awe-inspiring underlying order. Listening to Béla Bartók’s ghostly Music for …

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“Concerto for Orchestra”: Bartok’s Triumphant Swan Song

In the autumn of 1943, Béla Bartók was in deep physical, emotional, and financial distress. With the rise of the Nazis, Bartók had been forced to flee his native Hungary and settle in the United States, leaving behind friends, as well as royalties and other sources of income. He was hospitalized for an undetermined illness. (The illness, eventually diagnosed as leukemia, would take his life two years later). His compositional career seemingly on the …

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