On this day in 1881, the great composer Bela Bartok was born. When I a music major in college, a lot of people were really into Bartok. I never got it. It always seemed to me that there were more interesting modern composers like Elliott Carter. But now I get it. Bartok is kind of like Schoenberg without the rigidity. He didn’t worry about traditional tonality. But he wasn’t out to protest it either. And as a result, his music is surprisingly melodic. And it has wonderfully complex but non-traditional harmonies and classical counterpoint.
To me, most of his music sounds distinction impressionistic. But while people like Debussy were very modal in their music, Bartok went his own way. As a result, one doesn’t really hear people who sound like him. His is work is idiosyncratic. I found the following very interesting quote from Milton Babbitt, “Bartok’s solution was a specific one, it cannot be duplicated.” He meant this as an insult, but I think it is the greatest compliment. Bartok’s work was very different from one composition to another. Why should he write the same thing over and over again? He was a composer, not a theorist.
To get a good idea of what Bartok is all about, you should really listen to his Second Violin Concerto. But it is difficult. So here is the much easier Concerto For Orchestra, which was one of the last things he ever wrote:
Happy birthday Bela Bartok!