Singing the Universe Tragic: The Life and Music of Béla Bartók

Dale DeBakcsy

When it comes to classical music, it’s hard to swing a dead Bach progeny without running into a sacred motet, a Magnificat, a Mass, or a Requiem. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Reformation, the greatest composers were firmly harnessed to the task of employing the massive machinery of compositional technique to extol the greatness of whatever version of the Judeo-Christian god was in at the moment. As such, classical music got spectacularly good at portraying things such as grandeur, radiance, wrath, and a submissive fawning over the purported attributes of God made just tolerable by being in lovely four-part counterpoint.

What classical music was not working on during this time was the thorny problem of crafting soundscapes that communicate the complicated realities of brute existence. What does the fragile absurdity of a mortal being sound like, once stripped of its divine pretensions? How does a composer make a quartet or concerto that makes you simultaneously terrified of the scope of the cold universe and weep over the beauty of your short time within the small slice of it where sentience is temporarily possible?

There were inroads to this problem in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and I would particularly recommend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) as a philosophical freethinker who brought secularism squarely to the center of his compositional technique, but for me the challenge gets its first thorough-going solution in the music of the avowed atheist and foundational modernist composer Béla Bartók (1881–1945).

His life was not a happy one. For most of his time on Earth, his music was rarely played and even more rarely critically acclaimed. His health was terrible, and he often struggled to keep his weight above ninety-five pounds. He lived to see his beloved homeland of Hungary dismembered in the aftermath of the First World War and debased by Nazism in the Second. And he died in self-imposed exile in America after five years of lean living and uncertain employment in a land he did not understand.

Hailed as a pianist, he struggled to gain recognition for his compositions and his sweeping ethnomusicological studies. Today, the opposite situation holds—his piano recordings persist, but more as historical curiosities than must-have interpretations of the classical canon, while his compositions are performed everywhere, and their micro-analysis has become its own academic subdiscipline. A Hungarian musician growing up in the late nineteenth century, he experienced the palpable hegemony of German culture—Richard Wagner was in the ascendant and Richard Strauss was pushing the sonic frontiers of the orchestra, while Hungary’s recently deceased megastar, Ferenc Liszt, was essentially a Wagnerian who had added Romani embellishments here and there when the mood took him.

Bartók’s challenge was to thrust Hungary out from under Germany’s long shadow. He struck out for the Hungarian countryside to stay with the peasants and record their traditional songs, and in doing so he discovered a tonal richness that could generate an entirely new approach to melodic and harmonic construction. The majority of Western music since the eighteenth century has been in one of two modes, which we refer to as major (a generally happy and triumphant scale with its half-steps after the third and seventh notes of the scale) and minor (for those times when you’re feeling angry or depressed, which has its half steps on the second and fifth notes). Once upon a time, we used a rich plethora of different modes and scales, but whether because of the binary nature of the Church’s evocative palette or the limited ear of post-Restoration aristocratic patrons, by the time of the high Classical era, we had whittled our way down to two.

Bartók, however, was beholden to neither Church nor aristocracy, and when he came across the music of the peasantry, untouched by their dictates across millennia, it was a revelation of the music that might have been had we not restricted ourselves to the major-minor dictates of the cathedral and the royal ball. What was more, because these peasant songs were generally one-voice melodies, it freed Bartók to experiment with new theories of harmony to underpin the melodic content. Since nobody had written classical music in the Dorian mode (half steps on the second and sixth notes) in centuries, Bartók was free to create whatever harmonies he wanted to accompany the new melodic sound.

Simultaneous with his discovery of rich new tonal soundscapes was a journey of philosophical self-discovery that led Bartók by the age of twenty-two to a through-and-through atheism that was to stay with him the rest of his life. Raised as a Catholic, the divinity lessons of his teenage years exposed him to the narrow mindset of the Church. Its obsession with detailed punishment schemes for doctrinal disobedience contrasted starkly with its unsophisticated stances on matters of importance, and at age eighteen Bartók started wading tenuously into the literature of freethought. Soon the scales fell from his eyes, so to speak. He came to think of organized religion as a cruel patchwork of wishful thinking and divinely sanctioned cruelty.

A newly minted unbeliever in the Church, he subscribed to the finitude of human existence and of human civilization generally. He held that our lives terminate at death, and even the echoes of us that might remain in our work are up against the ultimate extinguishing of the cosmos by brute physical laws. There is no immortality of soul or of one’s life’s work, just a future of death and void to which you must reconcile yourself as best you can.

Bartók’s reconciliation came through his work, to which he devoted himself with an intellectual intensity at odds with his frail physical being. When the political situation allowed, he traveled through Hungary hunting for new songs and extended his journeys to other Slavic nations and to the Arabic music traditions of North Africa, where he discovered new rhythmic elements that he would combine with his new theories of melody to produce an East-West fusion of new modes, new harmonies, and a new use of the piano as a primarily percussive instrument that would infuse his later works.

Those works, though hailed by the few audiences who had a chance to hear them, were denigrated by the musical critical establishment as unlistenable, jagged aberrations that forsook the lush orchestrations of the Western tradition for something jeering and soulless. Listening today, we can hear what contemporary critics were not willing to entertain—a music that challenges the listener to push oneself out of the simple tonal satisfactions of the religious and aristocratic past and to feel things that classical music had not previously attempted to make an audience feel.

For Bartók, life was ridiculous and terrifyingly small, and the people who partook of it were unerringly comic in their pretensions but tragic in their limitations. His music spoke to these new philosophical realities. The violent percussive struts of the first and second piano concerti’s opening movements, the earthy old-world frankness of the folk song settings, the human grief of the Sixth String Quartet’s final movement, the sprightly off-kilter reel of the Hungarian Sketch titled “A Bit Drunk”—in sum, they speak to a world of people living their slightly absurd lives, an absurdity made almost noble in its pressing insistence of its own importance and bitter in its inevitable termination.

Daft swagger and deliberate irritation, wafting drunkenness and reflective mourning, these are the slices of modern humanity that Bartók rendered in sound. They are renderings we usually associate with Prokofiev or Shostakovich, who employed the militaristic pomposities of Soviet state music to drive home the point of man’s grotesque capacity for inhumanity, but Bartók’s persistent isolation stamped his compositions with a set of concerns unique to him. As his works were rarely performed, he wasn’t limited by the demands of genre composition and so could work out his theoretic problems guided by nothing so much as his own philosophical directives. His 1911 opera Bluebeard’s Castle is essentially an hour of a woman opening seven doors. The second movement of his first piano concerto opens with three minutes of the piano and percussion section gesturing haltingly back and forth to each other, which was only the tip of Bartók’s use of unconventional instrumental combinations. The fifth movement of his fifth string quartet stops in the middle of a manic whirring flurry of motion to play a simple melody on the second violin, only to have the first violin join in to play the same melody overtop but a teeth-shattering half step higher, resulting in a delightfully horrible moment of musical history.

For somebody whose music is routinely described as impersonal, objective, and analytic, there are an awful lot of these decidedly Bartókian moments of personality, and I suspect they are part of the reason we continue returning to Bartók with more relish and anticipation than we do the technical lyricism of a Schoenberg or the micro-controlled innovations of a Stockhausen. Bartók can set your hair on end, break your heart, and then make wicked fun of your hopes and dreams all within the same movement, all while providing you with the sonic vocabulary of our modern secular existence. Through Bartók, we have some idea of what the trivial-heroic end of the human story might sound like, and in hearing it, maybe he has made it at last less fearful a thing to face.

Further Reading and Listening

In terms of a single, relatively untechnical accounting of Bartók’s life and work, Halsey Stevens’s Life and Music of Béla Bartók is a classic, while those wanting to dig a bit deeper into the musical nuts and bolts of how Bartók did what he did might find The Bartók Compendium, edited by Malcolm Gillies, precisely the thing to scratch that particular musico-historical itch. In terms of essential recordings, the String Quartets, Piano Concerti, and Concerto for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta are as good a place as any to start!

Dale DeBakcsy

Dale DeBakcsy is the author of The Cartoon History of Humanism, Volume One (The Humanist Press, 2016). He is a frequent contributor to FI’s Great Minds column and also writes the weekly Women in Science series at WomenYouShouldKnow.net.


When it comes to classical music, it’s hard to swing a dead Bach progeny without running into a sacred motet, a Magnificat, a Mass, or a Requiem. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Reformation, the greatest composers were firmly harnessed to the task of employing the massive machinery of compositional technique to extol the …

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