Muzica Obscur: Bela Bartok

There is a lot of unique and creative music out there that could inspire new ideas and concepts. It’s good to listen to music that is challenging and unusual in order to open up possibilities with your playing.  Today’s Obscure Music comes from Bela Bartok.

I’ve been listening to some of the more obscure Bartok works lately.  Below is a brief bio followed by a few examples.  Don’t underestimate the value of listening to music outside of your orbit.  It will stimulate some new connections.

Béla Viktor János Bartók (pron.: /ˈbɑrtɒk/; Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈbeːlɒ ˈbɒrtoːk]; March 25, 1881 – September 26, 1945) was a Hungarian composer and pianist. He is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century and is regarded, along with Liszt, as Hungary’s greatest composer (Gillies 2001).

Bartók’s music reflects two trends that dramatically changed the sound of music in the 20th century: the breakdown of the diatonic system of harmony that had served composers for the previous two hundred years (Griffiths 1978, 7); and the revival of nationalism as a source for musical inspiration, a trend that began with Mikhail Glinka and Antonín Dvořák in the last half of the 19th century (Einstein 1947, 332). In his search for new forms of tonality, Bartók turned to Hungarian folk music, as well as to other folk music of the Carpathian Basin and even of Algeria and Turkey; in so doing he became influential in that stream of modernism which exploited indigenous music and techniques (Botstein [n.d.], §6).


Divertimento for String Orchestra Sz.113 BB.118 is a three-movement work composed by Béla Bartók in 1939, scored for full orchestral strings. Paul Sacher, a Swiss conductor, patron, impresario, and the founder of the Basel Chamber Orchestra (Basler Kammerorchester), commissioned Bartók to compose the Divertimento, which is now known to be the pair’s last collaborative work.[1]

The term “Divertimento” (Italian) denotes a work primarily designed for the entertainment of both the listeners and the performers. The divertimento was popularized in the Classical period by Haydn, Boccherini, and Mozart. This is a neo-classical work constructed around modal tonalities, but it cannot simply be defined as a modernist work or a strictly neoclassical work. One of the most evident neoclassical characteristics is the treatment of texture. Frequently, a small group of soloists contrasts the whole orchestra, greatly varying the work’s texture. This is reminiscent of the Baroque genre of the Concerto Grosso, where a small group of soloists, the concertino, was contrasted and accompanied by the tutti orchestra, or the ripieno. While baroque tonality comes within reach, the work is for the most part tonally modernistic. Dynamically, the work features sharp contrasts. The work also utilizes the fugal elements of imitation, fugato, and contains a three voice fugue.[2]


The String Quartet No. 3 by Béla Bartók was written in September 1926 in Budapest.

The work is in one continuous stretch with no breaks, but is divided in the score into four parts:

  1. Prima parte: Moderato
  2. Seconda parte: Allegro
  3. Recapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato
  4. Coda: Allegro molto

Despite Bartók calling the third section a “recapitulation” it is not a straight repetition of the music from the prima parte, being somewhat varied and simplified. Although not marked as such, the coda is in fact a telescoped recapitulation of the seconda parte.

The mood of the first part is quite bleak, contrasting with the second part which is livelier and provides evidence of the inspiration Bartók’s drew from Hungarian folk music, with dance-like melodies to the fore.

The work is even more harmonically adventurous and contrapuntally complex than Bartók’s previous two string quartets and explores a number of extended instrumental techniques, including sul ponticello (playing with the bow as close as possible to the bridge), col legno (playing with the wood rather than the hair of the bow), glissandi (sliding from one note to another) and the so-called Bartók pizzicato (plucking the string so that it rebounds against the instrument’s fingerboard).

It has often been suggested that Bartók was inspired to write the piece after hearing a performance of Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite (1926) in 1927. The piece is widely considered to be the most tightly constructed of Bartók’s six string quartets, the whole deriving from a relatively small amount of thematic material integrated into a single continuous structure. It is also Bartók’s shortest quartet, with a typical performance lasting around fifteen minutes.

The work is dedicated to the Musical Society Fund of Philadelphia and was entered into an international competition for chamber music run by the organisation. It won the $6,000 first prize jointly with a work by Alfredo Casella. The piece was premiered on February 19, 1929 by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet.