Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartók (1881-1945) is best known for his use of Hungarian folk music to create a distinct individual style.
The folk music of Hungary was central to the music of Béla Bartók. He was not the first composer to make use of this music (we can see it as far back as Haydn), but he was one of the first to take it at face value, and to exploit its idiosyncrasies. More important, he integrated it fully into his own style, so much so that one of his biographers talks about Bartók's music as "imaginary folk music"—music that is wholly his own, yet of a piece with the folk music that was its inspiration.
Bartók was born into a musical family and received good pianistic training from his mother. He was something of a prodigy, and began composing at the age of ten. In 1898 he was accepted at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory, but chose instead to stay in Hungary at the Budapest Academy. His early work was influenced greatly by Strauss and Liszt, but his first major work, the symphonic Kossuth (1903), also stands out for its telling of a nationalist story.
In 1904 Bartók began collecting folk music by recording musicians on wax cylinders. This had a profound impact on his compositional style, for in these pieces he found elements that he began to incorporate into his own writing. The melodies of these folk tunes, removed from the traditional major/minor tonality of Western music, provided new melodic and harmonic resources, and the powerful and often asymmetrical rhythms (often freely mixing groupings of twos and threes) became a hallmark of Bartók's rhythmic style.
In 1907 Bartók was appointed professor of piano at the Budapest Academy and he continued his compositional activity, creating works of greater complexity. By the early 1920s his music was verging on an atonal style. He gained international success with a less challenging work, The Wooden Prince (1917), and by the late 1920s his music started to take on more of a neoclassical approach.
The crises leading up to World War II forced Bartók to flee Hungary and settle in the United States. The move caused both financial and personal difficulties, and failing health heightened these. Nonetheless, in his final few years he created a group of important pieces, including the Concerto for Orchestra.
Bartók's music is marked by its precision of execution. His forms (especially in his later works) are intensely symmetrical. Often they create an arch or palindrome (ABACABA, for example). He also exploited different sonorities and instrumental effects, including an antiphonal orchestra in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). His tonal language continued to be colored by his work with folk music, and in some cases he made use of quarter tones. Although Bartók wrote in all mediums, he may well be best remembered for his six string quartets. These works, a summation of his compositional style and development are often viewed as the logical successors to those of Beethoven.