Help me learn to love Bartok

Edited: January 23, 2018, 8:38 AM · I just started my Masters on viola. Up until now I have avoided such pieces as the Hyndemith and Bartok concertos mainly for the fact that I don’t enjoy the music. I feel like it has no direction and no story being told. Walton viola concerto is not as bad but I absolutely love the Forsyth viola concerto. I know I cannot avoid it for much longer and can see having to finally dig into Bartok concerto soon.

I need some help wrapping my head around the detail of this sort of thing. Is there something you would recommend reading or noticing about the music?

Replies (33)

Edited: January 22, 2018, 11:36 AM · How much Bartok have you listened to? Are you familiar with the quartets, the concerto for orchestra, the violin duets? It might be helpful if you expose yourself to Bartok's music in general, but especially his string music. For the viola concerto specifically, it might be helpful when looking at the overall piece to remember that however modern Bartok was as a composer, he generally relied upon the sonata form and contrapuntal methods and was a big fan of Debussy. He also primarily thought of himself as a researcher of eastern European and Mediterranean folk music, which was a great influence on his choice of melodic material.

I know that a lot of Bartok's music seems to be almost randomly constructed, but there is a logic to the development of the motives and the way Bartok used variations. Antokoletz's book might give some insight, but it's pretty heavy theory and more aimed at analysis for composers, I think.

January 22, 2018, 11:40 AM · Listen to the violin duets, they´re a good start. Then you should listen some quartets. I think bartok it´s a really good start for listening of modern music and I love it!
January 22, 2018, 11:49 AM · A good accessible piece by Bartok that I think is quite enjoyable to those who aren’t overly excited about 20th Century music are the Romanian Folk Dances for violin and piano.
January 22, 2018, 12:12 PM · I was just going to suggest that. There are violin duet versions of his Romanian Folk Dances.
January 22, 2018, 12:33 PM · That's a great suggestion. A little more modern than the Romanian Folk Dances is "Contrasts," a short 3-mvt piece written for Benny Goodman and Josef Szigeti, which is sort of like sideways jazz.

For the OP, it also might be helpful when thinking about the viola concerto to imagine it being written under the influence of Beethoven's late works. A bit thorny, not always easy to embrace.

January 22, 2018, 12:56 PM · The Divertimento for Strings is cool, as is the Concerto for Orchestra, and of course Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste. There's a lot of good music from him. I use to feel the same way about Brahms. I hated him, but I found a logical order to listen to his music and I eventually acquired a taste for it.
January 22, 2018, 1:33 PM · I adore Bartok.

I'm a fan of his second concerto.

Bartok is the kind of music that you have to listen to a few times to warm up to, my spouse calls Bartok's music "challenging". The music tends to remind me of the many things going on at a given moment, in a city (or your own mind) for example. You look here and this is what's going on, then you look over there and something else is going on, something pops out of nowhere into your awareness, and so on. I think it's really stripped down in a way, similar to Cubism or Futurism in painting or even Surrealism in the sense that it is all very dream-like and "nonsensical" in a way that only dreams can be.

Edited: January 22, 2018, 2:49 PM · Bartok's violin duets are the first "real" music I ever played, aged 12, and I loved them. But I confess I'm still stumped by some Bartok - e.g. the third quartet, the violin sonatas... It either gets you or it doesn't.

But thanks for the steer to Forsyth - I never heard it before and it isn't at all bad!

Edited: January 23, 2018, 9:33 AM · For the viola concerto, try and find Menuhin's recording: his unique sound reveals all the mystery, anguish and frenetic energy of this work like no-one else's. Likewise in the violin concertos.
Edited: January 22, 2018, 4:09 PM · Pamela had the right idea. I recommend looking at painting and sculpture that was created in the years 1850 to 1950. Pianists grow up with Bartok because we've got the Mikrocosmos.
Edited: January 22, 2018, 4:44 PM · I am having troubles to understand how one can help you learn to love something?
You either love it or nor.
Life is too short to play music you dislike.... unless you have to. If later, play like a pilot landing on the unlovable airport.
January 22, 2018, 9:16 PM · Rocky, I think it's a bit like an arranged marriage. He feels (or perhaps his teacher feels) that he should work on Bartok as a stepping stone in his violistic development. Since it's hard music, he's going to be at it for a while. As such, one starts by looking, listening, getting to know, appreciating, and, in time, yes, maybe fondness evolves. Nobody starts out loving broccoli.
January 22, 2018, 10:27 PM · If the OP is planning to audition for professional orchestras when he is out of school, he really does need to learn the Bartok viola concerto. It is *the* standard audition solo. Some people play Walton, which works, and we also sometimes hear Schwanendreher. Those are the three we hear most but Bartok most of all by far. There's a reason for that. It's great music and it is quite difficult, so it gives people an opportunity to display both chops and musicianship.

I'm not familiar with Forsyth, so I looked it up on IMSLP. Maybe there's more to it, but my gut reaction is that it isn't hard enough to use as an audition piece.

January 23, 2018, 9:05 AM · It's a beautiful piece; you'll learn to love it.
January 23, 2018, 9:45 AM · When obliged to learn music I don't like, I just treat it as an exercise in tone (and articulation), taking pleasure from playing well. But it is certailly demoralising to have to play music that gives you nothing back.
January 23, 2018, 10:04 AM · I love plenty of music nowadays that I used to be indifferent or even hostile to. Sometimes playing a work (as opposed to just listening to it) has sort of unlocked the ideas in it and I've started to appreciate what the composer is doing.
January 23, 2018, 10:10 AM · I agree with Scott. I will probably never really like Vieuxtemps, but when I played the 2nd concerto, I saw it as an exercise in openmindedness, and I came around a little. Still not going to listen to Vieuxtemps in my free time, but look at it as a chance to give a piece your most committed performance. In a way, it can be kind of freeing to work on a piece that you don't have a lot of preconceptions about.
January 23, 2018, 10:16 AM · I've heard a vintage clip of Bartok playing his own music on the radio . I was struck by the simplicity of his approach . Very focused and light !!
January 23, 2018, 10:48 AM · I love Bartok...especially after realizing everything is symmetrical architecturally and intervallic. Take this 4th quartet, it's a giant a mirror from the middle and everything comes from a small motivic cell.

But you don't even need to read Antokoletz (RIP) when you listen to concerto for orchestra or 5th quartet to get your heart pumping. Bartok not only tells a story, he created a whole new universe...

January 23, 2018, 4:16 PM · I discovered Bartok's string quartets when they corresponded to my teenage angst, when stories or films no longer had to finish nicely. My favorites still are the austere 3rd and the desolate 6th, but I also love the works which sublimâte into a frenetic, celebratory finale.
Edited: January 23, 2018, 9:37 PM · Scott Bailey has a good point. How many of us would be classical music lovers at all if we hadn't studied that kind of music since childhood? Sure, probably some, but just as surely not all. So, we learned to enjoy by first appreciating and understanding. I really think there's something to that.

I thought there was a speck of dust on my screen until I realized that Adrian actually wrote "sublimâte".

PS Go Metro Detroit. Next time I am in the area Shawn I will look you up for a lesson.

Edited: January 24, 2018, 7:28 AM · Perhaps just learning the viola concerto will show you if you love Bartok or not
Edited: January 24, 2018, 10:24 AM · In high school, I had a wonderful girlfriend from an Italian family. I was Irish Catholic. I had lunch at their house after church one Sunday and there were a lot of olives in the food. I hate olives.

So, I went home and took my parents cocktail olive jar out of the fridge and ate them one at a time. After each one, I said, wow that was tasty. I learned to like olives that day. Unfortunately she moved away that winter. But I still like olives...

January 24, 2018, 1:12 PM · I personally love the Bartok Viola Concerto and have for awhile, but I remember that I had to listen to it several times before I started to like it, so maybe just immersing yourself in a few recordings for a few weeks might help. There is a book called Bartok's Viola concerto by Donald Maurice all about the concerto that might help you understand it more. It is pricy, so I would see if you can get it through your university library.
Interestingly enough I prefer both the Bartok and Hindemith to the Walton, although everyone else seems to love the Walton. You pretty much need at least one of the three big ones for auditions, but you might look into the Bowen (harder than Forsyth, but not quite on the level of the big 3) or the Rosza (I've heard this called the "Bartok light" ) Concertos, if you want some other options.
January 24, 2018, 3:54 PM · No one actually likes Bartok. It's all an elaborate con to make someone feel like they aren't smart enough or cool enough or whatever enough to be a 'real' musician.

jk-here's my favorite piece:

January 24, 2018, 5:27 PM · I do love the Bartok viola concerto, but still have problems listening to his quartets... some years ago I made a viola to a player of the Gewandhaus Leipzig, and heard Bartok quartet cycle (with the Vegh quartet) all the time while I was making it. Even so, it refused to be accepted by my ears. I do have to give them a new chance.
Edited: January 24, 2018, 8:59 PM · Well, one could always use a few tricks from behavioural psychology toolkit....
Find a great Hungarian restaurant and order paprikas, fish paprikas or szekely goulash, with a bottle of fine Hungarian vine. Surround yourself with Hungarian gipsy musicians and surrender to their tunes.
Then, on your way home, still burping and digesting, listen to Bartok (#!?) viola concerto and try to find the traces of Hungarian folk music.
Repeat as many times as needed. You may get addicted to Hungarian food or vine, but at the end you may also become a Bartok aficionado!
If Bartok is too hard to digest, try some Kodaly or Dohnanyi instead.
January 25, 2018, 1:17 AM · Here's Antoine Tamestit playing the Bartok with the London Symphony.

Edited: January 25, 2018, 7:06 PM ·
If you wish to be a professional, you don't have to love everything you play, and you certainly won't. You have to FAKE loving it. That's why it's called an "act." If orchestra auditions call for this concerto and those excerpts, no one cares whether or not you like them or hate them. You do what you do to get the gig.

People aways argue about what it means to be a "professional." One definition is that you carry out even the most unpleasant aspects of your job with the same level of diligence as the ones you love. You may get a job for 30 years with a conductor or a stand partner you despise, or in a crappy city with mediocre sushi.

So suck it up, learn the Bartok, pretend you love it, and hope you fool the audition committees. After you win the gig you won't have to do it anymore.

You'll just have to do other stuff you hate.

January 30, 2018, 2:30 AM · Menuhin again.
I couldn't "get into" Bloch's Suite for viola & piano until I heard Menuhin's rhapsodic recording of the Violin Concerto.
January 30, 2018, 2:48 AM · When I learned the bartok, I hated it at first and came to love it. Learning it will allow you to acquire the taste. Especially the 2nd movement, which I found beautiful.
Edited: February 2, 2018, 7:42 AM · All music has basic elements: melody, harmony, rhythm, structure, and maybe a few more. And each great composer (and even the wonderful one's who we may consider beautiful but not so great) has what I think of as a unique "voice," a way of composing that you can spot pretty quickly.

Well, to me, Bartok's "voice" is about rhythm - and not just any rhythm, but (as has been discussed thousands of times) the rhythm of the real Hungarian/Roumanian backwoods gypsies. It has a primitive, atonal, and dance element, but with a sense of the ferocious.

So, my suggestion would be to pay careful attention in any Bartok piece to the rhythm - simple or complex.


You just might hear and appreciate things you didn't notice before.

So, for whatever that's worth, I hope it helps.


Edited: February 2, 2018, 7:57 AM · As an added thought, I'm an amateur musician but I consider myself a professional music lover. I've always believed that knowing what to appreciate (and not just what to listen for) and how to appreciate it in a piece of music is perhaps a much over-looked focus of attention.

For example, I've always felt that the emotion of anger is reflected in some music and some performances, and is what can give the music and/or performance a compelling emotional edge. And much of Bartok's music - aesthetically and emotionally - strikes me as having that touch of anger. It's what makes it jump out at your ear and your heart.


This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Violin Finder
Yamaha Violin Finder

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Warchal Strings
Warchal Strings

International Violin Competition of Indianapolis
International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

Dimitri Musafia
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Metzler Violin Shop

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases


Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Pluhar Violins

Potter Violins

Pro-Am Strings Ltd

Violin Lab

Violin Pros

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop