I was driving with a friend when I remembered that the Tokyo String Quartet was going to be performing during the La Jolla Music Society Summerfest.
"I've got to go see these guys. They're incredible. I have their recording of the complete Bartok String Quartets."
My friend looked at me. "Bartok?"
"You don't know who Bartok is, do you?"
Bela Viktor Janos Bartok was a titan of 20th Century music.
He was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary in 1881. He took a post as a piano teacher in 1907 and two of his students were Georg Solti and Fritz Reiner. These two would both go on to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and both were interpreters of Bartok's music.
What makes Bartok a titan is that he and his colleague, Zoltan Koday, founded what has become ethnomusicology.
The two of them would go out into the Hungarian countryside and collect folk music of small towns and settlements. They used this music to season their own compositions, sometimes using a folk melody note for note. Plenty of composers used folk melodies in their music.
What set Bartok and Koday aside was that they recorded these melodies, cataloged them, and traced their roots back to Central Asia. They discovered that what was called "gypsy music" originated in Siberia and the steppes of Central Asia. No study like this had been done before.
Bartok's most prominent works are all six of the string quartets, The Miraculous Mandolin, Concerto for Orchestra, Cantata Profana, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and Duke Blue Beard's Castle.
Here's a section of Bartok's 6th String Quartet performed by The Tokyo String Quartet. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPXukN_IBYQ