New book: ‘Bartok had Aspergers’

New book: ‘Bartok had Aspergers’


norman lebrecht

February 01, 2015

A forthcoming biography from Yale University Press makes the provocative observation that the great composer suffered from a form of autism. It’s an interesting angle, not altogether far-fetched, but you wonder whether a professor of music and technology is best equipped to make a defensible medical diagnosis at a distance of seven decades. We await the evidence with some anxiety.

Book and author blurb below.


bartok biog

This deeply researched biography of Bela Bartok (1881-1945) provides a more comprehensive view of the innovative Hungarian musician than ever before. David Cooper traces Bartok’s international career as an ardent ethno-musicologist and composer, teacher, and pianist, while also providing a detailed discussion of most of his works. Further, the author explores how Europe’s political and cultural tumult affected Bartok’s work, travel, and reluctant emigration to the safety of America in his final years. Cooper illuminates Bartok’s personal life and relationships, while also expanding what is known about the influence of other musicians-Richard Strauss, Zoltan Kodaly, and Yehudi Menuhin, among many others. The author also looks closely at some of the composer’s actions and behaviors which may have been manifestations of Asperger syndrome. The book, in short, is a consummate biography of an internationally admired musician.

David Cooper is professor of music and technology, and dean of the Faculty of Performance, Visual Arts and Communications, University of Leeds. His publications include Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra and numerous chapters and articles on aspects of Bartok’s life and works. The author lives in Liversedge, UK.




  • John William Gibson says:

    Any port-mortem analysis of an individual with Autistic Spectrum Disorder is fraught with danger. The problem lies is in even using “Asperger’s Syndrome”, a diagnosis no long accepted in the DSM-V. There would, first, have to be a complete review of his childhood, preferably from his parents to a trained psychologist, before one could even begin to develop a diagnostic picture. The most one could say is a person, long dead, such as Newton, Mozart, or Einstein had some of the criteria, but a definitive diagnosis is impossible. Whether Bartok was, as they say, “on spectrum” is impossible to defend.

  • Robert Eshbach says:

    There has also been speculation about Bohuslav Martinu having Aspergers… A book by F. James Rybka called “The Compulsion to Compose.” If true, then two of my favorite 20th Century composers had the disease.

  • Frankster says:

    Beethoven’s social difficulties would make him a possible candidate and there are many, many other creative people whose lives fit the general pattern.

    • S says:

      Beethoven wasn’t autistic; he was mentally unstable because of his abusive father. If you want an autistic composer there is Mozart and Satie.

  • David Boxwell says:

    If we now map people on a spectrum of autism disorder, we could easily place many creative people somewhere on it. Alternatively, we also now conceive of many creative people as bipolar.

    What we are thereby doing is re-defining composers and artists according to our present-day “therapy culture”. So Cooper’s book isn’t unusual.

  • Anonymoose says:

    Hmm, two wives, two sons, friends, very successful professorship in Budapest. Must have been very high functioning……

  • Robert Holmén says:

    We should note that the American Psychiatric Association eliminated “Asperger’s Syndrome” as a valid diagnosis in 2013.

    If you are high functioning enough to have been labeled “Asperger’s” rather than “autistic” you are not regarded as having a disorder and it was never clear as to what indicated Asperger’s Syndrome anyway.

    You may still be annoying and awkward but you’ll have to live with those labels now.

  • Mikey says:

    What’s next? All these composers were gluten-intolerant?

  • SVM says:

    I take exception to the author’s use of the word “suffered”, and various commentators’ use of pejorative words such as “disease”. Asperger’s is not necessarily a disadvantage, any more than homosexuality, the latter of which had been listed as a disorder in the first edition of the DSM.