Learning Bartók

"All you need to know about Bela is that he loves everything that's real."

Ditta Pásztory Bartók

[the eyes!]


In photographs his most striking feature is his eyes, clear and bright like polished agates, his gaze sharp and uncompromising as if he is affixing an insect to a card with a pin. During social occasions he wrapped himself in aloofness. When necessary he would nod politely, but generally he was withdrawn and lived soberly within his own world. He rejected the trivial noises and dancing manners of the social world for something simpler: the ideal land-based life of the peasants that he had met while collecting folk songs before the First World War.


Those earlier travels into the wilds of Hungary had been an inward journey for him. He had scoured the landscape searching for folk-song traditions that were rapidly being bulldozed away by international politics and power brokers. It was a heroic search for his own roots and a noble attempt to save a dying indigenous tradition. When composing, he traveled along a river of creative energy and navigated it as an individual. In the comfort of the Hungarian Academy of Science, as he researched and sifted folk melodies, they flowed inexorably into his own music. The harsh braying of his antagonists was a backlash to the wild tones and odd rhythms of his work, but more deeply it was a rejection of the road that he had chosen to follow, a path that led to warm loaves of baked bread, comfortable hearths, simple clothing, and respect for the land and the natural world. Long before anyone else, Bartók rejected Progress for the sake of Progress and established his own life independently. He was firmly grounded in concrete reality, not popular abstractions.


His mother, Paula, had recognized his genius early on, and nurtured it. She gave him his first piano lessons and nursed him during his frequent illnesses, especially a debilitating skin condition that made his early childhood a painful memory. It was his inability to separate himself from his mother that led to procrastination over the decision to leave for America and the constant cancellation of departure dates. And then as Hitler's wolves were nibbling at the border, his mother died, and he and Ditta, his wife, were free to leave. They brought few belongings with them and left the unpublished portion of his collection of folk-songs in the care of Kodaly. "This journey is a leap to uncertainty from certain unbearableness," he wrote. "My condition is not very reassuring; God knows how much and how long I can work over there." They carried the hope that their son Peter would be able to follow in the near future, but how would he be able make his way through a war if he waited too long? Bartók was torn out by the roots, a tree that had no hope of surviving the transplant. Ditta saw nothing but darkness when she imagined what America would be like, as if she foresaw the period of financial hardship, illness and misunderstanding that would transpire. Bela was never to see his home again.


In America life played a bittersweet game with him. Chary of what he viewed as an unnecessary helping hand, he accepted a position at Columbia University only after friends had hidden from him the fact that the position was paid out of a fund normally restricted to non-academic use. He was left on his own to explore the Parry Collection of heroic Yugoslavian folk-songs in whatever way he saw fit. It was exhilarating to have something useful to do and to earn some money. But as he passed under the ironwork of the clattering 231st Street subway station each day he felt no real connection to America. In Vermont during the summer of 1941, a long vacation spent in the farm house of a friend did a little bit to heal the hurt, but he was appalled by the wildness of the landscape. "Why aren't you growing anything in your fields?" he would ask. He felt himself falling further inward, back to the memories of sleeping in a stranger's house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by the shy voices of peasants whose songs he had coaxed patiently from them. There was nothing like that in America. And there were few performances of his work, and many adversarial reviews when they did take place. It was like starting all over again as a composer, only he was no longer young and he was very sick. The voices from the past called to him at the oddest moments. Once during a performance of the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Fritz Reiner and Ditta watched in horror from the stage as he ignored the score and began to improvise for a few moments, following music that called to him from within. After the concert, chastised, he promised he would not do it again and during the second performance the next day followed the score and the baton religiously.

[bartok party animal]

One night by the subway station he heard a familiar voice behind him say, "Hello, Apu." It was Peter! He had managed his own escape from Europe and had been unable to notify his parents of his arrival. The surprising return of Bartók's son brought illumination into the family's world. During his last two years it seemed as if Bartók was surrounded by light, and he poured it into the Concerto for Orchestra. The unbridled acceptance of that work tore down the barriers. Suddenly he was popular, a composer once more. Royalties from Europe were unavailable, so the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers arranged for him to be sent to a hospital. With medical treatment he became well enough to complete the Sonata for Solo Violin, and the Third Piano Concerto, and to draft the Viola Concerto. Yet there was no cure for his real ailment. He could not grow and flourish in American soil. A trip to California and Menuhin's house was canceled and not much later Bartók succumbed to leukemia. "Please do not name a street for me," he said, "or put up a plaque in my honor in Budapest as long as there is a street named after Hitler or Mussolini." A seventh string quartet was commisioned but never started. The last 17 bars of the Third Piano Concerto were left unfinished. He was unable to complete the scoring of the Viola Concerto.


Today we listen to him after almost fifty years have passed, in a world frantic with technology, the natural world in tatters and the art of folk-song supplanted by the commodity of popular music. Ditta once said, "you don't listen to Bartók, you learn him as if you were learning a language." There are no standardized reference points to lean upon, we either understand his compositions or are bewildered by them. To learn Bartók requires breaking through his barriers of self possession, and our own. The listener must gather in the harvest of the composer's musical language uncompromisingly, and accept each note as its own world. Bartók seized the standard forms, bent and folded them to his muse, and did not march to any authority. He sounds only like himself, an honest man who lived in dishonest times.

There is further information concerning Bartók in the Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes section of this site

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