BELA BARTOK (1881 – 1945)


 Back in the very early 1950’s the name to strike terror in talking about modern music was Bartok, rather like Stockhausen today. It was with trepidation that I borrowed some 78’s from the record library of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and thought myself courageous to listen to it. It presented little problem for one with more of an ear for adventure then than perhaps one has today. So just who was Bela Bartok and what can we expect from his output during the first world war?

 First of all he was a Hungarian. But even to say that begs a question because Hungary had a habit, not of its own choosing, in changing its size and borders and exact whereabouts from time to time and what was part of Hungary when Bartok was born ceased to be so later on, particularly with the break up after 1918 of Austria-Hungary, a two state – one kingdom power. Take for instance his popular Five Rumanian Dances for violin written in 1915, just before The Wooden Prince. These were dances from Transylvania, an area of Rumania taken over by Hungary in 1867. Thus Rumanian Dances were for Bartok a provincial diversion, just as Scottish Dances were for Malcolm Arnold.

 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 Vienna Conservatory, but chose instead to stay in Hungary at the Budapest Academy where he first met Zoltan Kodaly. His early work was influenced greatly by Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt , but his first major work, the Staussian 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. Much of this was done in conjunction with Kodaly, just as Vaughan Willams and Holst did with English folk music. This had a profound impact on Bartok’s 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. Bartok soon also realized that Hungarian folk song was not the same as the gypsy music popularized by Liszt in his Hungarian Rhapsodies or Brahms in his Hungarian Dances.

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 neo-classical approach.

The crises leading up to World War II forced Bartók to flee Hungary and settle in the United States. He had opposed the fascist governments of Hungary of the 1930’s and 40’s. This 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.

 The Wooden Prince is a ballet needing a large orchestra including two saxophones, four trumpets, two cornets and a large batter of percussion. Not the size of orchestra normally contained in the opera pit. The story, like so many ballet stories, has been described on my CD leaflet as implausible. That is putting it mildly. It concerns the love of a prince for a princess (who else?) but he is scorned by the princess who favours a wooden puppet he has carved of himself adorned with his own mantle and a lock of his hair. He uses this to lure the princess from her castle and she dances with the puppet in a fifteen minute central section until the point where she cannot get the puppet to dance any more. She then tries to attract the real prince with her seductive dancing but cannot follow him as the forest bars her way. Well, I suppose that is as plausible as a prince falling in love with a swan.

 Bela Balasz who wrote the libretto for Duke Bluebeard’s castle explained that the wooden puppet symbolizes the work of the creative artist and that this gets more revered than the artist himself. So a Pygmalion kind of character?

 The music is cast in an introduction and eight scenes. There is no apparent break and it may be best not to try and make out the story as it goes along but just listen. To my mind the music has a tendency to ramble from one idea to another and lacks the tautness that Bartok later imposed.

The Wooden Prince by Bartok formed part of the series “Music 1914-18 presented by Matthew Taylor in February 2011

Note written for the Blackheath Music Appreciation Group and copyright is claimed by Lionel J Lewis