Bartok (from 20th Century Concertos)

BELA BARTÓK (1881 – 1945)


Back in the very early 1950’s the name to strike terror when talking about modern music was Bartók, rather like Stockhausen today. It was with trepidation that I borrowed some 78’s of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra from the record library and how courageous I thought myself to listen to it. Nowadays it presents no problem at all. I have previously written specifically on his ballet “The Wooden Prince” and I have expanded that note so as to accompany Matthew’s programme on his concertos.

Bartók 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 the part of Hungary where Bartók was born is now in Rumania. All of these areas were part of Austro-Hungary, a two state – one kingdom power broken up in 1919 by the Versailles Treaty. 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 the Rumanian Dances were home to Bartók much as Woolwich once might have been to Arsenal.

 Bartók was born into a musical family and received good piano training from his mother from when he was four. When he was seven his father who had been a head teacher died and his mother moved to Pressburg, now Bratislava in Slovakia. He gave a first public piano recital there when he was 11 including compositions of his own. In 1898 he turned down an offer from 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 Liszt. His first major work, Kossuth written in 1903 is a long tone poem written following his hearing the first performance in Budapest of Strauss’s “Also Spracht Zarathustra”. Kossuth depicts the deeds of a Hungarian hero of the 1848 revolution.

In 1907 Bartók became appointed professor of piano at the Budapest Academy. This would allow him freedom of time to continue his compositional activity, as well as his researches to reproduce the authentic in the pursuit of what he termed ethno- musicological studies. He began collecting folk music by recording musicians on wax cylinders, carried out in conjunction with Kodaly, much as Vaughan-Williams and Holst were doing with English folk music. This had a profound impact on Bartók’s compositional style, for in these pieces he found elements that he began to incorporate into his own writing. These folk tunes, removed from the traditional major/minor tonality of Western music, provided new lines of melody and harmonies, and their asymmetrical rhythms became a hallmark of Bartók’s rhythmic style. It became immediately obvious to him that Hungarian folk song with its pentatonic scales had nothing in common with the gypsy music popularized by Liszt in his Hungarian Rhapsodies or Brahms in his Hungarian Dances. These were about as genuine as those Rumanian accordionists one sees on the Paris Metro. Bartók and Kodaly went on to compile and publish a volume of the songs they had collected. These encompassed a number of ethnic traditions both near at hand and further afield, Transylvanian, Romanian and stretching to Anatolia.

He wrote the first of his six string quartets in 1908 which, like his piano pieces, takes in these folk sounds. The new great emerging modern influence of the time was Debussy and certain aspects were absorbed by Bartók whilst developing his own distinctive Bartók sound. He wrote his only opera, “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”, in 1911. During the Great War Bartók he wrote his ballet, “The Wooden Prince”. His reputation at this stage stemmed more from his concert performances as a pianist than as a composer. Meantime his own music grew tighter, more concentrated, chromatic and dissonant. His sound world was modernist but although a sense of key is sometimes lost in individual passages, Bartók never went along with atonality. 1919 saw the break-up of Austro Hungary and a brief Bolshevik revolution in Hungary. It was soon replaced by a near Fascist takeover to which Bartók was always opposed. He earned some notoriety when the Nazis banned his ballet The Miraculous Mandarin written in 1918–19 but not performed until 1926 because of its sexually explicit plot.

His international reputation grew throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. His Dance Suite was written in 1923 to celebrated the 50th anniversary of the unification of the two cities, Buda and Pest with a symbolic chain bridge across the Danube. In 1927 he wrote the first of his three piano concertos, the piano part of which is noticeably and notably percussive in nature. Bartók actually directed in the score “The percussion (including timpani) must be placed directly behind the piano” and the kettle drum can be clearly heard as if in partnership with the piano . For Bartók the piano was in essence a percussion instrument and this was his own distinctive style of that period.

The second piano concerto followed in 1931 and is more dense. Bartók created his own blend of sonata form, which involves a kind of mirror-recapitulation, with the reprisal of the opening material in the correct sequence, but with each theme in mirror form as well as played back to front. Much of Bartók’s music was seen as difficult, a trait it must be admitted of his own making. The Danish composer Carl Nielsen met Bartók at the time that Nielsen was writing his sixth symphony. Now this work started off simply enough but ran into trouble of its own. Nielsen was experiencing difficulties in his private life at the time.  Nevertheless Nielsen was somewhat depressed when Bartók asked him, “Mr Nielsen, do you think my music is modern enough?”

Bartók’s second period, his most modernist, had begun with the end of the first world war when he, underwent a period of expressionism and barbarism probably influenced by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This radical phase of his output lasted until 1926 followed by an easing in his style which became leaner and formally tighter. It included three of the cycle of six string quartets he wrote, which could be described as uncompromising, yes, but so were the last quartets of Beethoven for that matter. He remained resident throughout in Hungary always an arch opponent of the fascists. He refused to be the soloist when his own music was played in Nazi Germany. His feelings towards them were reciprocated.  

His third period could be said to have begun with his “Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta” in 1936/7 commissioned by the wealthy Swiss conductor Paul Sacher for the tenth anniversary of his Basle Chamber Orchestra. It is written for double string orchestra and takes a neo-classical turn. It opens in a fugal style which owes much to Bartók’s study of Bach but makes no attempt to sound like him. It owes nothing however to Stravinsky whose own neo-classical concerto Dumbarton Oaks was written the following year and makes every attempt to sound like Bach. The title of the work does not mention the word piano but there is a prominent role again for this instrument amongst the percussion. The third movement could be music of the spheres with an odd xylophone introducing it followed by glissandi effects on strings and on timpani. Its last movement recalls some of his early Rumanian folksong. Bartók was again championed by Sacher who commissioned the Divertimento in 1939. In between came his sonata for two pianos and percussion and his violin concerto (now known as No 2) written in 1938 for Zoltan Szekely which some consider his finest work. This final period reveals a more approachable side to Bartók . Don’t get me wrong, Bartók was not going to suddenly become a populist. He was coming in from the impenetrable. His style would remain searching serious and shadowy but deliberate mystification would be shed. Now he no longer seems to be seeking to shock but often to be communing with himself.

His last string quartet was written in 1939 and with his going to America might well have ended up as his last work. Bartók had come to realise that he could no longer stay on in Hungary. He had sent on his scores to America where he and his second wife sailed to in 1940. He was just in time. The Hungarian Government joined in the war just afterwards… on the side of the Axis.

To begin with Bartók considered his stay in the U.S. not so much as emigration but as exile. He did however take up American citizenship in 1945 just before his death. Although he was considered one of the greatest concert pianists of his day there was little demand for concert performance by him. One benefit for him was his appointment as professor at Columbia University where he was able to study its large collection of Serbo-Croatian folk music. He lacked any incentive to continue with composition. The Bartóks lived in relative obscurity in New York. They had a small income from royalties and lectures but added to this he became ill and was diagnosed with leukaemia. Being America, to obtain good treatment one needed to be able to afford to do so. Being America, the American Society for Composers, Authors, and Publishers paid Bartók’s medical expenses. It was then that Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra stepped in to make a decision which gave the musical world one of its greatest legacies. Previously Koussevitsky over the years had arranged commissions of numerous composers. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition; Rachmaninov, Roussel; Honneger’s Pacific 231; Prokofiev’s fourth symphony and the first of Martinu’s six symphonies after he had arrived in America also in 1940. Closer even to home came the financial backing in 1942 to Benjamin Britten, then holed up in America, for Peter Grimes.

Now in 1943 came the commission from the Koussevitsky Foundation for Bartók to write a concerto in memory of Koussevitsky’s wife, Natalie. It was not written for any one solo instrument nor for any particular concertante group of instruments but to be a concerto for orchestra. It would be designed for the orchestra to show itself off, just as a soloist might, in switching between its various sections. It was a work which was right up the street of the streamlined American orchestras of the time and it turned out to be Bartók’s greatest success, not that he would live long to savour that result. Written in five movements it is in all but name a symphony. Now Bartók was never a barrel load of laughs but the fourth movement demonstrates to us for the first time that he actually had a sense of humour. The Hungarian sounding serenade gets interrupted and we are propelled into Colney Island and all the fun of the fair. The trombones join in with most un-Bartók like deep raspberries before the fairy tale resumes. For sheer excitement the last movement sets off with a huge whirlwind of strings sounding almost like a hundred and one gipsy cimbaloms or zithers. The sounds become wilder with the entry of the brass, reminiscent in some ways of the sounds of Janacek’s sinfonietta.

The Concerto for Orchestra rekindled, albeit briefly, Bartók’s creativity. In 1944 he composed a sonata for solo violin, written for Yehudi Menuhin. His last major work was the third piano concerto which includes bird calls and sounds of nature. This was written with the playing of his wife in mind. The piano writing is no longer percussive but quite gentle. His viola concerto was unfinished at his death, and completed by his long time pupil, Tibor Serly. These late pieces caught the spirit of the approaching end of the second world war. They remain Hungarian influenced, but here and there one has the feeling there is an added American dimension and that a fusion has grown between Hungarian folk modes on the one hand and the blues on the other. A touch of Benny Goodman perhaps!

On September 26, 1945, Bartók died in a New York hospital. He was buried in New York. In 1988, with the iron curtain raised, his remains were transferred to Budapest. There, a statue of him was erected in front of the Unitarian Church to which he belonged..