Richard Nisley

Being Bela Bartok
Music - Classical Released - Nov 18, 2013

It wasn’t easy being Bela Bartok. As a composer who embraced 20th-century music, Bartok pursued a difficult and often unpopular path. A gentle, sensitive man, he was heartbroken by what happened to his country after World War I. Later he fled Europe to escape the Nazis and found refuge in the United States where, late in life, he enjoyed his only real taste of success.

There are three things you need to know about Bela Bartok: (1) he was one of the two or three most important composers of the 20th century, (2) he was a genius, as much as Beethoven or Mozart or Bach were geniuses, and (3) there really are people in this world named “Bela” other than Bela Lugosi.

Bartok was born in 1881 in Hungary in what today is a part of Romania. His father was a teacher at an agricultural college and his mother taught piano. Young Bela had a gift for music, mastered piano early, and before his eleventh birthday was giving recitals. The pampered life of a concert pianist had little appeal for him however. He wanted to be a composer, especially after hearing the music of Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss which was all the rage of Europe.

Bartok’s first compositions were very much in the Germanic style of Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss. While passing through a village in Transylvania, however, he was deeply moved by a simple peasant woman singing folk songs to her children. The encounter sparked the beginning of Bartok’s lifelong interest in Hungarian folk music.

In 1907, Bartok took a teaching position at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest that freed him from the life of a concert pianist. Among his students were two future conductors of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Fritz Reiner and George Solti. As we shall see, Reiner later would rescue Bartok from near poverty.

In 1908, Bartok began scouring the countryside to collect and research old Magyar folk melodies. (The Magyars, you may recall, invaded Hungary in the ninth century and installed themselves as the ruling elite.) Bartok made some startling discoveries. For one, Magyar folk tunes were thought to be little more than Gypsy music. He discovered that Magyar folk music was based on pentatonic scales, similar to Asian folk traditions, such as those of Central Asia, Anatolia and Siberia.

Bartok did not merely write down the songs he heard; he asked local peasants to sing them into his two-way Edison wax cylinder sound-recorder. By the end of his life, Bartok’s passion for folk music would yield a collection of over fourteen-thousand melodies of Hungarian, Slovak, Rumanian, Croatian, Turkish, Bulgarian and even African origin. Had Bartok not conducted his research most of these folk songs would have been lost forever, as the primitive world of the Hungarian Kingdom was disappearing fast due to the onslaught of industrialization and urbanization.

As a composer, Bartok incorporated elements of Hungarian folk music into his compositions, often verbatim. He likened his approach to that of a jeweler mounting a precious stone in its setting, as he did with his eighty-five short piano pieces, “For Children” based on Hungarian and Slovak tunes. Disarmingly simple, these piano miniatures have taken their place alongside Bach’s “Anna Magdalena Notebook” and Schumann’s “Album for the Young” as essential learning material for serious beginning piano students.

In 1911, Bartok wrote his only opera, “Bluebird’s Castle,” which he dedicated to his wife. A synthesis of folk, classic and modern music, it was rejected as not fit for the stage. It would be the first of several rejections, as the world was not always ready for Bartok’s harsh sound world. The outbreak of World War I forced him to stop collecting folk songs so he returned to composing full time. He revised (i.e. toned down) the score of “Bluebird’s Castle” for the 1918 premiere, and rewrote the ending. What little success the opera enjoyed was interrupted by the post-war breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The new government did not look kindly on avant-garde artists and blacklisted Bartok’s librettist as a communist sympathizer; he promptly left the country. Ever passionately devoted to Hungary and its culture, Bartok elected to stay, and wrote his first ballet “The Wooden Prince.” It was a hit.

Encouraged, Bartok wrote one of his most uncompromising scores, the ballet music for “The Miraculous Mandarin.” It was the first of several extremely dissonant works that did not connect with the public, at least not right away.

The 1920s were troubling years for Bartok. He divorced his first wife and married a concert pianist named Ditta Pasztory. At the same time, he was under continued attack from the state for his enthnographical researches, and seriously considered emigrating. However, his bonds with Hungary were too strong, and he remained in Budapest, although most of his compositions were premiered abroad. Meanwhile, his beloved homeland was divided up into several new nations, resulting in the loss of 71 percent of Hungary’s land mass and 66 percent of its population. The new nations that emerged as the result of the breakup included Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, a part of Slovakia and what is now southern Poland.

The 1930s were somewhat happier times for Bartok, at least at first. He was no longer being harassed by the government, and performances of his new works were now given quite regularly. In 1936, he was finally relieved of his teaching duties and offered a research post by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. This belated recognition of his stature at home was little more than an acknowledgement of his undisputed standing abroad, both as ethnomusicologist and composer. It was during this time that Bartok wrote his masterpiece: the “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.”

The rise of Hitler filled Bartok with grave disquiet--he refused to perform in Germany as early as 1933--and when in 1938 Austria capitulated to the Anschluss, he severed his connections with his Austrian publishers. The idea of leaving Hungary for an uncertain future in a foreign country was intensely painful for him, but after the death of his mother in 1940, he and his wife set sail for America.

Bartok’s American years were few. Although he derived some satisfaction from research work at Columbia University, it didn’t pay well. His finances were dwindling, his health was beginning to deteriorate, and he seemed to have lost his creative spark. In February 1943, he collapsed from a life-threatening illness, but later in the year he gradually improved and began to compose once again. Perhaps his spirits were lifted from seeing one of his former student, Fritz Reiner. Reiner offered him a well-paying commission for a new work. The result was the opulent “Concerto for Orchestra,” Bartok’s most accessible and popular work ever. He followed it up with two more works to gain wide acceptance: the gritty Sonata for solo violin and the radiant Third Piano Concerto. Soon after, Bartok collapsed a second time and never recovered. He died in September of 1945.

Among his papers was yet another composition, a concerto for viola, unfinished at his death, but fully sketched so that one of his students could finish it. The popularity of these last four scores--all composed in America--insured that Bartok’s wife could live her last years free of money worries.

THE OXFORD HERITAGE OF MUSIC offered this summary of Bartok’s life: “Bartok followed a lonely road. A proud and unbending man, he was never able to adjust pragmatically to the external pressures of his troubled times and personal circumstances. And yet the power and universality of his music has earned him a place beyond controversy among the great masters of his art.”

One of the treasures of the gramophone is Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” conducted by the man who commissioned it, Fritz Reiner, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The accompanying piece on CD is the masterful “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.”

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