Michael Jarvie discusses the life and work of Béla Bartók
If you’ve ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining you will have heard some of Bartók’s characteristic ‘night music’ – in this instance the eerie third movement of his magnificent Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. During his lifetime he was branded a ‘young barbarian’ by the French press, and in 1923 the Daily Mail published a specifically Bartók-bashing headline entitled ‘Is it music?’ Even Time magazine in 1945 – the year of his death – referred to his compositions as being ‘piquant and cacophonous.’ So who exactly was Béla Bartók?
Born in Hungary in 1881, his birthplace of Nagyszentmiklós is now in Romania. Suffering from frequent bouts of ill health as a child, including pneumonia and severe eczema, he was introverted and reclusive, though there has been a tentative suggestion recently that he might also have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. What we do know is that at three years of age he was given a drum, which he would beat in time to his mother’s piano playing; a year later he could pick out forty songs on the same piano, albeit with one finger; and he gave his first piano recital at the age of eleven. A musical education was therefore a necessity for this child prodigy – endowed with perfect pitch – and he was eventually admitted to Budapest’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music.
Given that his native country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the musical sphere was predominantly in thrall to Germanic influences. Consequently, German musicians or German-trained Hungarian musicians held many of the principal academic posts. Almost inevitably, Bartók’s creative awakening came about when he heard the music of a German composer – Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem Also Sprach Zarathustra – another piece used in a Kubrick film. This revelatory experience inspired him to compose his symphonic poem, Kossuth, in 1903.
Exploring peasant folk music
However, the event which had the most far-reaching consequences was Bartók’s momentous decision to explore the peasant music of his native land with his fellow composer, Zoltán Kodály. Beginning in 1906, the field trips he undertook would eventually span a period of several decades. He would typically travel on board a horse-drawn cart with an Edison phonograph, cradling the wax cylinders in his lap to protect them during transit. He would later proceed to record and classify the indigenous music of Romania, Slovakia, Moldavia, Wallachia, Bulgaria, Turkey and North Africa.
As Halsey Stevens has noted, ‘he found the music of the Arabs, isolated in the vast reaches of the Sahara, less highly developed and consequently less interesting than that of the Magyars and the surrounding peoples. The avoidance of foreign influences, he concluded, whether deliberate or not, leads to stagnation; enrichment of folk music results from the absorption of such influences.’ (The Life and Music of Béla Bartók, p.48.) This is a very pertinent observation for our own times, demonstrating as it does the benefits of multiculturalism, as opposed to the impoverishment that necessarily results from any monocultural hegemony.
Throughout his rigorously scientific and thoroughly respectful investigations, no attempt was made to ‘beautify’ or in any to way to tamper with the originals. Indeed, this area of research is a pioneering example of what is now known as ethnomusicology. Bearing this laudable aim in mind we might contrast Bartók’s endeavours with the work of the brothers Grimm, whose original two-volume edition of their fairy tales (1812/15) was, over the years, re-edited so drastically that the disturbing and rough-edged elements were eventually bowdlerised and smoothed over, thereby ensuring that the tales would be more inclined to appeal to a bourgeois readership and inculcate bourgeois values.
For Bartok, recording folk music was just the beginning of a long process. The next step involved meticulously transcribing it and then perhaps adapting it for piano. One of the works to bear fruit in the years 1908-09 was the piano suite, For Children, a series of 79 pieces, which are based on traditional Hungarian and Slovakian folk tunes. Although primarily pedagogical in nature, the suite is also sometimes played in recitals. This was followed by Mikrokosmos, written between 1926 and 1939, which is a monumental collection in six volumes of some 153 individual works, ranging in difficulty from pieces suitable for beginners to those of a professional standard.
Although the study of folk music was very much in vogue at the turn of the twentieth century – witness Vaughan Williams in England – what happened next would ultimately determine Bartók’s future direction as a composer. As a result of his total absorption in his task his creative resources were augmented to such an extent that his future compositions appeared to be directly excavated from what can only be described as a primordial layer of his being. Bartók’s mature music therefore incorporated folk music so comprehensively, so fundamentally, that it became truly autochthonous. One is reminded of what Stravinsky said of the composition of The Rite of Spring: ‘I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite passed.’
One of the earliest orchestral works to express this new sensibility was his one act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, composed in 1911, but only performed in 1918 by the Budapest Opera after the success of his ballet The Wooden Prince the previous year. However, the first performance in Cologne in 1926 of The Miraculous Mandarin with its pounding ostinato rhythms, depicting the nightmarish environment of the modern city, and reminiscent of Sergei Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, was met with catcalls, booing, stamping and whistles. The second performance was proscribed and the conductor taken to task by the mayor, Konrad Adenauer, and the city council. For a proposed production of The Miraculous Mandarin in Budapest in 1931 on his fiftieth birthday the Hungarian authorities objected to its setting – a brothel – so the producer changed it to a dimly-lit back street. Despite this concession, it was officially banned on moral grounds after the dress rehearsal. Ten years later another production was cancelled because of objections from the clergy.
Pragmatic choices therefore determined the kinds of musical forces for which Bartók would later write, and much of that music came about by virtue of its being commissioned. As a virtuoso pianist he composed piano pieces and the three piano concertos so that these could be performed in concert. However, discouraged by the limited number of performances and by the lukewarm or hostile reception they received he didn’t produce as many large-scale symphonic works as one might have otherwise expected.
Music, politics and anti-fascism
Art, moreover, does not exist in a vacuum, and Bartók would soon have to make some exceedingly difficult decisions in the face of a grave political crisis that was heading inexorably towards the abyss. Notwithstanding the worrying implications of the Anschluss, when Austria meekly capitulated to the ‘bandits and assassins’ of Nazi Germany, Bartók didn’t quite lose his mordant sense of humour. He and Kodály received questionnaires asking them whether they came from German ancestry or were of non-Aryan origin. Bartók responded in a letter to a friend:
‘naturally neither I nor Kodály filled it out; our point of view is that such inquisitions are contrary to right and law. In a way that is too bad, because one could make some good jokes in answering; for example, we might say that we are not Aryans – because in the final analysis (as I learn from the lexicon) “Aryan” means “Indo-European”; we Magyars, however, are Finno-Ugrics, yes, and what is more, perhaps racially northern Turks, consequently not at all Indo-European, and therefore non-Aryan.’ (Halsey Stevens, op. cit., p. 85.)
As the previous quotation demonstrates, Bartók was, above all, unswerving in his abhorrence of Nazism, and to that end he ceased giving concerts in Germany and terminated his publishing contract with Universal-Edition in that country once Hungary joined the three main Axis powers in the Tripartite Pact. At the end of 1940, with the political situation worsening, he boarded a cargo steamer at Lisbon with his second wife, Ditta, landing in New York ten days later after a rough voyage.
In the New World, troubled by worrying health problems, he was cut off from his main sources of income in Europe. Despite these privations, he could still find humour in his situation, describing in a letter how he and his wife had spent the best part of three hours lost in the depths of the New York subway system. An uncompromising and ascetic individual, he only managed to eke out a modest living giving music lessons, which were supplemented by the occasional fee for concerts and lectures, as well as securing an enthnomusicological post at Columbia University. Nevertheless, this was also a period of intense creativity, and in 1943 his friend and compatriot, the conductor Serge Kossevistky, commissioned the ebullient Concerto for Orchestra for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who gave the work its premiere the following year.
The next composition was his Sonata for Solo Violin, which was dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin. In the Third Piano Concerto the trio section of the Adagio Religioso is based on birdcalls that Bartók notated in Asheville, North Carolina, and this affinity with birdsong is a trait that he shares with the French composer Olivier Messiaen. After this outpouring of new works in his adopted country he eventually succumbed to leukemia. Sadly, only ten people attended his funeral at Ferncliff cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, since in those days he was known more as a pianist rather than as a composer.
In truth, Bartók was only fully appreciated after his death. As Halsey Stephens has pointed out:
In 1948-9 American symphony orchestras played Bartók’s music more frequently than that of any other composer of the twentieth century except Strauss and Prokofiev.
Bartók and the cultural Cold War
To date, since the premiere of the Concerto for Orchestra, well over seventy recordings have been made of that particular work alone. There was, however, one final hurdle for his music to overcome. In 1948 the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow, following the regulations dictated by Zhdanov, condemned musical modernism because of its ‘bourgeois influence’, its ‘formalism’ and ‘abstraction.’ A year later, after a rigged election in which the victorious Mátyás Rákosi polled 97 per cent of the vote, Hungary became a satellite state of the USSR. Consequently, Bartók’s music had to negotiate not only the Scylla of National Socialism but also the Charybdis of Socialist Realism.
Many of his compositions were subsequently suppressed from radio broadcasts and concert halls in Hungary. The Miraculous Mandarin was banned as a matter of course because it ‘was inappropriate for the moral and aesthetic education of the Hungarian working class’. Bartók’s music could therefore be allocated to the following three categories: works that were banned, works that were rarely performed, and works which were fully approved, which is a patently absurd situation when one considers how deeply his compositions are rooted in the music of the common people.
In effect, his music became an unwitting pawn during the Cold War era – championed by the capitalist West and Voice of America radio broadcasts in the same way that the CIA weaponised Abstract Expressionism. In other words, his music was held up as embodying the cultural freedom and superiority of the West as opposed to the conservatism and repression of the USSR, despite the fact that his music had been largely ignored for much of his life.
Eventually, in 1988, Bartók’s remains were returned to Budapest where he was given a full state funeral. In his will he had stipulated that no plaque or memorial should be erected to him in Hungary if there remained any street or square named after Hitler or Mussolini. Thankfully, there were no such memorials to those ‘bandits and assassins’ as he called them. Moreover, if you happen to venture up into the hills above Budapest you will find a commemorative statue of Bartók, overlooking the house in which he spent his last eight years in Hungary, a fitting tribute to someone who, through his strikingly innovative compositions, introduced the folk music of his fellow countrymen to an even wider and appreciative audience.
Halsey Stevens, The Life and Music of Béla Bartók, Oxford University Press, revised edition, 1964.
Duke Bluebeards’ Castle, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Julia Varady, Bavarian State Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Deutsche Grammophon.
Cantata Profana, The Wooden Prince, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, Deutsche Grammophon.
The Miraculous Mandarin (complete ballet) Riccardo Chailly, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Decca.
Concerto for Orchestra, Dance Suite, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, Decca.
Divertimento for Strings, The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner, Decca.
Piano Concertos 1 and 2, Maurizio Pollini, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abaddo, Deutsche Grammophon.
Piano Concert No 3, Zoltan Kocsis, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer, Philips.
Violin Concerto No 2, Kyung-Wha Chung, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, EMI.
Viola Concerto, Wolfram Christ, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, Deutsche Grammophon.
String Quartets 1-6, Emerson String Quartet, Deutsche Grammophon.
Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Katia & Marielle Labèque, EMI.
Sonata for Solo Violin, Krysia Osostowicz, Hyperion.
Complete Solo piano music, Zoltan Kocsis, Philips.
Michael Jarvie is a working-class writer from Darlington in County Durham. He is the author of The Prison, a collection of short stories, and Black Art, a novel.