Budapest – a fine city. Formerly a provincial backwater made up of three small towns (Buda, Pest and Obuda), at the turn of the 20th century it was Europe’s fastest growing metropolis and a symbol of Hungarian national pride, the population ballooning from around 300,000 in 1870 to over a million in 1910. It boasted a magnificent Parliament and Stock Exchange, elegant boulevards, the continent’s first underground railway (inaugurated for the country’s millennium celebrations in 1896) and it was a magnet for the region’s brightest talents. While studying at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) looked into the future and said “For my own part, I shall have one objective: the good of Hungary and the Hungarian nation”.
The music of the prolific Béla Bartók has never been to everyone’s taste, let alone a hundred years ago when the first edition of the influential Musical Quarterly in 1915 scornfully dismissed his piano music as “…representing the composer promenading the keyboard in his boots. Some can be played better with the elbows, others with the flat of the hand. None require fingers to perform nor ears to listen to”. A cartoon of Bartók by Aline Fruhauf from 1927 entitled “An impression of Béla Bartók, the mild-mannered revolutionist who plays in New York this week” shows the composer seated at a piano that seemingly spews out thunderbolts. While a percussive dissonance undoubtedly peppers Bartok’s works, in common with his contemporary Stravinsky, it is not an end in itself but is used on a broader musical canvas.
Bartók is a rather unlikely Hungarian national hero – he was small and somewhat frail in stature, frequently troubled by ill-health. He was intensely private and inscrutable, but he was principled, stubborn and through his tireless studies of folk music, he grew to become one of the most distinctive and influential voices in 20th century music.
His life spans a tumultuous period in the country’s history: from the exuberant, turn of the century optimism, to political turmoil following the First World War and the carving up of the country with the Treaty of Trianon (1920); the gradual slide into Fascism led to the Second World War and the Holocaust, culminating with despoiling Red Army troops rampaging through Budapest at the close of the war.
Béla Bartók was born on 25 March 1881 in Nagyszent-miklós in the Torontál district of Hungary (now Sânnicolau Mare, Romania) where ethnic Hungarians made up only a tenth of the town’s population. Bartók’s father was the director of an agricultural college and his mother a piano teacher; both were keen amateur musicians and the young Bartók showed early promise as he could play from memory over 40 Hungarian folk melodies. Following the death of his father in 1888, the family moved frequently during a six year period while his mother sought work as a piano teacher, finally settling in Pozsony (now Bratislava, Slovakia).
In 1898, Bartók was offered a scholarship at the Vienna Conservatory which he turned down in favour of studying at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. This might seem a rash decision, but for the young patriot it made perfect sense to move to this bustling capital.
His early works are heavily indebted to the late Romanticism of Liszt, Wagner and, above all, Richard Strauss, whose luscious orchestral writing infused with polychromaticism was a lasting influence. Examples include his patriotic symphonic poem Kossuth and his Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, the latter being a Lisztian showpiece for his own virtuosity (Prokofiev had written his First Piano Concerto with the same motive but Bartók won no prizes with his piece, later remarking “Competitions are for horses, not artists”).
Like Vaughan Williams, it was his collecting and cataloguing of folk music which had the most impact on his music. He realised on graduating that the folk music he had been using during his studies was music of the city-dwelling Roma. (Years later, Bartók showed that Liszt had made similar errors in his perennially popular Hungarian Rhapsodies).
With the nationalist Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály (and armed with a rather primitive Edison phonograph), they started a rigorous and systematic collection of folk music from remotest corners of Hungary. The first fruits were the Twenty Hungarian Folk Songs (1906). Tellingly in the preface, they noted that “…the overwhelming majority of Hungarian society is not Hungarian enough, and not naïve enough to allow these songs to find room in their hearts”. Bartók became convinced that to move on from the dead-end of late Romanticism, a musical renaissance was needed where the composer “…assimilate(s) the idiom of the peasant music so completely that he is able to forget about it and use it as his mother tongue”. The influential literary journal Nyugat recognised the importance of Bartók and Kodály’s work and compared them to Goethe and Schiller, noting that “great artistic partnerships often come in pairs”.
The collection of folk music occupied much of Bartók’s career (especially during his holidays) and he went on to explore many other ethnic musical traditions. At the time of his death, it was estimated that he had collected over 6,000 folk melodies from Romania, Transylvania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Turkey and French North Africa. This figure has subsequently been revised substantially upwards, cementing his status as the pioneering ethnomusicologist of his time.
In 1907, and as a newly appointed piano teacher at the Budapest Academy, his international fame as a composer and soloist was growing but he was still developing musically and he wrote in quite disparate styles – from the provocative and muscular Allegro Barbaro for piano to the charming Romanian Folk Dances.
While no intellectual himself, Bartók along with Kodály attended meetings of the Budapest Sunday Circle, formed after the start of the First World War by a group of young intellectuals centred around the critic and philosopher, George Lukács and the writer Béla Balázs. Bartók used the meetings as a sounding board for his new compositions and it is a measure of the Sunday circle discussions (variously, on modernism and “the solitude at the heart of modern capitalism”) that his music was considered “light relief”. The contacts were useful for Bartók: Balázs wrote the librettos for his ballet The Wooden Prince and his extraordinary opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (much of which Bartók composed in a nudist camp “wearing only his sunglasses”). Menyhért Lengyel wrote the disturbing and erotic tale that would become the arresting musical pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin, to this day a regular item on concert programmes.
After the First World War, Bartók’s fiercely independent musical voice was fully developed and folk elements were assimilated in a rhythmically animated, intense and uncompromising musical style, full of dissonance and short, pungent motifs – such as in his six String Quartets, masterpieces which are often mentioned in the same breath as Beethoven’s late quartets.
For composers of the late Romantic mould, Bartók’s music was often rebarbative and bewildering. The celebrated Austrian composer Erich Korngold said of his First Piano Concerto “The piano becomes a machine, the orchestra a machine workshop, and all this in the service of a brutal, crudely materialistic noise, and all signifying a kind of Hungarian-Russian-Bolshevik machine art”. Bartók fared no better with the iconoclastic, atonal composers of the Second Viennese School who decried his “borrowing” of folk elements; he responded tartly “in the hands of incompetent composers, neither folk music nor any other musical material will ever attain significance … The result in every case will be nothing”.
Bartók found his situation in Budapest increasingly intolerable and precarious. The rise of xenophobic nationalism with a distrust of intellectuals had derailed Budapest’s earlier infectious optimism and internationalism. Following the death of his mother in 1940, he took the once inconceivable step of emigrating to America, (like so many of his compatriots before him), settling in New York with his wife. His final years were dogged by ill-health (leukaemia) but he concentrated on his ethnomusicological studies at Columbia University, completing his definitive study of Romanian folk music and studies of Turkish and Serbo-Croatian folk songs.
Among his final commissions are two unqualified masterpieces: his sumptuous and masterly Concerto for Orchestra (in which he indulges in a rare moment of sarcasm, mocking a theme from Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony) and his starkly uncompromising Sonata for solo violin, commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin and sometimes paired in performance with Bach’s seminal Partita no. 2 for solo violin.
Bartók died on 26 September 1945. “Hungarians are the only people in Europe without racial or linguistic relatives”, wrote another Hungarian émigré Arthur Koestler, “… therefore they are the loneliest on this continent. This perhaps explains the peculiar intensity of their existence… hopeless solitude feeds their creativity”. In the months before he died, Bartók asked “I would like to go home – forever”, a wish finally granted in 1988 when his son Béla Jnr, transferred his remains to his beloved Budapest.
Published 12 August 2015 on primephonic