Liszt is to piano playing what Euclid is to geometry.

Alan Walker

HIS OEUVRE HAS RELEVANCE TO HUMAN AND SOCIAL PROBLEMS TOPICAL EVEN TODAY

1 April 2021

On the 140th anniversary of the birth of Béla Bartók, a commemoration of the milestone anniversaries of a career, of understanding, of love: László Vikárius, professor at the Liszt Academy of Music and head of the Bartók Archives of the Institute for Musicology, evokes our great predecessor.

It was one hundred years ago, in March 1921, that the world of music first celebrated the birthday of Béla Bartók, his fortieth, thus making a clear statement about his international standing. The Parisian journal La Revue musicale published an extensive and uniquely in-depth review of his career: Zoltán Kodály analysed the oeuvre of his friend. Since from 1918 onwards his compositions had been released by perhaps the most significant music publisher of the age also dealing with contemporary music, Universal Edition of Vienna, the associated journal Musikblätter des Anbruch dedicated one of its rare special editions in its entirety to Bartók. Here in Hungary, Lajos Kassák’s avant-garde periodical Ma issued a whole special edition solely on Bartók in 1918.

On an anniversary such as we have now, it is worth noting that the composer’s decennial birthdays are mostly associated with significant works and events that signal milestones in a career: in 1891, after the premature death of his father, the 10-year-old child living with his mother and sister had largely composed his childhood piano pieces, including his programmatic composition The Course of the Danube, written in the style of popular period dances and strung together from movements; in 1901, taking a year out as a student of piano and composition at the Liszt Academy, he overcame the last great illness of his troubled childhood and adolescence thanks to treatment taken at Merano in Italy. On 21 October 1901, at a special concert organized by the Liszt Academy, he performed – with resounding success – the B minor sonata by Liszt at his first public appearance at the music academy. During this period perceived as largely unproductive, he wrote a large-scale variation series for piano, Variations, on the theme of his classmate Felicie Fábián.


Béla Bartók. Source: Bartók Archives, Institute of Musicology

 

It is virtually unbelievable that after the passage of a further ten years, in 1911, as a 30-year-old teacher of piano at the Liszt Academy and a family man, he composed his opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, to Béla Balázs’s mystery play drama that although folk balladic in tone still provided an analysis of modern emotions. Stage works are in the focus of the 1910s. Yet Allegro barbaro in all likelihood similarly dates from 1911, and also by then his four-part series For Children built on Hungarian and Slovak folk and children’s songs became complete. In the abovementioned year of 1921, he composed his first Sonata for Violin and Piano, which he dedicated to the hugely gifted student of Hubay, violinist Jelly d’Arányi who was living in England, and which in the period after the First World War reignited, this time for good, his career as an international composer and performer.

However significant – and in its significance, indispensable – the new stylistic turn of the 1926 ‘piano’ year was five years later, in the next decennial anniversary, in 1931, he completed his second piano concerto, which more classically and more successfully represented his mature style compared with the No. 1 piano concerto of 1926. Also in 1931, he composed 44 Duos for Two Violins, which, almost for the last time, gave an even more varied cross-section of rural music sources of his new musical style, setting arrangements of Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Ruthenian, Serbian and Arabic melodies side by side. Furthermore, in this year he also formulated his famous ars poetica about the fundamentally Hungarian nature of his music, speaking about the three rural music roots – Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak – and the ‘pure source’ in his oft-quoted letter to Octavian Beu. Perhaps even the composition of Cantata profana in the previous year was not unconnected to this milestone anniversary.

This, the fiftieth, contained many memorable moments despite the cancellation of the premiere in Pest of The Miraculous Mandarin. By this time, he had unequivocally become a recognized public figure in international cultural life. As a sign of this, he was invited to the regular session of the permanent committee on literature and the arts of the League of Nations, and then again, 1936 should not be omitted: in this year, not only did he give his inaugural address entitled Liszt Problems at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, not only did he visit Turkey to give concerts and lectures and, for the final time, make a field visit collecting an entire volume’s worth of folk music of Asia Minor, but he also composed one of his masterpieces, Music for Stringed Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. After all these, and following the final truly fertile years, his tragic silence on the decennial anniversary after the outbreak of the Second World War was particularly sad: in 1941, by now in America, only the arrangement for two pianos of his early second suite was completed, destined for a joint concert with his second wife, pianist Ditta Pásztory. In fact, this may have been necessary after the bumper harvest of previous years (Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Violin Concerto, Divertimento, Mikrokosmos, Quartet No. 6, just to mention the most important works). Even so, this silence was broken by a final outburst of creative energy from Concerto for Orchestra through Solo Sonata for Violin to the Piano Concerto No. 3.

 


Dr. Andrea Vigh, President of the Liszt Academy, lays a wreath at the grave of Béla Bartók on the 140th anniversary

 

 

Looking back over the significant anniversaries, without doubt the one a hundred years earlier appears to have had a particular significance and, after the terrible war and ensuing social upheaval, once again, albeit only temporarily, to be full of hope. For Bartók, this year started with an important concert: on 7 January 1921, a new composer’s recital was arranged for him in the Liszt Academy. ‘The recital was very beautiful, very warm – as though all those people somehow felt something needed to be remedied, someone needed to be loved who had been unfairly injured.’ This is how Bartók’s wife, Márta Ziegler, summed up the event in a long joint letter to the composer’s mother the next day. The concert programme and list of performers is most noteworthy. For once, it was not the composer playing from his piano works but the most prominent Hungarian pianist of the day by far, Ernő Dohnányi. He played the second of Three Burlesques, Slightly Tipsy, Dirges No. 1, Bear Dance and Evening in Transylvania from Ten Easy Pieces for Piano – ‘after this was the greatest racket’ – and finally the Allegro barbaro. The programme began with the String Quartet No. 1 in a performance by the loyal Waldbauer–Kerpely Quartet, and as the final work, similarly to the first composer’s recital in 1910, the same quartet performed the early String Quintet along with Bartók. According to an observation by Márta Ziegler: ‘… whatever, this was most liked, the people were beside themselves with joy’. But she also noted: ‘The quartet came first, it was very beautiful, the boys played mainly the last movement beautifully, and with such love and warmth.’

It is conspicuous in the account just how much emphasis is placed on the love necessary for the work and the composer. It is even more striking if we read the part of this letter penned by Bartók, who also wanted to write ‘a few lines about matters in Paris and London’. In the music review of the Parisian Temps ‘not only […] do they not “scold” me, but they write about me in a most kindly manner.’ In the review to the programme for the Debussy memorial concert, Bartók’s piano work is highlighted and there is also appreciation for No. 7 of Improvizations written on Hungarian peasant songs. Later on, he wrote: ‘The London article […] is absolutely sensational.’ After taking the findings of Cecil Gray into consideration he noted: ‘It is very reassuring that there are musicians from far away with whom I have no personal connection and who can love my works so much. From this it can be concluded that over time, more and more such musicians will be found in this world.’

So people cannot ‘esteem’, ‘appreciate’, ‘acknowledge’ his works, but ‘come to love them’. It would appear that love for his works is the principal criterion. When, in 1934, Bartók, as a member of the abovementioned cultural committee of the League of Nations, attempted to draw attention to the threat facing Europe in his speech ‘Staat und Kunst’ (‘State and Art’), and at the same time he was writing about ‘coming to love’ works, raising his voice in the interest of the freedom of art, he said:

‘If […] the rabble stop the presentation or performance of works, the printing or sale of books, which are politically totally neutral, or they destroy the works themselves, thereby making it impossible for people of different perceptions to know and love these, furthermore, if the state authorities purposefully give free reign to such despicable acts, then it is our duty to raise our voices most forcefully in protest.’

It would appear that ‘to become acquainted’ and ‘to come to love’ is the key of the relation to art. In his late writings, when he once again endeavoured to shed light on the role of folk music from the point of view of new Hungarian composition to readers of the American Hungarian Observer, love received an even greater emphasis than earlier. He confronted their own example with the 19th century arranged music use of rural music tending to mean shading:

‘With us modern Hungarians, the case is a different one. We felt the mighty artistic power of the rural music in its most undisturbed forms – a power from which to start, from which to develop a musical style imbued even to the slightest details with the emanations from this virgin source. This was, as I would put it, a totally new musical outlook – or to use the German technical term, it was a new Weltanschauung. Our reverence for the Eastern strictly rural music was, so to speak, a new musico-religious faith. We felt that this rural music, in those pieces which are intact, attained an unsurpassable degree of musical perfection and beauty, to be found nowhere else except in the great works of classics. Incidentally, our adoration was not limited to rural music alone. It encompassed, as well, rural poetry and rural decorative art – or, as I would put it in a single phrase, it extended to rural life as a whole, unspoiled by urban civilization.’

There is a completely new attitude, approach, life experience behind this ‘musico-religious faith’. When he mentions the difference between Kodály’s art and his own music, once again love is emphasized: ‘Kodály studied, and uses as a source, Hungarian rural music almost exclusively, whereas I extended my interest and love also to the folk music of the neighboring Eastern European peoples and ventured even into Arabic and Turkish territories for research work.’

Bartók’s work appears strict because order, consistency, and work done without sparing oneself are behind every single note and letter. Yet this rigour keeps only the intellectual-emotional order.

It is no coincidence that in the same document he described peasant music, and at the same time his own aesthetic goal, thus: ‘In my works, therefore, appear impressions derived from the most varied sources, melted – as I hope – into unity. These various sources, however, have a common denominator, that is, the characteristics common to rural folk music in its purest sense. One of these characteristics is the complete absence of any sentimentality or exaggeration of expression. It is this which gives to rural music a certain simplicity, austerity, sincerity of feeling, even grandeur […].’

Every manifestation of Bartók is characterized by this ‘austerity’, but it is precisely this that gives all his artistic and scientific manifestations ‘sincerity of feeling’, ‘even grandeur’. Seventy-five years after his death, on the 140th anniversary of his birth, it is worth emphasizing that behind all this ‘austerity’ and ‘the complete absence of any sentimentality or exaggeration of expression’ we must see and acknowledge nothing other than love. Thus his oeuvre can become a way into great human and social problems that are still relevant today and an authentic testimony proving the cohesive power of the coexistence of many different cultures.

 

László Vikárius