Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Summermusic 2011: Bela Bartók, the Man Behind the Music

Looking ahead at the week’s on-going heat-wave, it’s welcome news, in a season of out-door summer concerts, that all three of Market Square Concerts’ “Summermusic 2011” take place inside in air-conditioned comfort. The opening concert this Friday takes place at 8:00 at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg – as does the final concert, next Tuesday, the 26th at 6:00 (yes, that’s six o’clock). And the middle concert takes place at the Climenhaga Arts Center at Messiah College in Grantham, at 4:00 on Sunday the 24th.

You can also read about how people used to listen to new music in Haydn’s day, here, and how that changed in the 19th Century. The post includes some video clips of the Haydn as well as the Bartók quartets the Fry Street String Quartet will be playing in their opening program on Friday. The program also includes Antonin Dvořák’s ever-popular Piano Quintet (you can hear a video of it here, starting with the first movement).

In this post, I wanted to write about the opportunity I had earlier this year to interview Bela Bartók’s son, Peter, via Skype when the Calder Quartet played all six of Bartók’s quartets in Elizabethtown as part of Gretna Music’s Leffler Chapel series (their summer season is set to begin shortly, too).

Peter, who just turned 87 this summer, was three years old when his father composed his Third Quartet and 21 when Bartók died at the age of 64. It’s not so much the insights he might have had concerning his father’s music, but more about the man who was his father and, coincidentally, one of the great composers of the 20th Century. His book, called simply “My Father,” was published in 2002 and it’s an invaluable source for anyone interested in first-hand accounts of composers’ lives, especially if you’re a fan of Bartók’s music.

Since Bartók never really discussed the technical details of his creativity with his colleagues, it was unlikely he’d talk about these over dinner with his young son. But there are insights here that might be overlooked in more technically oriented sources that give some insights into the man’s inspiration and his character.

Bartók was interested in Nature. Peter mentioned how, when he was a child, they would have chickens in the backyard of their Budapest home (one that was relatively in the quieter suburbs) as well as rabbits and how Bartók wrote to his son (then visiting his sister’s farm during the summer) that baby rabbits had been born and how he was building wooden coops to accommodate them. Sitting in the backyard with a picnic lunch, it was not unusual for one of the hens, by that time more of a family pet than a provider of fresh eggs, to wander around through the grass.

In any of my classes that mentioned Bartók’s music, I was always told the frequent occurrence of what he called “Night Music” was an abstract rendering of various night sounds – breezes, insect noises, bird cries and the like.

Years later, listening to pianist Leonid Hambro play the suite, “Out of Doors,” Peter told him how well he’d caught the frogs from his aunt’s farm, a memorable sound from those summer holidays, much to Hambro’s surprise. “Frogs?” he’d said, never having thought what the sounds were, so explicitly, in the movement called “Music of the Night.”

I’d never considered them in, say, the slow 2nd movement of the 5th Quartet. About 10 minutes into this “audio” clip from YouTube with the Novak Quartet, you’ll hear soft pizzicato sounds, mostly in the cello: they’re two notes, but only the first is plucked, giving a kind of guitar-like sound as the cellist slurs the two notes together. Now, the movement isn’t labeled “Night Music” but when I heard the Calder Quartet play this in April, the cellist slid from the first to the second notes and suddenly I realized “More frogs!” Was that what was in Bartók’s mind? There are a lot of nature-like sounds in this movement, but like many of the folk-song elements of his earlier works, he absorbed them more abstractly into his own voice in his later pieces. Perhaps he was doing the same with Nature, here?

When he was visiting his father after he’d come to the United States at the start of World War II, Peter found him notating several bird-songs outside his window when he was staying in Asheville, NC. Later, when Bartók’s last works were performed, there, in the 3rd Piano Concerto was one of these bird-songs.

At the time of his death, following a long but largely undiagnosed illness, Bartók had been working on or thinking about a number of pieces. Peter tells how, visiting his parents at their tiny cottage in Saranac Lake where his father was composing during a respite, just weeks before he died, his mother would be cooking their simple lunch in the kitchen while his father sat at the table working on the viola concerto that had been commissioned for William Primrose. But when his wife stepped out of the kitchen, Bartók lifted up the sketches of the viola concerto he was working on to show his son another score lying underneath – a piano concerto he was writing as a birthday surprise for his wife: it was almost finished.

He completed the enigmatic 6th String Quartet before leaving Hungary in 1939 – the overall sadness of the piece stemming more from the imminent death of his mother, to whom he was very close, than a political commentary on the state of the world. He composed no major works in the next three years, mostly due to the frustrations of adjusting to American life and not having a secure footing economically or musically. But the reception of the Concerto for Orchestra (written in 55 days at Saranac Lake during the summer of 1943) prompted a resurgence of creative security, enough for him to contemplate, among other things, a 7th String Quartet. Though he did complete the Sonata for Solo Violin the next year, he was unable to officially complete both the 3rd Piano Concerto and the Viola Concerto by the time he died in 1945.

When his health began deteriorating those last weeks and the doctors insisted he go to the hospital, Bartók wanted a day’s reprieve, figuring it wouldn’t make much difference. As a result, Peter explained, the last 17 measures of the piano concerto never had a chance to be filled in, something he’d felt would only take another day’s work.

Life in America was not kind to Bartók. The potential for concert performances was limited – he was not as well known here as he was in Europe – and there were problems about the royalties from his publishers in Britain. As a touring performer, Bartók had been given the use of a piano for their apartment by a company but once the concert offers dried up and he was no longer performing, the company regretfully took the piano back.

Reality 101 was a bureaucratic nightmare for the Bartóks: for instance, issued several months’ worth of food rationing coupons during the war, they used them all up at the grocery stores where unscrupulous cashiers didn’t advise them how they should be used and probably kept them to use themselves or sell them on the black market. As a result, the Bartóks were unable to buy any meat, butter or cooking oil, for instance, for several months, instead making do with a kind of improvised peasant fare from what they could. A bottle of olive oil, the gift of a friend, was treated like gold and stretched out to last most of the summer.

It seems odd, reading about Bartók railing against the soft white stuff Americans called bread – as opposed to the hearty fiber-filled home-made loaves Bartók was used to in Hungary. He even hated the smell of vanilla – more appropriately, “vanilla extract” – a pale imitation of what they had back home, and refused to eat anything made with it, including vanilla ice-cream.

He also hated commercial radio and how music was used to sell American products. More significantly, the idea of listening to radio broadcasts of classical music, he said, would destroy people’s interest in making music themselves – the old-timed parlor music generations of middle-class families shared in the evening.

Not only would it replace the need to go to a concert to hear live music, it might also lead to superficial listening, relegating it to background noise, the equivalent of “being caressed by a lukewarm bath.” And of course, it would also lower the listeners’ inhibitions, even leading them to chat during the music!

A proud man, Bartók was reluctant to accept charity. Friends had to revert to subterfuge and often failed when they tried to give him money to help with expenses. Peter, who had joined the US Navy and spent much of the war stationed in Panama, sent money home from his pay check to help his parents out, but after his father’s death, he found all of the money neatly set aside and untouched.

We think of Bartók the Composer – but he was also highly respected as a concert pianist and chamber musician as well as a teacher, a profession he not always enjoyed.

When he was a child, growing up in the suburban home in Budapest, Peter listened to his father practicing at home and playing duets with his mother, a former piano student of Bartók’s. He wrote the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion for him and his wife to play and Peter, then about 12, recounts hearing a run-through of one movement while he sat in the next room.

In addition to listening to his father composing his own music, he said he also heard him and his mother playing works by Mozart and one time when a violinist-friend was preparing a recital, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata (you can hear a recording here Bartók made with Szigeti in 1940).

Then there was the time young Peter asked his father, apparently concerned about the public reaction to his own music, why he didn’t write music more like Mozart. If his father was wounded by this question, Peter said he didn’t show it but carefully explained how music changes with times and a composer today had to write music for today: it wasn’t a matter of writing what pleased audiences more.

If you’ve ever played any of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos as a piano student, several of them were written as pieces for Peter to play in his lessons: he tells how his father would sit down, write something out and then put it in front of him to sight-read, letting him go through the short piece first and only then going back to point out things and make corrections. Many of these teaching pieces were later published in the early volumes of Mikrokosmos.

Peter didn’t grow up to become a pianist – instead he became a recording engineer. He explains how, when he was a child, a “white-noise machine” someone devised to help mask the sound (mostly of a radio) from their neighbor’s apartment before they moved to the quieter suburbs, turned out to be more noise than the original distraction, so the machine was given to young Peter as a kind of tinker-toy. Later, Peter accidentally caused a short by inserting a bent wire in a pair of outlets, leaving the house without electricity. Instead of punishing the boy, Bartók explained some of the principles of electricity and why you shouldn’t do that. Eventually, Peter became an electrical and then a recording engineer, ultimately shepherding his father’s legacy of recordings and compositions through the modern technology with re-issues both on LP and CDs through his own label, Bartók Records.

As part of a radio interview, Bartók performed four Scarlatti sonatas as part of the live broadcast. Later, when he was told they had been recorded and they wanted to release the recording, Bartók denied them the necessary permission not because there were a few minor glitches along the way as could happen with any live performance, but because, not knowing they would be recorded, he had not prepared himself mentally for something that would be so permanent.

He gave the test recording to his son when he was 10 and, despite his father’s injunction on its release, Peter would later issue the recordings when the question of the legacy of Bartók’s performance outweighed the initial argument. (You can hear them, here, in this YouTube video.)

One last anecdote. Peter recounts how, in the 1930s, the family was in Switzerland – one of Bartók’s favorite vacation destinations (he loved mountains) – visiting the home of Stefi Geyer who years earlier was a budding violinist and the first serious love of Bartók’s life. In fact, he wrote a violin concerto for her which, after she rejected him in 1908, he suppressed, using the first movement as the idealized first of “Two Portraits,” adding a bitter second one he called “Distorted” or “Grotesque.” This concerto only came to light after Geyer’s death in 1956 and would later be published as No. 1; the famous mature Violin Concerto completed in 1938 and regarded as one of the great but less frequently played concertos of the 20th Century, then became No. 2.

In fact, this relationship so affected Bartók, he wrote to Stefi shortly after their break-up that a new work he was just beginning - his 1st String Quartet - started with what he called "my funeral dirge."

Anyway, considering her family’s disapproval of young Bartók, only still a “promising” composer (and, incidentally, an atheist), Ms. Geyer instead married a successful lawyer and then, after he died during World War I, a Swiss composer. They met again in the 1930s and renewed their friendship.

Knowing how Bartók disapproved of recordings, she had her daughter go turn off the phonograph when the composer and his family showed up to visit this one particular time. But he said he liked what they were listening to and was curious about it, so they listened to it – arrangements of George Gershwin songs played by clarinetist Benny Goodman and his band.

A couple of years later, the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti asked Bartók to compose a short two movement piece, maybe about 6-7 minutes long, something that could be recorded on two sides of a 78rpm record. It was actually commissioned by Benny Goodman and they premiered the original version of the work, called Rhapsody, at Carnegie Hall in 1939. Later, Bartók added the middle movement and joined the other two for the performance of what was now called Contrasts and its subsequent recording for Columbia – which you can hear here – in 1940, shortly after Bartók arrived in America.

So, good things can come from listening to recordings, after all!

- Dick Strawser
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Photo credits: 
Top right, uncredited portrait of the composer found on-line.
Left, photo taken by Michael Murray at Gretna Music's April 8th pre-concert talk at Leffler Chapel, with Dick Strawser (left) interviewing Peter Bartók (right) via Skype and posted on Facebook.
Right, photo of Peter Bartók and his father taken in 1932 when Peter was 8 and his father 51, the year he began composing Mikrokosmos originally for his son's piano lessons.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks a lot for your great articles here, my friend!