Thursday, April 2, 2020

Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion

In what feels like Week #144 of the global COVID-19 Isolation, Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts, has selected two works for this week's “Weekly Dose of Great Chamber Music” with the view that music is good medicine for the soul. The main reason for selecting these two performances is to feature Stuart Malina, whose celebration of his Twenty Years as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony has been cut short by concerns over the Coronavirus. Featured as a guest pianist with Market Square Concerts over many of those years, Malina was also to be involved with MSC's final concert of the season, our own celebration of Stuart's Twenty Years in Harrisburg and that too, now, has been canceled, rescheduled for a later season.

There is another theme in these two works. Hungarian composer Bela Bartók wrote his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion in the shadow of what soon became World War II and the dark mood, especially of the first movement and many of the nighttime interruptions of the middle movement, reflect that period of grim uncertainty. Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Piano Quintet in G Minor in 1940, shortly after World War II began, where the looming threat was the imminent invasion by Nazi Germany in June of 1941.

While much is made of our being at war with an “invisible enemy,” perhaps the associations with this music is apt. Just as art can be entertaining, it can also be intellectually stimulating. It can also be cathartic and let us know – as the acting teacher Stella Adler said in a quote that heads this blog, “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one” – we have gotten through anxious times before and we can get through this one.

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Speaking of anxious times, this performance of Bartók's Sonata was given on September 10th, 2016, the day before the 15th Anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, and took place at Messiah College in Grantham PA where Market Square Concerts' directors Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang are also faculty members. In this concert, you may recognize some of the performers (even the page-turners): in addition to Ya-Ting Chang, there's pianist Stuart Malina and percussionists Christopher Rose (also principal percussionist of the Harrisburg Symphony) and Erik Forst (Director of Percussion Studies at Messiah College). Peter Sirotin plays the civilian role of page turner for his wife, Ya-Ting; and Zev Malina, whose Suite for Orchestra opened the Harrisburg Symphony's 2019-2020 Season, turns pages for his dad.

The Sonata is in three movements: an opening “Sonata Form” movement (its ominous introduction begins at 4:20 with an almost inaudible timpani roll on a low F-sharp); a middle slow movement (itself in traditional A-B-A form), an example of Bartók's “night music” (beginning at 18:16); and a rousing, dance-like finale (beginning at 25:58) which seems destined to end in a blaze of C Major before it subsides in an almost inaudible ending with snare drum and cymbal (two instruments not usually associated with “quiet”).

(again, the blog template limits the size of the video window: if you wish to view it “full screen,” click on the bracketed square in the video's lower right corner when you hover the mouse over the image.)
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Given Bartók's explorations of the percussive side of the piano, especially in his music of the 1920s, it seemed logical someone should suggest – probably Paul Sacher, the conductor of a string orchestra in Basel who'd already commissioned Bartók to write his Divertimento and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste in the mid-1930s – he ought to write something for piano and percussion. A commission was then arranged from the Basel group of the International Society for Contemporary Music in 1937.

Bartók at home (1938)
As he began working on it, it became clear Bartók needed two pianos to offset the battery of percussion instruments he wanted, a set-up that was now going to require two players. This might have been a practical solution, also, considering he was a busy concert pianist, and his wife, known to history as Ditta (short for Edith), a former piano student of his, had given up her aspirations for a solo career to become a wife and mother: it would give them something to play together as a piano duo.

They gave the first performance in Basel on January 16th, 1938, and then performed it in Budapest two or three months later.

Georg Solti, one of the great conductors of the 20th Century, had studied piano with Bartók in Budapest (and composition with Ernő Dohnányi), graduating from the Franz Liszt Academy in 1930. In a 1987 documentary about his recording the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Solti recalled how he had gone to hear the concert but just as he sat down in the audience, someone asked him if he would turn pages for Mrs Bartók whom he had never met. Remember, he'd never heard the piece before, or even seen the score, with no opportunity to rehearse: they just walked out on stage.

“It was very exciting but it was very difficult to turn the page. So if you ask me, 'How did you like the piece?' ...'I don't know!' I was too busy turning pages...” Unlike the Basel premiere which was quite well received, the audience reaction in Budapest – given the difficult political situation between the liberal composer and the pro-Fascist government in 1938 – was what Solti called “cruel indifference,” slowly clapping his hands, three times, without any enthusiasm. Most of the audience remained silent. “It was terrible.”

Curiously, this reflects a conversation the composer had with his son, Peter, who was at the time 14, and which he related in his memoir, My Father.

Me interviewing Peter Bartók, 2011
In 2011, I had the amazing opportunity to interview Peter Bartók via Skype from his home in Florida for a program at Gretna Music featuring all six of Bartók's string quartets (that summer, he turned 87). Now, since the composer rarely (if ever) talked about the technical side of his composing with friends and students, he was unlikely to talk shop with his teenaged son. But Peter remembered many fascinating details that can give us a personal insight into the man behind the music.

When his parents were rehearsing Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448, and preparing his father's new Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, young Peter asked his father, 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.
Peter Bartók (age 8) with his father and mother in 1932

Of course, growing up with a famous composer for a father, there are things you're not aware of compared to other children: when he began taking his first piano lessons from his father, he would walk in and find something freshly composed on the piano's music rack, a little piece to work on and gradually build a beginner's technique. Eventually, these became the famous collection of "teaching pieces" called Mikrokosmos.

Quoting from a previous post, I'm thinking here of the Sonata's middle movement, one of many "night pieces" Bartók composed:

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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 in the relatively 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.

Yet Peter told pianist Leonid Hambro, listening to his recording of the suite, Out of Doors, 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 thinking what the sounds really represented.
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Still, as you listen to the middle movement of this Sonata, it's clear this is not an idyllic nocturne inspired by sitting on the porch of a remote farmhouse listening to frogs down at the pond or the buzzing of insects. That insistent short repeated figure interrupting the middle of the movement, a distant layer behind those long, slowly crawling melodic fibers –  an ominous drum-beat? - ya-dah-duh dee-dah-duh – what does it mean, if it means anything? Certainly the growing tension is palpable, perhaps even fear, as it rises to a climax before fading away?

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It is also important, if you really want to get into the background behind Bartók's creativity, to be aware how turbulent these times were in Hungary's history. While some choose to ignore the influence of history on a particular work – imagine Beethoven's Eroica without Napoleon or Shostakovich's 5th without Stalin – much less the creative psyche of its composer, art is not usually created in a vacuum. Yes, some may be as escapist for the artist as the art-lover, but sometimes the period a composer lives in (or lives through) leaves its imprint directly or indirectly on the music he writes. If that were not the case, Bartók's last string quartet and this Sonata would be very different pieces – and Bartók would not have moved to America and died in poverty in 1945. Oh, he may still have died of leukemia at the age of 64, but living “at home” assuming you could mention his life-story without mentioning World War II or Hitler...

He was born in what is now Romania but he's not Romanian. Ethnically, he is Hungarian and the region of Transylvania (best known in America for exporting vampires) where he was born was then part of the Kingdom of Hungary which was politically one half (arguably) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where the King of Hungary was the same guy who was the Emperor of Austria. German was the official language and German culture was the predominant influence on all aspects of Hungarian life. This becomes more evident when you understand that the Hungarian composer – also a friend and colleague of Bartók's – Ernő Dohnányi chose to go by the German form of his name, Ernst von Dohnányi, during his life (even his grandson, the American-based conductor, was still Christoph von Dohnányi). Reverting to the Hungarian form of his name is a kind of cultural revisionism but one in which Hungarians can claim their own.

Bela Bartók, 1903
As a student, Bartók refused to speak German at home and only in public when he had to. He was so much a Hungarian patriot, his first major orchestral composition was a symphonic poem written in 1903 based on the life of Hungarian politician Lajos Kossuth, hero of the 1848 Revolution for Hungarian Independence (though the revolution failed in its ultimate goal, it eventually led to the formation of the dual state of Austria-Hungary after almost twenty more years of at times “passive resistance” or outright rebellion). The fact Bartók used a satirical motive mocking the Austrian National Anthem to represent the Germanic occupation of Hungary may partly explain the work's success at its premiere in Budapest and why it was rejected by the Vienna Philharmonic.

Following World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and Hungary was immediately embroiled in various internal wars trying to keep itself intact as well as dealing with political factions like the pro-Communist forces (following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917) and the conservative Royalists. By 1920, the Royalists had won but had to deal with a treaty that redrew the Hungarian map. The kingdom now lost 72% of its former lands, becoming now (like Austria) a small and insignificant land-locked nation.

Ruled by a “regent,” the kingdom never had a king and Miklós Horthy's regime, especially after the 1929 Depression, became increasingly linked with Germany. As Hitler came to power, the Hungarian government became increasingly pro-Nazi, eventually passing two “Jewish Laws” in 1938-39 which severely limited the Jews' ability to be involved first in commerce, then in all aspects of Hungarian life. Once the Anschluss brought Austria directly under Hitler's control in March, 1938, many Hungarians realized it was only a matter of time.

In 1936, the Bartóks went on a concert tour of Switzerland and returned the next year for a family holiday. While visiting friends there, one of them was playing a record of Benny Goodman and, knowing how Bartók disliked recordings and probably wouldn't care for Jazz, he went to turn it off, but Bartók asked him to let it continue. This became the inspiration behind his writing Contrasts for violin, clarinet, and piano the following year. Having composed his 5th String Quartet in 1934 for America, he wrote the “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta” (1937) and the Divertimento for Strings (1939) for Paul Sacher in Basel, Switzerland. While there, he was commissioned by the Basel branch of the International Society for Contemporary Music for a work for piano and percussion which became the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, completed in 1937.

But Bartók had been concerned about the rise of Fascism since 1931, even before Hitler became Germany's Chancellor. He defended Toscanini who was being attacked by the Italian Fascists and after performing his 2nd Piano Concerto in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1933, Bartók vowed never to perform in Germany again and in 1937 forbade broadcasts of his music in Germany and Italy. He changed publishers that same year, switching from the Viennese-based Universal Edition to the British firm, Boosey & Hawkes.

Between 1938 and '39, he moved his collection of manuscripts and research material from Budapest to London “so at least my manuscripts could be somewhere safe.” But his mother, old and in frail health, kept him tied to Budapest. Only after her death in December, 1939 – Germany had by then invaded Poland and the War had begun – he went on a concert tour to the USA in the spring of 1940 and, after returning for a farewell performance in Budapest with his wife, the family fled Hungary to Lisbon and then to New York City in the fall of 1940. His last major work to be composed in Europe was the 6th String Quartet, begun on one last Swiss holiday in August, 1939 (the invasion of Poland was only days away) and finished it back in Budapest in November. His mother died the following month.

Bela & Ditta Bartók, April 1941
But of course those who deny the world around them has no influence on a composer's creations have no explanation why Bartók's 6th Quartet consists of four movements deeply infused by a sense of impending tragedy. Each movement begins Mesto (sad) and the last movement is dominated by this material.

In 1940, his new publisher suggested Bartók arrange the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion as a Concerto for Two Pianos. This was given its premiere in London with other pianists in 1942 but Bartók and his wife gave the American premiere with Fritz Reiner and the New York Philharmonic in January, 1943. It was to be his last public performance: two-and-a-half years later, Bartók died of leukemia.

– Dick Strawser

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