Bela Bartok, Composer, 1881 – 1945:
A Personal Introduction:
Bartok is a modern composer some of whose music I consider to be genuine masterpieces. Some people find an immediate affinity with Bartok, while others are distinctly alienated from first encounter. In these notes I am sticking to my own favourites and to my own personal views on Bartok. For example, although I acknowledge the importance of memes and that Bartok was a Hungarian, I do not describe his music as “Hungarian”, any more than I would call Beethoven’s music “German”. For me, music, and all art, is human, and transcends the memes of space and time; it is universal.
This rather excludes me from the mainstream of commentators on Bartok, who spend a considerable amount of time and effort delving into Bartok’s Hungarian roots, his studies of “peasant” music from the Hungarian and surrounding areas. This is not to argue that all of these issues are not important; they simply are irrelevant to my actual hearing of his music. And I tend to believe Bartok thought this way also.
Bartok first shocked me as a student, since I had heard nothing quite like his music, and yet I was captivated by its ferocity and rhythmic intensity. It seemed to reinforce my intuitive sense that I had to reconstruct everything that I had been “thrown” into through a radical re-assessment. Each time I hear his music, my convictions are reinforced; Bartok is a “Resonator” for me.
I consulted the usual sources:
Halsey Stevens, The Life and Music of Bartok, revised edition, 1964. This remains the standard source in English; is factually reliable, but quite stodgy in its written style. The similar books on Bartok by Griffiths (1984) and Chalmers (1995) add little to Halsey. The Bartok Companion, edited by M. Gillies, 1993 provides detailed background on each of his works, but again adds little to Halsey. Bartok Remembered, edited again by Gillies (1990) provides some passing comments by others on Bartok, but contains little of substance. Bartok and His World, edited by P. Laki, 1990, provides a valuable commentary on the influence of Stravinsky, and contains a typical article by Adorno. A Guide to Bartok, by G Kroo, 1971provides commentary on most of his works, but adds little to Stevens other than a heavy dose of Hungarian nationalism.
Bela Bartok Essays, edited by B Suchoff, 1976 provides an excellent set of writings by Bartok most of which are quite technical in nature, but demonstrate the strength of Bartok’s intellect, curiosity, and intensity which are latent in his musical masterpieces. This is a must read for those who seek a technical background to Bartok, and should be read in conjunction with Taruskin in his Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 4, 2010. Another must read is Paul Wilson, The Music of Bela Bartok, Yale, 1992, which provides five modern views on Bartok plus an analysis of five separate pieces of his music, concluding with a discussion on hermeneutics and perception (with special reference to some early thinking by Charles Taylor). This is a very challenging read.
Janos Karpati, Bartok’s Chamber Music, 1991, provides detailed analyses of the quartets, mainly of a technical nature. A highlight for the general reader is the “synoptic view” of the quartets on pp.14-17.
B. Suchoff, Bela Bartok. Life and Works, 2001; and Bela Bartok. A Celebration, 2004, tend to be data-dumps, stodgy, dense with dreadful print and lay-out and add little to Stevens.
Janos Demeny, Bela Bartok Letters, 1971 is an excellent source, laid out chronologically, with little topic reference.
Also of value are:
Bartok Stage Works, edited by N. John (English National Opera 44, 1991), which covers Bluedeard, Prince and Mandarin;
Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, D. Cooper, 1996, which provides extensive notes on this piece.
Booklet Notes in The Bartok Collection by Hungaroton, 2000, provides essential information on all of Bartok’s output.
Performances of Bartok’s Music:
The Bartok Collection by Hungaroton, 2000 is my principal CD source, augmented by my personal collection and YouTube.
A Qualifying Note to these Notes on Bartok:
The lack of any reliable source (as was Robbins Landon for Haydn, Maynard Solomon for Beethoven, and the myriad of solid commentaries on Bach, Verdi, etc) makes me hesitant to attempt to explore Bartok’s life in any depth. Obviously, part of the challenge for any non-Hungarian is the language itself, which is so different from any other European language. The challenge for any Hungarian is to be able to look at Bartok as a human being and not as the national hero he has become, and not to attribute too much of his motivation to some form of nationalism. On this, I quote Taruskin: “So the “Hungary” that this music, composed according to Bartok’s precepts, represents is no real Hungary but an idealized Hungary constructed by combining rural (or “primitive”) raw material with the most sophisticated, urbane techniques of elaboration and development: the Hungary of the liberal Utopian imagination.
And just because it was liberal, and because it was utopian, Bartok’s musical nationalism, unlike any we have seen before, was pluralistic and all embracing in the manner recalling the 18th-century philosophy of Herder, the original romantic nationalist. Bartok studied, and in his creative work assimilated, the folk music not only of the Magyars, but of all the peoples who inhabited “greater Hungary” – Romanians, Slovaks, Bulgars, Croats, Serbs – and even ethnically remoter peoples like the Turks (distantly related linguistically to the Magyars) or the Arabs of North Africa (correligionists of the Turks), both of whose musics Bartok researched on location, and about which he published treatises. He was reviled for the catholicity of his musical range by narrower nationalists; and eventually Bartok felt impelled to leave a Hungary that had allied itself politically with the German Nazis, the most virulently narrow nationalists of all. He may be justly viewed as the last of the Herderians, in contrast to the – sadly – more typical 20th-century nationalists who had betrayed Herder’s pluralistic legacy.” 378.
This theme is echoed in one of Bartok’s letters written in 1931: “My own idea, however – of which I have been fully conscious since I find myself as a composer – is the brotherhood of peoples, brotherhood in spite of all wars and conflicts. I try – to the best of my ability – to serve this idea in my music; therefore I don’t reject any influence, be it Slovakian, Rumanian, Arabic or from any other source. The source must only be cleaned, fresh and healthy!” Quoted in Griffiths, 139.
Taruskin later argues that Bartok compared his discovery of the piano music of Debussy “in terms of its impact on his development, to his discovery of peasant song itself.” 381.
This openness of Bartok to other influences, (regardless of their source), for his creative energies is surely one of the most evident elements of his music, and is perhaps one of the unsettling elements for the listener who is unfamiliar with the rhythms and tonalities he has absorbed and incorporated into his best music.
Bartok believed that he and Kodaly were involved in an evolution of Hungarian music, and not in a revolution as such (Suchoff, 361): “we took it – quite subconsciously – as the most suitable antidote for the hyper chromaticism of Wagner and his followers.” (364). He believed that the resemblances between Stravinsky and some Dalmatian folk music “is the result of pure coincidence.” (379). And he summed up his unique form of eclecticism as follows: “When I first used the device of extending chromatic melodies into a diatonic form, or vice versa, I thought I had invented something absolutely new, which never yet existed. And now I see that an absolutely identical principle exists in Dalmatia since heaven knows how long a time, maybe for many centuries. This again proves that nothing absolutely new in the world can be invented: the most unusual-looking ideas have or must have had their predecessors.” (383). “In my works, therefore, appear impressions derived from the most varied sources, melted – as I hope – into a unity…..Even the most abstract works, as for instance my string quartets…reveal a certain indescribable, unexplainable spirit – a certain je ne sais quoi – which will give anyone who listens, and who knows the rural backgrounds, the feeling: ‘This could not have been written by any but an Eastern European musician.’” (395-6). [I am not sure that future generations of listeners will necessarily make this connection, but Bartok’s argument remains – that he had absorbed a great deal from a wide variety of “folk music” and that it flows seamlessly through his best music, which begins in 1926: “…on that occasion I did not try to imitate anything from folk music”. The reference here is to ‘Musiques Nocturnes’, from Out of Doors, for piano. 380)].
I propose to address the six String Quartets separately (see below). Also, I intend to explore the works written after 1925 since I believe Bartok’s influence on me personally is rooted in his later works. I have diligently followed all of his compositions (see the Hungaroton Bartok Complete Edition, 2000) and willingly refer anyone to these pieces for a fuller appreciation of Bartok’s development, but I do not believe that there is any need to do so to fully appreciate his later work.
Bartok’s Music: The Masterworks:
I have clustered the pieces I personally consider to be Bartok’s masterworks. They are the pieces which move me deeply and which I recommend above all others. This is a personal choice based on personal taste. but then this is what Cantokentigerni is all about!
The First Piano Concerto was written in 1926; the Second Piano Concerto was written in 1930-31. Both are masterpieces and both should be listened to. Not everyone is able to listen to these pieces easily, but for others they have an immediate impact. This is a music of joy, ferocity and the highest intensity, and it is a music which only Bartok could write. For me, the Anda/Fricsay performances on DGG remain my favourites, although there are so many other good versions available – Pollini/Abbaddo on DGG; Kocsis/Lehel on Hungaroton; Kocsis/Fischer later on Phillips; Sandor/Fischer on Sony; Zimmerman/Boulez on DGG. Everyone who identifies with this music will feel immensely enriched as a result of this experience.
Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta was written in 1936 and is considered by many as Bartok’s superb masterpiece. For many, this music is immediately riveting, moving and explosive in its creativity. I believe that here Bartok finally finds his own voice with all of its integrity, intensity, and ferocity. There are so many performances of this piece available on CD. My preference remains Fricsay/RIAS on DGG 1954 (mono) and on Audite 1952 (mono) for its sheer intensity; closely followed by Karajan/BPO on DGG (1972, stereo), Ozawa/BPO on DGG (1993), Rolla/Orch de Chambre F Lizst, Harmonia Mundi (1992), Lehel/BSO on Hungaroton (1966). Despite rather poor sound (mono), Kubelik on Mercury equals Fricsay for intensity. The excellent Gunter Wand version with Cologne is not available other than on a very poorly transferred recording whose sound is too distracting. The Dorati, Solti, Dutoit, Bernstein, Reiner versions are passable. I would argue that Friscay has to be heard at least once, despite its Mono sound. This is simply extraordinary music which, once it enters the ear of the heart, never leaves.
Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion was written in 1937. “Its almost unprecedented dynamism establishes the Sonata as one of Bartok’s most significant works… the Sonata remains a unique work, not only in Bartok’s catalogue, but in the entire field of music. The outraged cries it once aroused have long since subsided, and it has been admitted to the small group of genuine masterpieces produced in this century, accepted as one of the most significant works of its creator. Because of the difficulties of performance it is unlikely to find a frequent place in concert programs, but it will probably repay both performers and audience for the effort expended on it.”(Stevens 213, 218). This is indeed a remarkable piece of music, not easy to assimilate at first hearing, but extraordinary nevertheless. Stevens’ reference to the difficulties of performance can be extended to the difficulties of recording this piece. By far the best performance and sound is that of Begona/Uriarte on Wergo, 1984. The Argerich/Kovacevich version on Phillips,1987, is a bravura performance with good sound, but not on a par with Wergo. The Ranki/Kocsis on Hungaroton, 1993, and the live performance on Hungaroton, 1981 are very good but lack the best balance for sound. The Labeque sisters on EMI, 1985, is a passable version. [I have not included the version for orchestra which strikes me the way string quartets sound when orchestrated; the intimacy intended by the composer in the original setting gets lost, and, in this case, the challenges for recording engineers appears to me to become insurmountable]. This is a piece to be approached only after the others in this section.
The Violin Concerto No 2 was written in 1937-38. This is one of Bartok’s great achievements, very much in his own voice with hauntingly beautiful moments mixed with humour and intense pathos. My preferred version is Anne Sophie Mutter with Ozawa/Boston on DGG (1991), followed by Kovacs/Lukacs/BSO on Hungaroton (1969). I still have a soft spot for Menuhin with Dorati (all versions) and Furtwangler, but Mutter took me beyond any of the other versions I have heard in her attack and mastery of the this piece. A must hear for all Bartokians. I was disappointed in the Fricsay version with Varga, whose violin playing simply eluded me (Audite, 1951, mono).
Divertimento for String Orchestra, written in 1939. This work ranks highly in Bartok’s output. The most electrifying performance and recording is Dorati/BBCSO on Mercury, 1964. Gunter Wand/CPO is also excellent but is available only on Itunes in a very poor sound edition. Menuhin/ESO, Nimbus, 1968 is wistful and intriguing; Ozawa/Saito Kinan Orch, Philips, 1996 is very good. The Vegh/Camerata Academica, Capriccio, 1988 is a highly personalized lyrical version. The Skrowaczki/Minnesota Orch, Vox, 1978 and the Solti/CSO, Decca, 1990 are passable. Both the Dorati/HSO, Hungaroton, 1969 and the Fischer/HSO, Nimbus, 1992 are disappointing and bland. The greatest disappointment is the Fricsay/RIAS, Audite, 1952 live recording whose sound engineering is poor, despite an electrifying performance.
Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1943. This is Bartok’s first composition since arriving in the United States in October, 1940. This is a controversial piece, called by some “a pot boiler” (Cooper, 2, 81), and by others “a great work, one of the greatest produced in this century” (Stevens, 283). It is certainly one of Bartok’s most performed and recorded pieces. “For the listener unsympathetic to contemporary music, the Concerto for Orchestra offers an admirable introduction. Its tonalities are are never obscure, even when clouded and ‘misty’ as in the Elegia. Most of its melodies are immediately attractive, and many are easy to sing or whistle. Its particular forms are – and in consequence its overall form is – straightforward. These attributes do not mark a weakening of Bartok’s style, or an esthetic regression. On the contrary, the Concerto for Orchestra is a strong, vital work, contemporary in the best possible sense, since in it are amalgamated into a homogeneous fabric all the diverse elements which touched Bartok from his earliest creative years to the end of his life. Within it may be discovered procedures that owe their presence to his early acquaintance with Brahms, Lizst, and Strauss; others that to the discerning eye and ear indicate relationships, however remote, with Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, with Bach and his predecessors; and, inextricably interwoven, the essence of Magyar peasant music which colors all the melodies, the harmonies, the rhythms.”(Stevens 283). The essential recording is Fricsay, 1952 (Audite, or DGG), closely followed by Karajan, (DGG 1965). Dorati’s Mercury version is good, as is Ferencsik on Hungaroton, 1967), as is Levine (DGG, 1966). All of the others I have heard (Ancerl, Leindsorf, Reiner, Solti, Jansonns, Blomberg, Dorati (on Hungaroton, 1969)) are passable, but lack the intensity of Fricsay and Karajan which is necessary to create the piece for the listener. With the Third Piano Concerto (see below), this is the best introduction to Bartok.
Piano Concerto No. 3, written in 1945. Not all Bartok lovers place this piece in the top drawer, (see the comments on the Concerto for Orchestra above) , but it remains popular and might be the easiest way into the other two piano concertos.The best performance for me remains Friscay/Anda on DGG, 1959. The Ferencsik/Ranki version on Hungaroton, 1974, is excellent also. The Boulez/Grimaux DGG, 2005, is very good. The Fischer/Kocsis version on Philips, 1984, is good. I was disappointed in the Fischer/Sandor performance on Sony, 1989. I was disappointed in the Fricsay/Kentner Audite, 1950, performance because of Kentner’s approach, despite the Fricsay/RIAS splendid playing and quite good sound. In terms of sheer bravura pianism, nothing quite equals Argerich/Dutoit on EMI, 1997. With the Concerto for Orchestra, this is the best introduction to Bartok.
Bartok’s Music: The Ancillary Pieces:
Again, these are personal choices of pieces which I enjoy, but are not required listening:
Vocal Music: Bartok wrote a significant amount of vocal music during most of his career, enough to fill four discs in the Bartok Complete Edition (these include the Cantata Profana, with Bluebread’s Castle on a separate disc). Much of this music is transcription from original folk songs. While much of this can be seen as a source for Bartok’s masterworks, I personally do not find them particularly interesting, and would recommend them only to the aficionado.
The String Quartets:
The best introduction to the quartets is Arnold Whittall, “Bartok’s String Quartets”, in the booklet to the Tokyo Quartet CD box set (DGG, 1981), which I will quote at length: “The more often Bartok’s string quartets are acclaimed as “classics” and as” the greatest quartet cycle since Beethoven”, the more difficult it is to write about them–and the less necessary it may seem to do so. In an ideal world, musical classics would be so widely and so well-known that verbal commentary would be totally superfluous. Everyone would know when they were written, the details of form and texture which characterize them, and also what they mean, in relation to each other, to the rest of the composers music, and to 20th Century culture in general. Either that–or everyone would agree that such information and ideas are utterly irrelevant. Classics are not merely their own justification, but their own explanation too. [I totally agree!]. What actually tends to happen with the few 20th Century works so far accorded classic status is that they are taken for granted. They are not so much placed on a pedestal as moved into the background, to provide the perspective for the “non-classical” activities which dominate the contemporary consciousness. It therefore seems possible, that more than most 20th Century works, Bartok’s string quartets are both over-familiar and undervalued. The true status of classics is not their categorizability but their inexhaustibility. We can never know them fully: and so, of all artworks, they are the ones which most reward regularly renewed study and interpretation. [And, I would add, “regularly renewed listening”]. Bartok’s six quartets were composed over a period of 30 years, from 1909, when the composer it was 27, and beginning to establish himself in Budapest as a teacher and pianist, to 1939, six years before his death, when his final departure from Europe was imminent. They therefore chart a progression from apprenticeship to mastery. But there are other progressions too: from expansiveness, through concentration, to a new and more powerful breadth; from experimentation and dependence on models to a fully realized and totally personal language which, having absorbed and refined certain elements from folk music, offers a reinterpretation of art music’s traditional tonality and formal design. They also chart a progression from confidence, through intensely expressed feelings of all kinds, to bitterness and to a valedictory pessimism having enough economy and formal strength to exclude any sense of total negation.” (5).
Whittall argues that the Quartet No.1 (1909) displays “the emergent master”. Quartet No.2 (1915-17) “stands in relative isolation from the other two;…Bartok was already a virtuoso quartet composer.” (6). Quartet No. 3 (1927) “is perhaps the most imaginative in form and the most intense in expression….The greatness of the Quartet lies in the clarity and coherence with which its passionate, powerful music is planned and presented. Such is its impact, indeed, that it is possible to feel that Bartok never quite matched this achievement again, in any medium.“ (7). “Quartets nos. 4 and 5 can be dealt with together in spite of being composed six years apart, in 1928 and 1934….In both works, relatively traditional formal schemes and the by now familiar range of instrumental textures and effects indicate that the composer was exploring established territory rather than extending it. But there is no loss of either urgency or individuality about the result.” (7). The Quartet No. 6 (1939): ” the restless yet reticent first movement, the pungent second movement, with its almost hysterical central section, the more controlled yet still biting anger of the Burletta, and the ambivalent yet deeply felt finale, with its reference to first movement material, all show that Bartok has retained a special intellectual and emotional sympathy for the media which so many modern masters have found uncongenial.” (8).
Whittall concludes his Notes as follows: ”These classic works seems the more powerful as they recede in time, not least because they remain unsurpassed as a truly ‘modern’ statement in a medium which could so easily have come to seem the special preserve of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. These quartets enshrine the essence of Bartok’s genius in all its individuality and variety. They are that rarest of phenomena, approachable masterworks, and to enjoy them is to sense, however dimly, something of the nature of art at its most exalted.” (8).
I also found Stephen Walsh, Bartok’s Chamber Music, BBC, 1982, to be very informative, but, like most of the commentaries on the quartets, quite technical and difficult for the non-musician.
In terms of the contemporaries who influenced Bartok, Stravinsky did not write a string quartet, but Schoenberg, Berg and Webern did, and it is almost certain that Berg’s Lyric Suite for string quartet directly influenced Bartok’s Third and subsequent quartets. Eventually, I will walk-through Stravinsky and provide notes. However, while I did listen to the Viennese serial masters’ string quartets, I have never been deeply influenced by their music in a way analogous to Bartok or Stravinsky, so will probably avoid reference to them by way of an extensive note.
Principal Performances: CD Box Sets:
The Tatrai Quartet, The Bartok Collection, Hungaroton, 1964. These are magisterial performances, intense, uniquely phrased, with good sound despite its age.
The Takacs Quartet, Hungaroton, 1984. Very intense, youthful, and very well recorded.
The Takacs Quartet, Decca, 1998. Equally intense, possibly more mellow, with good sound. I am not sure which is the better Takacs version!
The Tokyo Quartet, DGG, 1981. Intimate yet intense, with remarkable sound despite its age.
The Lindsay Quartet, ASV, 1988. Magnificent playing and well recorded.
The Hungarian Quartet, DGG, 1962. Szekely and company with reasonable sound for its age. My first set, so I am biased. But Tatrai is supreme.
The New Budapest Quartet, Hyperion, 1996. I do not find these performances to be in the same class as the above. The sound is very good.
My Personal Recommendation on Listening to the Quartets:
I would recommend that the 3rd, 4th and 5th Quartets should be listened to carefully, and the 6th only after having enjoyed these three. If their rhythmic dissonance disturbs you, pass on. As Walsh argues: “Though Bartok’s quartets are often beautiful, and (as I hope to show) certainly are emotional, one cannot hope to enjoy or understand them if one insists that music must before all else charm the ear.” (5). In a sense, the Quartets do not alter my personal view on Bartok; I continue to believe that his best work occurs after 1926.
The various writers on Bartok grapple with a personality who was excessively private, shy and at times quite intransigent. There is great debate on the actual academic value of all the transcriptions he made of peasant music. Their ultimate value is in the influence they had on Bartok as composer. His affective life is also shrouded in mystery; his mother dominates his life until she dies; he is attracted to younger women (both wives are younger piano students; Stefi Geyer and Jelly d’Aranyi are younger violin students with whom he had romantic attachments); he is a remote father. He is not really a patriot, being out of tune with the nationalist sentiment of his countrymen. He flees Nazi-aligned Hungary, but does not really leave it emotionally (his wife Ditta will return to Soviet dominated Hungary after Bartok’ death). He does not really emigrate to the U.S. and would probably have returned to Hungary if he had lived longer. He did not find “freedom” in the US, and it is difficult to fathom what he would have made of such a concept in the context in which he found himself. It should be noted how well Bartok was received in the US and how so many people rallied to his support. Despite so many efforts to welcome him, Bartok remained emotionally an “exile” from Taruskin’s mythic Hungary, and so never quite integrated into the US as did Stravinsky and others.
For all that, his music remains part of the great treasury of humankind’s creativity, there for all to access on Youtube or other digital mode. His music is eclectic, yet profoundly personal. In a sense, his music hints at what might be possible if humankind forgot its nationalism, its memes, and focussed instead on collaborating with everyone, regardless of background, to make the world a better place for everyone.
[Roots. Bela Bartok, 1881-1945, A Documentary Film by Istvan Gaal, Hungaroton, 2005. This is an excellent documentary, albeit slightly hagiographical, which I highly recommend. It does presume a reasonably good knowledge of Bartok’s music and life, but is well worth watching].