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"I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing"
Béla Viktor János Bartók’s contribution to music is easy enough to describe: no other composer did as much research and documentation of folk music, and subsequent incorporation of the genre into classical music. He’s considered the founder of ethnomusicology for that very reason. But compared to other nationalist composers, including fellow Hungarian researcher/composer Zoltán Kodály, Bartók further distinguished himself twofold:
His interests of folk music were not isolated to his native Hungary: Bartók was also interested in the folk music of the neighbouring countries of Turkey and Romania and Slovakia and many others, and;
He was most interested in the folk music of people on the lower class, i.e. actual folk people, lamenting the 'destructive urban influence.’
Bartók considered folk music—what he called ‘peasant music’—“instinctive creation of a human mass without artificiality. It is a natural phenomenon, just like the various forms of the animal or vegetable kingdom. As a result, its individual organisms—the melodies themselves—are examples of the highest artistic perfection.” The influence of folk music in his own compositions helped ‘free’ him of the diatonic system and positions him firmly—seemingly paradoxically—as a modern composer. It was also the incorporation of folk melodies that separated him from the other major modernists: you can hear Debussy and Stravinsky’s influences on Bartók, but you would never confuse a Bartók composition for another composer’s because no other composer was incorporating Central European folk songs into their music—not even fellow Hungarian composer Franz Liszt.
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In a way, Bartók represents Hungary better than my beloved Franz Liszt. Liszt was only Hungarian by birth, and left Hungary at the age of 9 to tour the bigger cities of Europe. As a result, he spoke less Hungarian than he could German or French. What's funny is that Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, meant to celebrate the folk music of Hungary, turned out to be based on gypsy music and not actual Hungarian folk music, and it was Bartók who helped reveal this through his careful study of folk music. Liszt provides a good foil to Bartók because they were so diametrically opposed in how they approached piano composition. Liszt’s pieces tended to be expansive and colourful and epic; Liszt—Chopin too—were composing very long solo piano pieces that engaged all-the-way through. By contrast, Bartók’s solo piano pieces tend to be quite short. For example, Liszt’s piano sonata runs half an hour; Bartók’s doesn’t even get to 15.
Bartók also popularized two techniques: the ‘Bartók pizzicato,’ where a violinist would pull the string upwards and releasing it to create a snap (hence its other name, the ‘snap pizzicato’), and while he might not have been the first composers who incorporated tone clusters ("chords comprised of notes placed close together; a literal cluster of tones)—Ukraine-born and forgotten American composer Leo Ornstein has Bartók beat by about ten years, whom I wrote about on the tragically-defunct Tusk Is Better Than Rumours substack, and it was ultimately Henry Cowell who introduced them to Bartók in the first place after they met in 1923—he is definitely one of the major ones, and his compositions are full of them from 1924-onwards.
David Cooper, in his essential book about the composer, described his life’s work as “almost superhuman,” and indeed, Bartók composed while traveling and researching folk music. But it’s not so much the quantity that he wrote that matters to me: his Out of Doors suite, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, his Piano Sonata, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, three Piano Concerti, the last three String Quartets—his top ten compositions by my estimation—would surely earn him a place among the top 30 best composers, and that’s without even considering all those tiny piano pieces that he loved making.
Here’s a very ‘quick’ guide that I feel only scratches the surface:
14 Bagatelles (1908) was written shortly after his first investigation into Hungarian folk music with Zoltán Kodály in 1905-6, which he later described as “a new piano style […] as a reaction to the exuberance of romantic piano music of the ninteenth century; a style stripped of all unessential decorative elements…” Of particular note is the third bagatelle, which sounds very much like Claude Debussy’s “Feux d’artifice” from the masterful Preludes. It was the aforementioned Zoltán Kodály who introduced Bartók to Debussy, “Kodály urged me to study Debussy's works. I was very much surprised to find that pentatonic turns identical with those found in Hungarian folk music played a prominent part in his melodic construction,” and in general, Bartók felt that Debussy allowed European composers to move away from classical influence from Germany. You can hear more impressionism creeping into Bartók’s pieces, the aptly-titled 4 Dirges and Deux images written soon after.
Gyermekeknek (‘For Children’) are a set of 4 volumes and 27 pieces written for children between 1908-9 based on Hungarian and Slovakian folk songs, and while the harmonies are stripped away (to make it easier for children to play), they sound apiece with his ‘mature’ folk songs otherwise. “No. 10”’s switch from the tentative introduction to the allegro molto section is unexpected (as is its switch back), but it does actually sound like a children’s dance per its title, like a child gaining confidence to dance and getting pooped immediately afterwards. (I normally don’t care about children’s pieces, but just had to listen to it because of that Naxos art.)
Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) is the only opera Bartók ever wrote, based on a French folk legend that I can’t make sense of (King Bluebeard invites his newest wife Judith into his castle, and she wants to open all the doors to the rooms to which he initially refuses, and she pushes on anyway, revealing torture chambers filled with blood and eventually she becomes one of his concubines despite protest. I guess the moral of the story is if you go to a stranger’s place and they have a torture chamber, that’s your cue to leave), and it sometimes gets recommended for Bartók but there’s not enough music backing the voices.
He wrote Romanian Folk Dances in 1915, collected in the Cédric Tiberghien disc pictured above. You can listen to all six pieces that make up Romanian Folk Dances in about 5 minutes and I can hardly think of a better way to spend so little time. He captures the textures of violins and flutes on piano so wonderfully here (“Stick Dance” and “In one spot,” respectively), and “In one spot” sounds like something Satie might have wrote.
The Wooden Prince (1916) is a one-act ballet with a story that plays like a children’s folk tale, about a prince who falls in love with a princess, must overcome obstacles set by a fairy, attempts to attract her by fashioning a wooden puppet out of his hair, clothes, and crown, only for her to fall in love with the puppet and flee from this strange now-bald man. Taking pity on him, the fairy replaces his hair and personal effects, and the princess, upon seeing him, tries to woo him over. He rebuffs her, and she discards her crown, clothes, and cuts her own hair off, mirroring his actions from earlier. The prince takes pity on her, and the two embrace. Of note is the use of saxophone on the third dance (“Dance of the Waves”), which writer/music professor David Cooper notes is “a relatively early use of the instrument providing mainstream orchestral colour” and xylophone to represent the titular wooden prince. The ballet would be one of Bartók’s more popular works, and one that he would come to resent as a result.
The Miraculous Mandarin (1924) is his other ballet, also composed of only one act, and infamously banned after its premiere in Cologne, Germany, on November 27, 1926 because of its scandalous subject matter: about a prostitute who initially rebuffs a mandarin. The tramps who force her into the trade attempt to kill him, which are unsuccessful, and only when she embraces the mandarin does he finally die. Love the ‘last gasp’ horns at the end of “The Mandarin Appears,” all loud and ominous. Both ballets are performed by Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, pictured above and released in 2019.
For a few years in the 1920s, Bartók wrote very little, stating “recently I have felt so stupid, so dazed, so empty-headed that I have truly doubted whether I am able to write anything new at all anymore.” He came roaring back in 1926, producing Out of Doors, his Piano Sonata, his first Piano Concerto and Nine Little Piano Pieces as he expanded his oeuvre to prepare for an international tour that would take him to America, feeling that he needed to prove himself more as a composer by, well, composing more. It is often referred to as his ‘piano year,’ and would be one of the most productive years by any artist, classical or otherwise (okay, Aretha Franklin had a better year in 1967, but Bartók in 1926 beat Bowie in ‘77).
The 5-movement suite Out of Doors is my favorite Bartók set. “With Drums and Pipes” is incredibly percussive to the point that it feels primal like so much early rock music: a maddening rhythm set to a blazing tempo. ‘Bum bum bum CRASH!’ goes the first 2 measures. ‘Bum CRASH Bum CRASH!’ goes the next 2 measures as the crashing in of the right hand has doubled in appearance, and immediately after, the rhythm doubles in speed and somehow, Bartók manages to spin this little melodic hook out of that hurricane. Elsewhere, note the stunning washes that end “Muccettes,” and how finale “The Chase” (sharing the same name as the finale of The Miraculous Mandarin) sounds exactly like its title: the playing from the two hands intercrossing rhythms into one extended blur. Most notable of all is the fourth movement, of course, and not just because it's almost twice as long as the next-longest of the set, but “The Night’s Music” sounds very much like an even more modern take on the French impressionists: images of swamp insects and creatures coming out at night.
The influence of Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds looms large on Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1: the strings are downplayed here, completely omitted in the introduction and the entirety of the second movement. It’s the second movement that impresses most, all bleak chords and empty space because of the lack of strings, a hypnotically dry pulse from the percussion that slowly death-marches towards the Stravinsky-influenced finale.
If either for its modernity or its short run-time (Kocsis’ performance is just over 13 minutes), Bartók’s lone Piano Sonata doesn’t get praised enough but I think it ranks somewhere up there. Following the structure and development of sonata form, Bartók puts a unique spin on it: there is no key signature and there are myriad time signature changes, which, in combination with the tone clusters and ridiculous hand-stretched chords, makes the fast first and third movements feel that much faster.
Bartók wrote Piano Concerto No. 2 (1931) to be decidedly less difficult than his first piano concerto, “I consider my first piano concerto a good composition, although its structure is a bit—indeed one might say very—difficult for both audience and orchestra. That is why a few years later, I composed the Piano Concerto No. 2 with fewer difficulties for the orchestra and more pleasing in its thematic material… Most of the themes in the piece are more popular and lighter in character.” So it’s ironic then that it really does not play that way at all as the pianist must be able to play both fast and dense. András Schiff said, “For the piano player, it’s a finger-breaking piece. The number 2 is probably the single most difficult piece that I have ever played, and I usually end up with a keyboard covered by blood.” There's barely any time in the first movement for the pianist to rest in full, and not like the slow movement offers much respite either, notable for its fast section midway through. There's an arch form here like some of Bartók's other compositions around this time—fast-slow-slow—but the second concerto is unique because the middle movement is the inverse: slow-fast-slow. In effect: fast-(slow-fast-slow)-fast.
His compositions in the mid-late 1930s tests out unique configurations, yielding some of his most creative works since the mid-20s. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) sets up two string orchestras on opposite sides of the stage, mirroring each other and flanking percussion instruments, a xylophone and the titular celesta. Bookended by a lone xylophone note, the third movement has washes of harp and celesta that are woozy and psychedelic, culminating in a huge cymbal crash.
David Cooper notes that Bartók was likely influenced by North African percussion when he wrote Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), but that it was just as likely that he was influenced by jazz’s use of percussion as a way of texturally interacting with pianists instead of merely being used as, well, percussion. Strengthening the jazz connection is that Bartók would work with American jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman on Contrasts (1938) just one year later. Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion is a rhythmic delight, and the dual pianists allowed Bartók both the nepotistic opportunity to give his wife Ditta Pásztory-Bartók concert experience, but also made the piano sound not-feeble when stacked up against the percussion kits of two players. Commissioned by Benny Goodman, Contrasts is Bartók’s only chamber piece with a wind instrument, who wrote the piece to be more challenging after hearing Goodman’s recordings, which you can hear performed by Goodman, Bartók himself on piano, and Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, which is included in the aptly-titled Bartók the Pianist released in 2016.
Mikrokosmos (1926-1939) is a 153-song collection, arranged in six volumes in increasing difficulty: the first song, “No. 1. 6 Unison Melodies I,” is literally ascending and then descending part of the C-major scale in very slow tempo, with the left hand playing the exact same notes the right hand is (it’s easier than any song from his ‘For Children’ set). Unfortunately, too many of the early volumes’ pieces play like short, formal exercises (‘studies’): you’re better off jumping straight into the deep-end unless you’re just starting off as a pianist and want to follow on (as his son did).
Better yet are his String Quartets (1909-1939) which similarly were composed over a large span but trace Bartók’s evolution as a composer: from indebted to the romantics (particularly Beethoven’s only string quartets) to modern dissonance and to a mature grace on the last two, collected on the 2019 3-disc set by Quatuor Diotima pictured above. Despite being a renown piano performer and composer—and despite me loving that instrument more than any other—I actually think his string quartets easily rank among the best he’s ever composed, and each one is better than the last. No. 1 is arranged to get faster and faster across its three movements; note the second movement, in waltz-time, that never once settles into a dance rhythm and instead, is an exercise in restlessness. No. 4’s final movement is a chase to put his previous chases to shame. No. 5’s finale has that humourous section marked ‘con indifferenza’ (with indifference) where clashing tones (A and Bb) are superimposed. Each of No. 6’s four movements begins with the same mesto (sad) theme, expressing the state of mind that Bartók was in in 1939 after Hungary allied itself with Nazi Germany, finally expanded upon in the finale.
Indeed, the allegiance of Hungary with Nazi Germany did not sit well with Béla Bartók: he refused to perform in Germany, and when his Vienna-based publisher Universal Editions, under the new Nazi regime, asked him if he was German or non-Aryan, he (and Kodály) refused to respond, and stated outright that “as long as there is in Hungary any square or street named [after Hitler or Mussolini], then neither square nor street nor public building in Hungary is to be named for me, and no memorial tablet is to be erected in a public place.” But he was also reluctant to leave his home country. It wasn't until after the death of his mother when he and his wife decided to emigrate to the United States, arriving in New York in 1940 where he would live out the rest of his life in misery: he was a renown pianist-composer in his home country but did not enjoy the same status in America, and coupled with the fact that he was no longer receiving royalties due to the war, he was financially and mentally stressed even well before his diagnosis with leukemia in 1943.
Written in 1945, Piano Concerto No. 3 was his last major work as a birthday present for his wife Ditta, hoping that it would provide some income for her after his imminent death. Alas, he died before her birthday but had managed to complete almost all of it; notably, the last 17 measures were only written in shorthand, and there were no tempo markings from a composer who was otherwise very meticulous about them. I think Bartók takes a page out of Stravinsky's book for No. 3 in the sense that you could scour the sheets and notes for any evidence of his depression, his economic hardship, his leukemia, his impending death, and walk away empty. (Stravinsky famously wrote, regarding his Symphony in C written after his wife and daughter both passed away from tuberculosis, “Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.”)
In comparison to the final works of Franz Schubert, there is no sense of a final outpouring here, even though Bartók said to a friend the day before his death, “The only sadness I have is to leave with a full suit-case.” One of the only ways someone might determine any clues of Bartók's mental and financial state is by comparing No. 3 to his previous two piano concerti. Gone is the youthful and modern edge. That neoclassicism is perhaps also why the third seems divisive among Bartók fans: you prefer the first two, or the third. Martha Argerich, for example, never performed the first two, and I’m on her side as always. That said, the third movement feels too much of a Grand Finisher that doesn't exactly go with the beautiful first two movements.
The first 30 seconds or so of No. 3 are magical, and I don't use that word lightly. The strings sawing back and forth. The ‘bummm-baammmm’ thrum of the timpani. The piano spinning out one of Bartók's brightest melodies. There's a genuine feeling of something ‘starting up’ here as the strings shift to different chords and the sounds slowly build to a peak; I get images of Bartók himself stretching to the morning sun one final time. The second movement somehow improves on this. Marked adagio religious, 'slowly and in a religious manner, (the first-ever and only time this marking appears on a Bartók work), this was a clue of where the man of Roman Catholic-turned-atheist-turned-Unitarian faith was mentally at the time of composing. But the word ‘religious’ isn't unearned: the piano chords seem to search skywards, achingly, and the way the strings come in afterwards feel like a hopeful response. Note, of course, the middle section where Bartók does the reverse of “The Night Music.”. Back then, he tried to imitate night critters; here, he's invoking the buzz of summer birds and insects that he’s watching for the last time from his hospital window.
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