Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bartók's Divertimento: Behind the Scenes

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony performs the Divertimento for Strings by Béla Bartók (along with Schumann's Concert Piece for four horns and Beethoven's 5th Symphony). Stuart Malina conducts the concert, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. You can hear the podcast Stuart and I recorded on Tuesday, talking about the program here - click on the link that says 'Podcast.' On this earlier post, you can watch video clips of the complete works on the program.

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(Me interviewing Peter Bartok via Skype at Gretna Music)
About a year ago, I had the amazing experience of interviewing Béla Bartók’s son, Peter Bartók, for a performance of all six Bartók String Quartets at Gretna Music’s winter series at Elizabethtown College, made possible by the wonders of Skype. I read Peter’s memoir called “My Father” and talked with him about what it was like growing up with a composer like Béla Bartók.

Even though he had started studying with piano with him as a boy (the series of Mikrokosmos began as teaching-pieces for his lessons), Peter never became a proficient musician, though he is a highly acclaimed recording engineers who has been busy with his father’s musical legacy in both recordings and publications.

Most of what we talked about was, therefore, not technical and, since Peter had been born three years after the 3rd String Quartet was composed, not necessarily related to specific works on the program. We talked about Bartók as the man rather than the composer but much of that informs the creative spirit and proved amazingly insightful, especially for an audience who could hear first-hand about a composer they only knew as a composer directly from his son!

It amused me, as someone who has spent too much of his life working in radio broadcasting, that Bartók mistrusted recordings and hated such new-fangled technology as the radio and the phonograph (and also an irony that his son would then grow up to become a recording engineer). Bartók hated the noisy distractions of his neighbors (especially their radios and phonographs) which often distracted him from the limited amount of time he had to compose.

It amused me, thinking of the composer with such a serious-looking face, that they raised rabbits and chickens in their backyard. One summer, while Peter was away visiting his aunt in the countryside, Bartók mentioned his pet rabbits had produced a litter which required him to build them a bigger hutch. Enjoying the outdoors, they would have picnics in the back-yard accompanied by a hen who they had grown too attached to, they were unable to kill her for food.

Once, after listening to a rehearsal at home of his father’s new Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and knowing how the work was not well received at its premiere, young Peter was 13 or so and asked his father, considering their constant concerns about money, why his dad didn’t write “more like Mozart.” Thinking back on it, Peter said his response was measured but not offended, explaining about things like integrity and hearing one’s own voice.

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One of the first things most people point out about Bartók is that he was greatly influenced by Hungarian folk music. This is true, but it wasn’t always so: his awareness of actual folksong happened when he was in his mid-20s and already recognized as a pianist and composer.

Béla Bartók was born on the edge of the wide Hungarian plain in a small town which is now on the Romanian side of the modern Hungarian border. This plain stretches from Vienna to the Carpathian Mountains (literally, the “Rocky Mountains”) of central Romania, the historical area known as Transylvania (for you vampire fans, there is more to Transylvania than a 15th Century ruler nicknamed Vlad Dracul, “Vlad the Devil” and later “the Impaler” who spawned a whole host of folk legends and literary tales from Bram Stoker to the Twilight Series).

This area of Eastern Europe (the very northern fringe of the Balkans) was a mixture (if not melting pot) of cultures. Bartok’s father, a teacher and director at a local agriculture school, was descended from a family of the lower Hungarian nobility; his mother, was ethnically German-Serbian but spoke fluent Hungarian and, after her husband’s death when their son was seven years old, raised him as Hungarian first. In order to raise her children, Bartók’s mother moved to a town in what is now on the Ukrainian side of the Hungarian border and then to the major city of Pozsony which the Austrians called Pressburg and the Slovakians called Bratislava (it is currently in Slovakia). Bartók gave his first recital there when he was 11 and subsequently the family moved to Budapest, the Hungarian capital, where he became a student. There, he met another student named Zoltán Kodály.

Keep in mind at the time, Hungary was part of the Austrian Empire which had only given in to local nationalism in 1867 to become Austria-Hungary with a dual crown and a separate Hungarian government in Budapest.

Most of the official business of the land was conducted in German but Bartók was adamant about never speaking German at home. His first orchestral composition, much inspired by Richard Strauss’ recent (and very German) tone-poem, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), written when he was 22, celebrated the national hero Kossuth and featured a minor-key parody of the Austrian national anthem to represent their army’s approach to what became the decisive Hungarian defeat during the Revolution of 1848, a touch which guaranteed it would probably not be performed in Vienna. The lengthy and uneven work ends with the sense this revolution wasn’t over, yet. Its Budapest premiere caused a sensation and essentially put the young Bartók on the map (at least, the Hungarian one).

Not long after writing Kossuth, he heard a peasant girl singing a folk-song to some children in her care. For Bartók, this was an ear-opening experience.

Most of what the world knew at that time as Hungarian “folk music” was actually the popular musical style of the Gypsies who were not ethnically Hungarian (though, because of their location, presumed to be). This was the “gypsy” style popularized in the dances of Johannes Brahms and the rhapsodies of Franz Liszt.

But what Bartók heard that afternoon was so different, so haunting and so completely mesmerizing, it was like it opened some distant door into his own personal identity.

A couple of years later, Kodály came back from a trip to Paris, bringing with him music of an “avant-garde” composer unknown in Eastern Europe at the time, Claude Debussy, who’s approach to tonality and the whole-tone scales seemed the perfect antidote to the old-fashioned major/minor scales of German academic tradition. The whole-tone scale, built on nothing but whole-step intervals, unlike the mixture of whole-steps and half-steps of typical classical music, lacked the central pivot of the dominant to tonic motion of traditional tonality. In fact, it was loaded with tritones which where harmonically ambiguous and generally frowned upon by theory teachers (called since medieval times, “the devil in music”).

This discovery opened up whole new possibilities for alternative scales, especially since Hungarian folk music was built on nothing comparable to either Beethoven’s major/minor scales or Debussy’s whole-tone scale. To an audience used to consonant harmonies of Mozart and Schubert with the usual dissonances that resolved in certain excepted ways even in the hands of Brahms or Wagner, Bartók’s “Hungarian Style” still sounds unexpected and, sometimes, uncomfortable.

Technically, Bartók never abandoned the sense of tonality – the fact the music was rooted around a certain central pitch. But once his mature music began exploring the folk music he and Kodály collected across Eastern Europe, his harmony and the notes in between the polarities of his concept of tonality never reflected the old-fashioned status quo.

When a musically conservative friend once complained to me about some of the “dissonant” sounds in Bartók’s chords, asking “why would he do that,” I answered, considering the piece in question was inspired tooth and nail by Hungarian folk dances, perhaps it had something to do with trying to best approximate the sounds and scales of the original folk music which don’t fit easily into the tuning of a modern piano. The jangling sonorities of Hungarian (or Gypsy) cimbaloms is more the result of the way the instrument is tuned and the fact it can, unlike the piano, be tuned in different ways. Singers and string players often used “microtones” or intervals smaller than the half-tones we’re used to not because they’re playing out-of-tune but because that’s the way it sounds.

Much of Bartok’s music from the 1st String Quartet (1908) through his last works written in exile here in the United States, were inspired either directly or indirectly by this folk music, sometimes real and sometimes, as he described it, “imaginary,” by which he meant music that he had composed himself but indistinguishable from the characteristics of authentic folk music.

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Another thing Peter Bartók mentioned about his father was his love of mountains and how, whenever they had the chance, they would vacation in mountainous places. His father loved nature, whether it was his sister’s farm (frogs from the nearby pond found their way into the piano suite Out of Doors, attested to by both sons and much to the surprise of pianists who’ve performed it for years) or these walks in the mountains.

When Bartók was a young and barely promising musician, he fell in love with a young violinist named Stefi Geyer (you can read more about her in this post from my Market Square Concerts blog about his 1st String Quartet) whose family disapproved of the match. He had written a violin concerto for her and, after the break-up, described his next work – this 1st string quartet – as music for his own funeral (ah, young love!).

Fast-forward to the mid-1930s when he was now in his early-50s and his family visited Switzerland: Bartók stopped by to visit Stefi Geyer, then living in Zurich. She was listening to some jazz recordings by Benny Goodman when he arrived and, knowing how he disliked recordings, went to turn the phonograph off. Bartók asked her not to and then continued listening for a while, expressing his admiration for Goodman’s playing.

Within a year or so, Bartók received a request from his friend, the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, to compose what eventually became the trio for clarinet, violin and piano called “Contrasts” in 1938. He was also working on one of his most substantial works, the great Violin Concerto which later became “#2” when that earlier, unpublished one, written for Stefi Geyer, surfaced.

But then Bartók hit a snag, his always delicate creativity side-tracked by the growing political tensions in Hungary and in Europe at large in 1938, leading up to World War II: Austria had already been annexed by Hitler’s Germany in March, 1938. Hungary was probably not far behind.

The Swiss Village of Saaren in Summer
Paul Sacher, a famous conductor and advocate for new music, invited Bartók back to Switzerland to stay at his chalet in Saanen, high in the Alps not far from Bern. Part of the deal was, while there, Bartók would compose a new piece for Sacher.

Perhaps the lighter nature of this new piece resulted from the respite from the turmoils of Budapest and the tranquility of the Swiss countryside or the comfortable surrounding and generous commission – when Sacher died in 1999 at the age of 93, he was reputed to be the richest man in Europe, not because of his musical accomplishments, considerable as they were, but because he married the heiress of a major Swiss pharmaceutical company.

The resulting work was the three-movement “Divertimento for Strings” which includes many influences from Bartók’s “imaginary” folk music – the rhythms and melodies of his now distant Hungary, here among the wondrously inspiring mountains of Switzerland Bartók so admired.

But also coloring the work – particularly in the middle movement – was the knowledge that war was inevitable and that soon Bartók would have to leave Hungary. Since Switzerland was also preparing for possible invasion from Hitler’s Germany, perhaps he would need a safer place: London, perhaps?

He was also working on a new string quartet – it ultimately became No. 6, his last – a much different and, on the whole, more world-based work than the more accessible Divertimento. While writing it on this vacation in the Alps, he learned that his beloved mother was dying and the family soon returned to Budapest where he finished the now dolorous string quartet and vowed not to leave Hungary until after his mother’s passing.

Eventually, Bartók and his wife Ditta and their son Peter left for New York City, but that is an entirely different chapter, another story but one of great sadness and considerable loss. His health was not good and he was eventually diagnosed with a form of leukemia, dealing with war-time privations, lack of income from his European performances and general indifference from American audiences, something his new Concerto for Orchestra seemed destined to change. Unfortunately, his health did not permit it.

Peter, who by now was serving in the American Navy as an electrical engineer and stationed in Panama, wrote about his return home, visiting his parents in a small cabin at Saranac Lake where his father was working at the kitchen table (for lack of space), writing the Viola Concerto until Ditta would leave the room – then, he would pick up the sketches of the viola concerto (which he said was almost ready) to show Peter the 3rd Piano Concerto he was close to completing as a birthday surprise for Ditta.

Unfortunately, he was forced to go back to the hospital, leaving the last several measures of the Piano Concerto unorchestrated and the sketches of the Viola Concerto in such a state, future editors weren’t even sure where the piece started and if it ended.

He died a few days later at the age of 64, his funeral attended by only ten people.

- Dick Strawser

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