Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Bartok: From Harrisburg to Downton Abbey, All in the Same Day

Following this weekend's January Thaw Masterworks Concert, which included an amazing performance of Bela Bartók's suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, I posted the text of my pre-concert talk which you can read on my blog, Thoughts on a Train.

By the way, you can read reviews of the Saturday night performance by Keri Larsen with the Patriot News here and by David Dunkle with the Carlisle Sentinel here.

Since I made a passing reference to the hit period-drama Downton Abbey in my pre-concert talk, referring to the impact of World War I on the Crawley family's private and public lives in relation to its impact on the life of Bartók the composer, I was amused to hear Bela Bartók had a passing reference in the second episode of the new season which aired Sunday night on WITF-TV.

Maggie Smith & Penelope Wilton listen to Puccini
During the course of a weekend House Party, Lady Grantham is delighted to offer her guests a private recital by the great Australian opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba (played admirably by the New Zealand-born soprano, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa) much to the confusion of her often hapless husband and their butler Carson, himself a former song-and-dance man who cannot imagine seating a singer at her ladyship's dinner table. Once that was straightened out, I noticed her pianist was still expected to eat with the servants.

The recital, just one layer of the story at this point, opens with one of Dvořák's Songs My Mother Taught Me (which Dame Nellie recorded in 1916) before she begins to sing Puccini's “O mio babbino caro.”

At this point, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) leans over to Cousin Isobel and says, “What a relief. I thought we might be in for some of that awful German Lieder. You can never go wrong with Puccini.”

Mrs. Crawley (Penelope Wilton) responds tersely, “I prefer Bartok.”

The Dowager (casting her a trademark Maggie Smith look) sits back and grumbles, “You would.”

Of course, watching Maggie Smith toss off her lines as the Dowager is one of the joys of this show and she wields them with all the aplomb of the finest virtuosos in the world. And the rivalry between her and the considerably less aristocratic mother of Downton's heir, the late and much lamented Matthew Crawley, is one of those dramatic delights.

Both women of strong opinions, their proximity is often like two tectonic plates passing in the night.

However, I'd never have taken Cousin Isobel as a cutting-edge fan of contemporary music. Keep in mind, she did travel in France during the war as part of a relief organization and worked for a refugee committee afterward, so she might have heard, say, the most recent music by Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky.

But Bartók? Not so much.

And this is where my quibble comes in. Now, if it had been a reference to some popular topic – say, a comic book superhero or a sport analogy – and they got it wrong, lots of people would be jumping up and down, complaining about the error. So here, I put on my Dr. Dick persona (akin to Dr. Temperance Brennan in Bones, if you want an apt pop-culture reference) and say,

Musicologically speaking, this is not likely. Stravinsky would've been a better choice, though I'm glad Bartók got at least a mention.

You see, this event apparently takes place in March of 1922, if you're following the story line.

Now, the Harrisburg Symphony just played Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin which was a fairly early piece of his mature period. It was written between 1918-1919 but it wasn't premiered until 1926 in Cologne, Germany, and then only performed once. No one else heard the music until the suite taken from it was performed in Budapest in 1928.

Bartók was still waiting for some kind of international recognition even though he'd already composed the opera Bluebeard's Castle (begun in 1911, it wasn't performed until 1918) and a ballet, The Wooden Prince which, in 1917, had given Bartók his first home-grown success when it was premiered in Budapest. There are already two string quartets, numerous piano pieces and some of his folk song arrangements, but they were not blazing a trail across Europe that reached all the way to the wilds of Yorkshire where the fictional Downton Abbey is located.

In 1918, a German publisher produced some of his piano pieces and the English composer Philip Heseltine (better known as Peter Warlock) was sent some copies of these. He included Bartók and these pieces in a talk given in Dublin that year called “What Is Music?”

When he was traveling in Central Europe in 1921, Heseltine was in Budapest and met Bartók whom he invited to come to England and perform. This was arranged for the following year but it was a small-scale recital given in Wales in March of 1922 – the same exact month Dame Nellie Melba was singing Puccini at Downton Abbey. It would be unlikely, even if there were contemporary music aficionados in Yorkshire, they would've known much about Bela Bartók so soon.

Bartók, according to many sources, didn't have his “first international success” until the “1922 performances in London and Paris,” when he performed his 2nd Violin Sonata with the Hungarian-born violinist, Jelly D'Arányi.

So when were these performances? Could Cousin Isobel have dropped down to London before the March house party and discovered her love of Bartók?

Let's put it this way: Bartók wrote his 2nd Violin Sonata between July and November of 1922.

So the answer, there, is no. Though it's rather amusing to imagine the general reaction of the aristocrats of Downton and their invited servants to hearing Bartók's new violin sonata, if the time continuum permitted.

= = = = =

(Isaac Stern, violin; Yefim Bronfman, piano)
= = = = =

Perhaps in some future episode of Downton Abbey, Cousin Isobel will turn Crawley House into a writer's colony for contemporary composers?

Does it matter? No, not really – it's still a great line and, even if fleeting, a nice retort to the Dowager Countess with as few claws and as little hissing as possible.

But it amuses me that, given the penchant for liberties taken in writing for films and TV that even in as highly researched a production as Downton Abbey, it's not exactly accurate.

No matter – I will continue watching the show as long as Maggie Smith has lines to zing and Cousin Isobel (if not everyone else) continues to hold her own against them.

- Dick Strawser

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