Sunday, March 30, 2014


By Jessica Duchen

A talk given at the Balassi Institute Hungarian Cultural Centre, 25 March 2014. On the evening the author was joined by the violinist David Le Page and the pianist Viv McLean, who performed the solo piano and chamber works referred to in the script.

Its a great pleasure and a privilege to be here in the Hungarian Cultural Centre to talk about Hungarys greatest composer, Bela Bartók, today, on what would be his 133rd birthday.

As you know, Im a British writer and music journalist. I’m not Hungarian myself, but I have a thing about Hungarian music. This thingis hard won. It was really only a few years ago that I began to appreciate not only Bartók himself, but why I appreciate him, and, with him, the special approach to musical performance and training that came out of Hungary and the ethos of the Franz Liszt Academy and some of its professors.

When I started to write my novel Hungarian Dances, my initial motivation was that I wanted to write a book about a violinist. I began to think about who plays violins, and where, and why, and I became fascinated by the fact that in Hungary the very centre of the European map several extraordinary traditions of violin playing flourished side by side. First, most of the great 19th century violin pedagogues came from Hungary - the people who laid the foundations for the way the violin is played today. Joseph Joachim, for instance, the close friend of Schumann and Brahms; and Leopold Auer, who taught in Odessa people like Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein. And many, many others followed in their footsteps.

Alongside there flourished, of course, the Gypsy bands you can hear in restaurants, cafes and everywhere else. The violin is also central to Hungarian folk music, highlighted for a wide international audience by groups such as Muzsikas, who have in turn collaborated with ensembles like the Takács Quartet to show the origins of Bartók’s folk music influences. When I went to Budapest for the first time, almost every street corner was occupied by a busking violinist. It seemed to me that music was the stem-cell of Hungary and the violin its nucleus.

While I was writing Hungarian Dances, I’d sent my violinist heroine, Mimi, to New York to get her away from the Second World War, and one day something unexpected happened. I found Bartók knocking on Mimi’s door. I had not planned for him to put in a personal appearance, but he somehow insisted. And he was right: you couldnt have a story about Hungarian musicians without him.

I’d like to read you a wonderful description of Bartók, written by his friend and patron, the Swiss philanthropist Paul Sacher. 

"Whoever met Bartók, thinking of the rhythmic strength of his work, was surprised by his slight, delicate figure. He had the outward appearance of a fine-nerved scholar. Possessed of fanatical will and pitiless severity, and propelled by an ardent spirit, he affected inaccessibility and was reservedly polite. His being breathed light and brightness; his eyes burned with a noble fire. In the flash of his searching glance no falseness nor obscurity could endure. If in performance an especially hazardous and refractory passage came off well, he laughed in boyish glee; and when he was pleased with the successful solution of a problem, he actually beamed."

But the fact is that for years I was simply terrified of Bartók. Looking back, I think that was perhaps some reflection on the kind of preconceptions we had in the UK in the second half of last century about Hungary, its music and Bartók in particular. There was, of course, the iron curtain; recordings from the eastern bloc and of historical musicians were not so easy to come by, so our information was limited. Then there were certain prevailing attitudes in the musical establishment and academia towards the music you were meant to like, and the reasons you were meant to like it. You definitely were meant to like Bartók - but not necessarily for reasons that might have pleased Bartók himself. It was quite a noxious cocktail.

I still remember the first time I heard a piece by him. I have a brother, Michael, who is 13 years older than me and plays the violin very well. He was in a youth orchestra and they had a concert at the Royal College of Music. I was rather small, but I was taken along and expected to sit very still and quiet and listen, and they played the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, which I think I expected to sound something like the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. But what I heard was this.

Bartók: Music for String, Percussion and Celesta, Movt III:

Those slides on the timpani really got to me. I hadnt realized drums could do that. As a child you think that a drum is something you hit and it goes bop and that’s that. It can be oddly destablising to hear something that makes you question the received wisdom of your primary school teacher so very deeply. A drum changing its tuning after its been struck is a scary sound in itself, but perhaps the root of its unsettling effect is that it makes you question everything you thought you knew about the instrument. And, by logical progression, it makes you question everything else as well. When you are too little to unravel that that is what its doing to you, it is terrifying. All I know is that today I do question things. I dont like to accept what people say at face value. There is always the potential for something deeper, more bizarre, more imaginative and sometimes more sinister behind it. I do recall reading that habitually we use only about ten per cent of our brains potential. Bartók can show us all this with one bop on a kettledrum.

My next Bartók moment was at my violin teachers house. The next pupil turned up early so she decided to get us to play some duets and she put one of the simpler Bartok duos in front of us. Of course, these pieces are designed for teaching, but they are based soundly in Hungarian folk music. For schoolkids in the London suburbs who think folk music is rather glum English songs like ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘The Oak and the Ash’, it can be a bit of a shock to encounter the snappy rhythms, the dissonances, the clashes and the sheer energy and passion of Hungarian music. If youre eight, it can be like a visit to Mars. Here is one of them - it’s Duo No.32 and it is simply called Song from Maramaros.

Bartók: Duo No.32, Song from Mármaros - Muzsikás

Cue the 1980s. I was a teenager and taking the piano increasingly seriously. A schoolfriend who was a very gifted pianist indeed suggested I go with her to the Dartington International Summer School of Music to participate in masterclasses being given by a very exciting young twenty-something Hungarian pianist… whose name was András Schiff. We spent a week in that studio listening to András teaching, day in, day out. I was mesmerized by the whole experience. We know now, of course, that András is one of todays very greatest musicians and if I felt lucky at the time, that’s nothing compared to how lucky I know now that I was.

So what appealed so strongly about his teaching? For a start, he was both kind and rigorous. He used imagery a great deal and continually made connections between different pieces and styles. For instance, he would compare the start of a Schubert impromptu to the music Schubert would have known for unaccompanied male choruses in the Austria of his day. If two melodic lines in a piece of Schumann seemed to sing a duet, hed encourage you to bring out the bass line more by saying it was a duet between Robert and Clara Schumann and we mustn’t neglect Bobby. He’d notice every detail of the musical text. Everything was pertinent and imaginative and direct. András had most of his training at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where his teachers included Ferenc Rados, Pál Kadosa, and György Kurtág all absolute legends among musicians today.

András’s playing has a very special sound. You can recognize his tone right away. Theres a clarity to it, a special, open, singing, airy quality that’s more or less unlike anyone else’s. Ive only heard something close to it from one other pianist. That person, on record of course, is Bela Bartók himself.

Again, until just a few years ago, it wasnt easy to hear recordings of Bartók playing the piano. Although he was a sought-after pianist in his day, he didnt make nearly enough recordings according to his younger son Peters book, which is entitled simply My Father, this was because of a bizarre situation with the Musicians Union in America. It was boycotting the recording industry because it thought that if musicians made recordings, it would lead to people not booking live performances! If Bartók made records against the union’s policy, he then wouldn’t be able to give performances. Eventually he left the union, but by then he was already ill with what he didn’t know was leukaemia, and he wasn’t well enough to make recordings. Too late.

So back in the Eighties, Id never heard what recordings there were, and nor had most of my fellow masterclass students. And, unless I'm much mistaken, I dont remember anybody in that class playing Bartók to András. Everyone wanted to play Bach and Schubert and Schumann, and you can’t blame them, but it still seems a lost opportunity.

There was one sole piece of Bartók that many students of our generation were learning and performing. It was the Allegro Barbaro. What? A barbaric allegro? Many people certainly played it that way – as if it were an excuse to bash the living daylights out of the poor old piano, make as much noise as you can as fast as you can after all remember that Bartók regarded the piano as a percussion instrument.

Percussive? But. Um, we mentioned earlier what Bartók could really do with percussion instruments – remember the sliding timpani?... Anyway, I didnt know or connect any of this and the poor old Allegro Barbaro just fanned the flames of my fear of this composer.

András used to say in the class ‘Dont hit the piano it hits back!And in reality Bartóks touch as a pianist could not have been more exquisite or more sensitive. And if he could treat the piano as a percussion instrument, he could also treat it as anything else: a legato singer, a bagpipe, or a woodland bird the slow movement of the Second Piano Concerto is full of sounds of night birds and insects, both of which fascinated Bartók all his life. The piano could also be a carrier pigeon of love letters to his second wife, Ditta Pasztory, for whom he composed among other things his Third Piano Concerto, left unfinished by just a line or two upon his death. The Allegro Barbaro, an early piece written in 1911, is one of the most percussive works and actually Bartók himself plays it without ever banging – it has vigour, but it also has grace.

Bartók: Allegro Barbaro, played by the composer: 

So, that was the Allegro Barbaro. And many people didnt play it with that dancelike nature, or the earthy pentatonic melody lines that are derived from folksong, let along its humour those little slides in the bass. There must be something about Bartók and slides…

It was two or three years after Dartington that I began to notice that somehow all my favourite musicians were Hungarian. I still knew nothing of Hungary or its musical traditions. Indeed, in the 1980s Im not sure I even knew where Hungary was. It was a strange, alien land, somewhere beyond the Iron Curtain, and although it seemed easier to encounter Hungarians in London than it was to meet a non-defected Russian or Pole, we sheltered teenagers drew a bit of a blank.

But every time I heard someone whose playing I really adored, bingo, theyd trained at the Franz Liszt Academy or with Hungarian emigrés. One time we were on holiday in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland and heard a young Hungarian pianist who absolutely raised the roof. He was called Zoltán Kocsis. Soon after that, there was a concert in London by another, one Dezsö Raánki. And there was the great Takács Quartet, led in those days by Gábor Takács-Nagy, who’d be more of a household name here if he were easier for the Brits to pronounce. My parents and I went to all their concerts at the Wigmore Hall. They used to bring in a small carpet to put under Gábors feet because he had a way of playing the violin with his entire body and used to stamp his left foot in enthusiasm. Today he is a conductor and an inspirational coach of chamber music. I recently listened to him teaching in the Verbier Festivals summer academy and it was similar to listening to András teaching. The same mix of encouragement, humanity and absolute musical rigour, the use of vivid metaphors and imagery, the exact attention to finding within the musical text the nuances that the composers wanted to get through. There was something very pure about it.

The cellist Steven Isserlis is the lynchpin of a small corner of England that is forever Hungary – the International MusiciansSeminar at Prussia Cove, Cornwall, of which he’s been artistic director since the death of its founder, the great Hungarian violinist Sándor Vegh. Steven didn’t train in Budapest, but in an interview he told me that he too adores the Hungarian tradition and loves working with Hungarian musicians because their approach is so pure and so rigorous. Everything is about the music. They dont become preoccupied with matters of how you market yourself, how you look on stage, how you plan your career. They look deep into the music itself and that is that.

This was rather different from the English university I attended in the mid 80s. Its obsession was with historic performance practice and what was then called “authenticity”, a term that’s now disused because the concept has been proven spurious. I remember 24 compulsory lectures on Italian baroque opera, a course on early Wagner up to – but not beyond – the point at which he started to become interesting, and being forbidden to play Bach on the piano because it was ‘the wrong instrument’. You can imagine how that felt to a would-be disciple of András Schiff! We studied Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Debussy, but very little Bartók crossed my path; what there was focused on his occasional ventures into serialism, or his use of microtonality. Those were what Bartók was valued for, if anything. Meanwhile they preferred to teach us lute tablature. Really useful…

Hungary was still behind the iron curtain, if a little more accessible than certain other places, and here in the West these were still the days of high modernism, electronic experimentation, total serialism and so forth. It often seemed to me that what was going on was a kind of progressive dehumanizing of music. This may or may not be so, but it was how I felt at the time, and my experience, I believe, was far from an isolated one.

In this context Bartók had somehow become rather an icon of the kind of approach to 20th-century music that we could call “Difficult or Its Rubbish” or perhaps “DIRE” for short. We trooped dutifully to listen to the complete Bartók string quartets and nodded wisely at their profundity and difficulty, without really understanding a note of it. We listened to his opera Duke Bluebeards Castle as an intellectual exercise – exploring its structure, but never really tapping its humanity. Bartók was Good For You – but he wasn’t there to be enjoyed. His collecting of folksongs was recognized as important, but was rather viewed as an adjunct to other aspects of his music, rather than the absolute heart of the whole thing as it truly was.

The difficultworks, the supposedly percussive piano, the forbidding look of Bartók with those haunted eyes that was the image we absorbed. Even today we find articles saying things like, and I quote, “There is a bad habit of pretending that concert music needs the charisma of folk music to widen its appeal” – this is something I found recently in a publication called the New Republic, in an article about Bartók’s string quartets. But for Bartók himself, folk music wasn’t a charismatic pretence; it was the heart and soul of his creativity. If we can’t first grasp this one basic simplicity, we can’t hope ever to understand his complexities.

After we graduated, by the way, a couple of my friends hared off to study in Budapest. Gosh, they were happy. It wasn't just that sheet music there cost peanuts. It was the musical attitude towards their training - rigorous, focused and centred on truth towards the music itself, not perceived trendy values...

Sometimes I think we are simply not supposed to like serious music. We are paying for this long-term attitude now, in the form of people heralding the death of classical music. I still hope they’re wrong.

Here is a piece of Bartók that it’s virtually impossible not to like. It’s the First Rhapsody. Bartók wrote it for his friend the violinist Joseph Szigeti in 1928 and the idea was to bring the world of Hungarian folk violin style right into the concert hall. Its a classic Verbunkos the slower Lassu, then the rapid Friss and the joyous rhythms and infectious high spirits of Hungarian folksong are present right through.

Bartók: Rhapsody No.1, played by Joseph Szigeti and the composer:

There was one single thing in my personal Bartók journey that made all the difference in the world. Despite everything, I hadnt actually been to Hungary. Eventually we went to Budapest one gorgeous sunny September, less than 10 years ago. It was wonderful. The huge river, the rolling hills, the crumbling charm of old Buda, and slight air of threat and edginess around Pest that you cant quite define; and oh, the Gypsy music, the wonderful wine, cold cherry soup and those absolutely incredible cakes at Gerbeaud’s. As Mimi is promised in Hungarian Dances, there will be cake… And the inflections of the language get into your ears and your bloodstream even if you cant understand a word of it. Best of all, we visited Bartóks house, which is now a terrific museum. It houses, among other things, the equipment he and Kodály used for recording folk songs, some lovely carved and painted Hungarian wooden cupboards, various manuscripts and much more. It has a glorious view of the hills.
How he must have missed it when he left.

The day after we came home I heard the Concerto for Orchestra and I ‘gotit. It was just like being back in Budapest! Its rhythms, its energy, its quirkiness, something about the pace at which it breathes and of course its fabulous melodies, based again on folksong – these are so at one with the sounds and rhythms of Budapest that you can’t imagine one without the other. So literally: I went to Hungary, I fell in love with Budapest and only then could I chuck out my misconceptions about Bartók and appreciate him properly.

This is the evocative fourth movement of the Concerto for Orchestra, Bartók’s equivalent to the rather wistful, dark intermezzos you sometimes find in Brahms’s orchestral works. The big tune on the cellos is actually based on a number from an operetta by Zsigmond Vince, entitled The Bride of Hamburg, with words that translate as ‘Hungary, you are beautiful and splendid’. The faster passage that follows is, according to Peter Bartók’s book, a skit on Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, which itself is said to quote a tune from Lehár’s The Merry Widow, one of Hitler’s favourites. The repetitive passage of the Shostakovich’s first movement irritated Bartók, Peter writes – and in his music, you can clearly hear him laughing at it.

Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Movt IV: 

That was part of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra – perhaps his most often-played orchestral work. He wrote it in America, in 1943  - it was a commission from Serge Koussevitsky at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitsky could see Bartók was in dire straits financially and wanted to help him out by offering him a major commission, and Bartók – who ironically was feeling a little better at this stage of his progressively worsening leukaemia – rose to the challenge by pulling out all the stops. The thing is, the music is so intensely Hungarian that you can tell that even if he was physically in New York, his spirit was still back in the old country.

Bartok did not actually have to leave Hungary. For him going into exile in America was a personal choice, a protest at the rise of fascism. In the 1930s he’d refused to perform or allow his works to be broadcast in Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. He had plenty of problems from his stance – not least, his son Peter was bullied at school because of his father’s well-known anti-fascist politics – but he wasn’t Jewish and he wasn’t in direct danger of being arrested and sent to a concentration camp. It was his own conscience that sent him abroad. In that sense, he was quite a hero.

Perhaps this is the most famous quote about him and his outlook. He said:
"My true guiding principle...which I have been fully aware of ever since I have come upon myself as a composer: the ideal of the brotherhood of peoples, brotherhood created despite war and all conflict. It is this ideal which I work with all my power to serve through my music; this is why I do not avoid any influence, be it from Slovak, Rumanian, Arabic or any other source. The only thing that matters is that the source be pure, fresh and healthy!"

I only recently got hold of the book by Peter Bartók. Its not available in the UK and I had to track down a copy in the US via the second-hand books website upon which I spend much of my disposable income.

It paints a wonderful, human, intimate portrait of Bartók the man and the father. He was deeply sensitive and passionate about nature to the point - he wrote down birdsong and collected insects. He didnt drink, and he ate very simply. He was so light on his feet that his shoes lasted pretty much forever. In Budapest he would always take the tram and only a taxi if he was going to give a concert. He was constantly tormented by noise and thought the radio was the worst invention in the world because it devalues the availability of music and intrudes on other people.

I was entranced to read about things so familiar that they made me feel Bartók and I virtually shared some part of a soul. The way he created a sort of white-noise machine to screen out the neighboursradio, for instance I used a ionizer for the neighbours’ all-night TV in my first flat. Then there is a wonderful account of a family holiday that the Bartóks took in the Engadine Valley in about 1938, literally just down the road from where my parents and I heard Zoltán Kocsis that time and as Peter describes his father walking among the pine trees absorbed in the glories of the mountains I seem to see my own father who coincidentally looked a little like Bartók doing exactly the same thing 50 years later.

The book is full of wonderful stories. For instance, in 1945 when Peter was serving in the US Navy he was in Panama and Bartók, who was already very ill, wanted to know what the insect life there was like. Peter captured an enormous beetle and sent it to his father for his collection. Bartók was delighted and he took the Hungarian word for beetle bogárand added the Italian suffix for a thing on a grand scale. The beetle became the Bogárone. That was barely a couple of months before Bartók died.

Bartók seems to have been a very pure soul, truly a man of principle. He was utterly devoted to his folk music collection and hated teaching the piano ironically, when talking to Peter as a child, he referred to the Franz Liszt Academy where he taught piano as the Awful Place. All he really wanted was peace and quiet to write and collect.

We often hear about what a terrible time he had in the States, and Peters book reveals that this was due principally to his ill health. His leukaemia was either not properly diagnosed or he wasnt informed of the nature of the illness, but it gave him a constant low-grade fever which meant and he was unable to travel and perform, so the family finances were straitened indeed. Oddly, in a later phase of the illness he felt better and he composed some of his finest works at this time including the Sonata for Solo Violin, for Yehudi Menuhin, the Concerto for Orchestra, the Viola Concerto and the Third Piano Concerto.

When he was on the final page of the Third Piano Concerto, his temperature which again was rather raised suddenly dropped. His doctor recognized this as a sign of extreme danger and insisted he go to hospital immediately. Bartók didnt want to accept this urgency and he got Peter to draw the barlines for the last lines of the score so he could quickly finish writing down the concerto first. No, no, said the doctor, you must go right away. Bartók would much have preferred not to be in hospital having invasive drips fitted. He knew it was the end, and would rather have stayed at home finishing his concerto while he still could. Finally he fell into a coma in hospital and died leaving those few bars still unwritten.

Peter recounts that in a final conversation with his lawyer in hospital, Bartók revealed that his one regret was that he was leaving the world with what he termed a full trunk. He had so much more to give, so much music within him still untapped. Peters book finishes with the words: He was the most wonderful man I ever knew.

That is certainly how I see him now.

Here is one of the best-loved of all Bartóks pieces: the Romanian Folk Dances. Now we really can stop worrying and enjoy loving the music. Thank you very much.

Bartók: 6 Romanian Folk Dances, Joseph Szigeti (violin) and the composer (piano):