Béla Bartók: String Quartet Number 6

It’s been over 40 years since a friend in college told me about Béla Bartók’s string quartets. Up until that point, the only quartets I’d listened to were Beethoven’s Late Quartets (Opus 127-135). They were all I wanted–ever. My friend told me that Bartok tried in a number of movements to capture the sound and feeling of the night. I checked a copy of the quartets out of the library and tried listening to them. Even though, I was listening to Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern at the time, I simply found them incomprehensible. So, I’m going to sit down and give them a listen. There are six, so being cantankerous, I thought I’d start with the last one.

Here’s a description from Wikipedia of Quartet Number 6.

And here’s a fine youtube performance by the Takács Quartet.

Let me know what you think of it.

Béla Bartók: Piano Sonata Sz. 80 (1926) Pianist – Zoltán Kocsis

Thanks to Derrick Robinson, for posting this Sonata by Bartok. I’d never heard it before, and it’s amazing to watch Kocsis from above.

Source: Béla Bartók: Piano Sonata Sz. 80 (1926) Pianist – Zoltán Kocsis

Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances

In the summer of 1979, I rented half a small house south of Indiana University’s school of education where most of my classes took place for my master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of English as a Second Language. It was a great university in so many ways–it offered almost every language, a world class department schools of psychology (think BF Skinner), comparative literature, medicine, film studies, and of course, music.

The school of education sat next to the school of music where you could the strains of students practicing their chops floated out of nearly every every window of the great, tall round music building that housed nothing but practice rooms.

Every night you could hear either a symphony performance, a senior, masters or doctoral recital and there were plenty of record stores (vinyl) where you could buy anything you wanted. Every dorm on campus had a library with an amazing collection of records as well, so any piece I heard on the radio or in concert could be found somewhere.

I can’t remember who introduced me to Béla Bartók, Romanian Dances, but I am so grateful for whoever did.  It touched a nerve, or perhaps I was genetically wired to love Hungarian music.

My dad’s parents had emigrated from Hungary in 1904. Every Sunday after church and dinner, my dad would turn on the local radio station, WSBT, which devoted an hour each to “The Polish Hour,” and “The Hungarian Hour.” The Poles played polkas and the Magyars played soaring, soulful “gypsy” melodies. The theme for the Hungarian Hour was a schmaltzy violin backed by an orchestra and cymbalon (a cousin of the hammered dulcimer).  You’ve heard this melody if you ever had a friend to whom you told a sad story and they said, “Pity Party,” and hummed a few notes of the melody while running their index finger over the thumb like a tiny violin.  I’d heard the song in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, I think, (thank you Carl Stalling), so I called up the radio announcer to ask what the name was.  He sounded surprised that anyone was calling to ask and in fact he didn’t know it, which I thought odd because, it was the theme song after all.  He took a moment to look it up and said it was called “You’re the Only Girl in the World For Me.” “What?” I thought. That’s so hackneyed.  Eventually I heard the melody pop up on the local classical radio station from Notre Dame University, and called that radio announcer.  He said it was Pablo de Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen,” (Gypsy Airs), a piece which borrowed a few folk melodies from Franz Liszt‘s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13.

My father, when talking about famous Hungarians, would alway mention the Gabor sisters, Ernie Kovacs, and of course  Béla Bartók, so when I started really listening to classical music I was proud of my Magyar heritage and claimed him as my favorite composer.

The Romanian Folk Dances became and still are one of my favorite pieces of music by the composer.  What’s even more wonderful is that you can find many different versions of it for solo piano, violin, orchestra, among others, as well as the original field recordings Bartok made of folk songs from which he took the melodies for this work (and even a performance by Bartok himself at the keyboard.

Solo Piano (with Bartok playing)

Violin and Piano

Cello and Piano

Muzikas, Hungarian Folk Ensemble playing melodies of the Dances with Danube Philharmonia

Another version with piano and Muzikas Folk Ensemble

Which do you prefer?

For me, I really love the version at the top, which was released in 1979, and performed by I Musici:

I Musici

The the solo piano and violin are great, too. There’s one movement that’s really haunting with harmonics on the violin, that my friend David Hendrickson said was so piercing that whenever he listened to it he said if felt like someone was cleaning his ear with a Q-tip.

Since I posted the above, I found this original field recording that Bartok made in Romania.

It’s a amazing!

Masterwork: Aeolus Quartet Plays Bartók 6

I feel ashamed for not listening to Bartok’s String Quartets until 40 years after a college friend told me about them. It’s shameful because my father was Hungarian and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and his Roumanian Danses are two of my favorite works.

Here’s #1:

Bartok’s String Quartet #1

Here’s a great post on Bartok.

Our Invisible Cities

Hungarian militiamen parade alongside a German tank in Budapest, 1944. Source: Wikimedia Hungarian militiamen parade alongside a German tank in Budapest, 1944. Source: Wikimedia

MASTERWORK: The Aeolus Quartet Performs Bartók’s 6th String Quartet

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bruno Walter Auditorium, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center

Quartets by Haydn or Mozart are straightforward affairs.These works can be difficult to play and interpret, but at least know both the composers and the musical tradition that they represent. Move even a bit east of Vienna, though, and the familiar rhythms of the West become choppy and asymmetrical, strange Magyar harmonies matched with even stranger accents and beats.

The Aeolus Quartet (currently in residence at Juilliard) discussed their own struggles with the Hungarian tradition in Bartók’s melancholy Quartet No. 6 this past Thursday at Lincoln Center’s Public Library for the Performing Arts. Inspired by a performance in Cleveland that matched Bartók chamber works with songs by a Hungarian folk ensemble, the…

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Bela Bartok: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

One of the courses I took during the first semester of my senior year in college in 1976 convened in the Lily rare books library of Indiana University. The class was a colloquium on 18th century France, and I decided to do my research paper on a collection of French fairy tales from that era. Some of these are still well known and widely read--Barbebleu, La Belle au Bois Dormant, and Blanc Neige.  I mean Blubeard, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. The original versions bear little resemblance to the sanitized Disney versions and some of them were quite dark and sinister indeed.

My choice to write about fairy tales reflected the affinity I had toward revolutionary movements. Fairy Tales? Revolutionary? Well frankly, yes. Nowadays we think of children’s books as entertaining, instructional, or as inculcating wholesome values. Back in the 17th and 18 century, however, depending on who wrote them, fairy tales could have political subtexts.

The stories tended to divide into two camps–those that tried to reinforce the social, political and economic systems based on control by the monarchy, and those that tried to paint the aristocracy as diseased and worthy of overthrow. In the first type of stories, you could find a commoner as the main character, but usually through some twist of fate it would turn out that he or she was really a princess or prince who had been separated at birth from parents. That explained the sweet nature. Cinderella is an example of the status quo type of story.

Other writers, however, were busy trying to sew seeds of discord into fertile young minds. These stories painted a picture of the evil, corrupt and decadent aristocracy who needed to be overthrown. Common people figured in these works and even were capable of great good.

Voltaire and Marat would have grown up reading Ma Mere d’Oye (Mother Goose), a collection of stories compiled and retold by Charles Perrault. It was from this collection that Bluebeard came, but it has been pulled from Mother Goose for its violent (and perhaps revolutionary) tone since then.

In Perrault’s version, Bluebeard is a hideously ugly duke with a blue beard. He is so repulsive that all the people in his realm hate him, but he is fantastically rich. There is the rumor that he has murdered previous wives, but no one can touch him because he is a member of the aristocracy. He takes a fancy to two sisters who live nearby and tries to woo them. They rebuff his advances until he throws a party and invites them. The younger of the two is quite smitten by his wealth and the nice festive ball he has thrown and she decides to accept his offer of marriage.

Shortly after they are wed, he has to leave on a trip. He gives her the keys to all the rooms in his castle. He tells her she can open all but one and if she does open that one, she will meet with grave consequences. While he is away, she invites her sister and old friends in. She opens all the doors and find rooms filled with jewels, armor, a secret garden and other riches. While her friends ooh and ahs over the treasures, she wanders off and finds the last room. She opens the door and finds it full of the rotting and decaying bodies of Bluebeard’s former wives, whom he has killed. She drops the key and some of the blood splashes on it and stains it. She tries to clean the key, but to no avail. Bluebeard returns, asks for the keys, and when he discovers the blood, he tells her he has to kill her now. She manages to stall him until her brothers arrive in the nick of time and put the hideous serial killer to death.

The interesting thing about this story is that neither the girl nor her brothers are members of the aristocracy. The tale could be interpreted as a call to action against the feudal practice of droit du seigneur. In those times, the feudal lord or king had the pick of young women in his realm and it was expected that he could sleep with and impregnate the wives of all his noblemen. The noblemen got his protection and shared in his wealth and power, which in a way, they gave to him by accepting this practice. Metaphorically, this story shows how this practice is a kind of psychic murder. It sounds barbarian nowadays, but it must have been an effective evolutionary strategy. Apes and some polygamous religious groups still practice it today. (And we flatter ourselves by thinking we’re not animals.)

The story of Bluebeard seems like an odd choice for an opera. And I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “knee-slapper.” Yet I find it an affecting piece, and it contains some incredibly beautiful and haunting melodies. The Hungarian playwright, Balazs, dedicated his play to Bartok, who then turned it into an opera. The orchestral score shows that by 1918 when he wrote it, Bartok had mastered the new tonalities and rhythms pioneered by Debussy and then refined by Stravinsky. Bartok matches these to the seven parts of the one-act play, one for each door that Bluebeard’s wife, Judith, forces him to open.

The play and opera you see focuses on the scene after the marriage and portrays Judith as forcing Bluebeard to give her the keys so she might open the doors. Behind each door, Balazs puts a scene that represents some part of Bluebeard’s life and the influences that shape his persona. In one, we see his great riches; in another an armory. A third leads to a beautiful garden, and a fourth to an expansive domain. The dark side of Bluebeard’s character are represented by rooms containing a torture chamber and a lake of tears. As Judith persuades Bluebeard to give her each key, he asks her if she still loves him and she assures him she does. This despite the fact that the objects in each room are stained with blood. In one, the walls weep and in another they seep blood.

If you know and love “Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra” written nearly 30 years later, you will be delighted to hear the rich textures and use of instruments to paint vivid sound pictures. He manages to capture the mood and symbolism of each room. For the armory, a trumpet blast gives a suitable martial air. In the treasury, the violins and celeste covey the tinkling and warms of gems and gold. When the door opens to reveal a garden, Bartok waxes pastoral and the door leading to a view of his realm conveys his kingly mightiness. In every scene though, there is a dark undercurrent, which Judith annoyingly points out by noticing the blood stains on every thing.

But these pale in comparison to what you hear when she opens the door to the torture chamber, the lake of tears and the final door. At the points Bartok create a rush of unworldly sound that evokes images of pain and intense mental anguish. There are parts of men’s souls, he seems to be saying, that are too horrid to be allowed to see the light of day.

I sometimes wonder what this play symbolizes. It paints a strange and pessimistic view of male-female relationships. The woman appears as prying-insisting on knowing all the deep dark secrets of her mate. She says his secrets will not disgust her and that that is how they can establish true intimacy. When he gives in and shares his deep dark past, she is repulsed. He is not the man she thought he was.

In Balazs’ libretto, Judith guesses the secret of the seventh door. Behind it she will find his murdered wives, proof that he really is a monster unworthy of her love and she has conquered him. When she opens the final door, however, she sees that his three former wives are still alive. What’s more, they are still beautiful and cloaked in golden robes and bedecked with jewels. Bluebeard sings of how he found them at youth, middle age, and finally as an old man. Each one controls a part of his day, and Judith now will be mistress of the night. He puts a heavy mantle on her and she joins the other wives in the seventh room.

As I said, this opera is probably not the thing you would take a blind date to. Nor even your mother. In fact, I’ve never met anyone else who’s ever heard of it or raved about it. It is a dark piece. But I find it so far ahead of its time.

Think about the times period when it was written. Europe and the Austro-Hungarian Empire is being broken apart by World War I and ethnic conflicts which erupted again in the 1990s. Philosophical religious and psychological beliefs are being transformed and Freud shines a spotlight in on the dark parts of the human mind. Freud pretty much said man is an animal with base desires that must be repressed, and in so doing they give us neuroses. Balazs view is more complex, and even Jungian in nature. That is, we all have these dark sides to our persona, and they need to be integrated and accepted before true healing can take place.

For me, “Bluebeard’s Castle” also represents one of the last listenable pieces of vocal music in the academic tradition before atonality and serialism lay waste to it for the next 50 or so years. After this comes the anti-song works of Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire). People have become so disaffected with this stuff and perhaps that explains why so many have gone back to square one and started listening to Gregorian chants again. The pendulum has swung the other way, but now we’re seeing modern composers, like John Tavener, trying to create a fusion of the old and new. People get so upset when one trend dies an a new one takes its place. But these things go in cycles and the much-maligned masses should sometimes be commended for “knowing what they like.”

Download MP3s of Bartok: Bluebeard’s Castle from Amazon

Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz 106

Over the years, several pieces of music have caught my attention on first hearing. It’s almost as if they resonate with some pre-wired part of my being. Sarasate’s Zigeunerwisen, for example, makes me go all weak-kneed and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodie Number 14, always seem to make my Hungarian blood boil.

Bartok has that effect on me. Today’s piece, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta used to get a lot of air play on the phone-in request shows. It is considered by musicologists almost more important a work than his Concerto for Orchestra, which is his most popular piece.

The part that always sent chills down my spine, was the one in which Bartok tried to capture the feeling of night. He was fascinated by trying to capture the restless quiet of that time of day and in this piece he has the violinists slide their fingers up and down the string to give an eerie tone and which is imitated all the time in horror movies. Another movement is a musical palindrome: at midpoint, Bartok reversed the notes and it this device gives the amazing sense of time going backwards or water receding. I can’t think of a more atmospheric piece of music or a more fun one, to boot.



Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra

Sometime in college, I started developing a dislike for nationalism. Maybe it had to do with the books I was reading at the time. In high school, I read several books by Dostoyevsky; in college philosophy classes, I poured over the ancient Greeks; at Indiana University I took a political science class and read Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx and Engels. Eventually these readings sent me into a left-ward direction, but more than that, they taught me to distrust political, cultural, religious and almost any other type of authoritarian institution or organization.

It just seemed that after 2,000 years of political theorizing, what it boiled down to for me was this: people seem to need to organize themselves into affiliations of like minded people so they can know what role to play, what things to believe, what protections they can expect. I tended to be drawn to socialism because it seemed that the goal was to provide for every person, which seemed closer to the beliefs I learned growing up a Catholic. But deep down, I believed that no culture or government was “the right one,” because they were all kind of arbitrary and abstract constructs based on the thinking of one or a group of men out for power. That such belief systems could lead people into wars, especially religious wars, repulsed me. Thus, I did tend to identify with underdog and revolutionary movements designed to topple these authoritarian and power-wielding structures.

This might explain my fascination with Bartok. Those of you with an interests in linguistics might have realized my last name is Hungarian. My father’s parents emigrated to the US around the turn of the 20th century and settled in South Bend, Indiana, which was a major manufacturing center at the time. My paternal grandparents never really learned to speak English, and on visits to their house, all their adult children spoke Hungarian with them. My maternal grandmother was Belgian, and her children spoke Flemish with her. It was kind of odd moving between three different cultural worlds–the third being the neutral American one at home. The one that held the most cultural attraction for me, however, was the Hungarian one, tough I did not learn to speak the language. When watching television, my father would always point out stars of Hungarian origin–the Gabors, Tony Curtis, and Ernie Kokvacs. Finally, the Hungarians just had better food–Gulyas, Paprikas, Kolac and Kifli.

And of course, as I mentioned in another of my entries, there was the music. On Sunday afternoons, a local radio station used to present “The Hungarian Hour” a bi-lingual program that played fiery gypsy and excerpts from Austro-Hungarian operettas. When I discovered the music of Bartok, based on Hungarian folk rhythms and harmonies, it was as if it switched on a circuit that had been pre-wired into the neural pathways pathways of my brain. It was a good fit.

When I got to Indiana University in 1974, I discovered it had one of the largest music schools in the world. Its public radio station, WFIU, was devoted, of course, to classical music. Every Thursday evening the station aired a musical quiz show, called “The Ether Game,” whose theme music came from the second movement of Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra.”

Begun in 1943, Concerto for Orchestra marks Bartok’s emergence from a creative slump engendered by his emigration to the United States in 1940 and subsequent diagnosis of leukemia. Fellow émigrés Serge Koussevitszky and Fritz Reiner commissioned the work, which so buoyed Bartok’s spirits that he was able to leave the hospital. The concerto was premiered in Boston in December of 1944, nine months before the composer’s death. Koussevitszky proclaimed the Concerto for Orchestra “the best orchestral work of the last 25 years.” Most musical scholars agree that it outshines any orchestral work composed since then as well.

I would place this work squarely on my top ten list as well. The reason has to do not so much for its beautiful, passionate melodies, which is one of the criterion I use. Rather I like it because it has so many interesting, intricate and creative features of which I never tire. Take the second movement, for example. Bartok entitled it “Giuoco della coppie” (the game of couples.) This movement starts out with a complicated rhythm played quietly on a snare drum. Bartok then introduces the theme played by a pair of bassoons, which contribute a kind of subterranean feeling. The bassoons play the same melody but at an interval of sixths, which create an odd harmony. He then continues this game with other pairs of instruments–the trumpets in seconds, the oboes in thirds, the flutes in fifths, and the clarinets in sevenths. You might say this is an interesting intellectual exercise, but the mood that Bartok creates thrills me on an emotional level as well.

Bartok had a fascination with trying to use music to capture complex emotions. He wrote about the sternness of the first movement, and referred to the “lugubrious death-song of the third.” Both of these movements also demonstrate an obsession he had with trying to recreate the sound of night, which you hear in mysterious little bubbling passages of flutes, high and rapid bowing of the violins, and low rumblings of basses.

But despite those somber themes, Bartok himself saw the piece as progressing from those mournful emotions to end in a “life-assertion” which you can clearly hear in the quite joy of the first part of the fourth movement and the exuberance of the breathless fifth movement. The title of the fourth movement, “Interrupted Intermezzo,” refers to a joke that Bartok throws in to lighten up the piece. It seems that while Bartok was convalescing and working on the concerto, Shostakovich’s “Seventh Symphony” had been premiered and was getting a lot of radio and performance play, because critics had hailed it as a modern masterpiece. Bartok interrupts his quiet and meticulous lyricism of this movement by throwing in a quote from Lehar’s “The Merry Widow,” which Shostakovich had also quoted. Bartok’s makes his quote lumbering and polka-like, and then lets the brass blow several “raspberries”, all of which poke fun at Shostakovich’s socialist-approved brassiness.

Bartok’s contribution to music is far reaching. After failing to make it as a concert pianist, he became a composer and ethnomusicologist. He scoured Hungary, Romania and Slovakia with an Edison cylindrical recording phonograph and with his compatriot Zoltan Kodaly, recorded over 9,000 peasant songs. Musicologists regard his six string quartets as being as revolutionary as Beethoven’s. What I find astounding however the few number of works for orchestra. He didn’t write any symphonies, for example. But as the Concerto for Orchestra shows, he had a deep understanding of the nuances of different instruments. Bartok knew exactly how to make them do his bidding.

Aside from this work, one last thing draws me to Bartok. When my father was born, the doctor signed his birth certificate with the Hungarian first name his parents had designated–Bela. When he got to school, the teachers anglicized it and so he went through life with the name Albert. But I think “Bela” has much more cache.

Download MP3s or Buy CD of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra from Amazon

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