Writings

Béla Bartók

Hugh MacDiarmid, the Scottish poet, said one day relative to the output of certain contemporary artists - "The only true criterion is quality - quantity doesn't matter a damn." The great baroque, classical and romantic composers combined quality with quantity - think of the outputs of Handel, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner and Strauss.

On the other hand, in modern times, take the extreme case of Anton Webern whose entire life output plays for a little over two hours, that is about half the duration of one opera by Strauss or Wagner. In spite of this, Webern is acknowledged to be a major musical influence in the second half of the 20th century.

Judged by 17th, 18th and 19th century standards, Béla Bartók’s output is by no means large. There were six string quartets, six concertos, three one-act stage works, four sonatas, three suites and other orchestral pieces and a large number of small piano works, each occupying only a few leaves of music paper. He also wrote one cantata, about 20 songs and a big number of folk song arrangements. But no symphonies or a full length opera or ballet. Yet, from being merely Hungary's outstanding modern composer (no great claim), Bartók is fully entrenched in world opinion as one of the half-dozen truly great composers of our time. This for one reason only, because of the high quality and originality of his music.

During his lifetime, Bartók visited Scotland twice. This was to give a concert of his own music on February 29, 1932, and a piano recital on November 2, 1933 - both Active Society concerts. I knew Bartók therefore, when he was between 51 and 52. This was before he had written great works like the concerto for orchestra, the third piano concerto, his fifth and sixth quartets, the concerto for two pianos and percussion, and the music for strings, percussion and celeste. These works added greatly to his fame and helped establish his position in musical history.

On both these visits to Glasgow, he stayed at my home. On the second occasion, November 1933, he had in his music case the full score of his second piano concerto. I asked if I might look at it. It was written in the composer's own precise, cleanly pointed and highly characteristic pen work on transparent draughtman's paper. I asked him why he didn't write on ordinary manuscript paper.

He replied that these transfers served as photographic negatives and allowed his larger works, which would be very costly affairs to engrave, to be printed at a very moderate cost. Universal Edition, Vienna, later published the score of this concerto in facsimile.

Bartók knew I had played the solo part of his first piano concerto and asked how I thought the piano writing compared in the two concertos. At the time he was sitting on the edge of his bed turning over the pages and I was on the armchair. I saw that No.2 did not seem so rhythmically complex as No.1, and that there were some uncomfortably big stretches - chords consisting of two piled-up perfect fifths in each hand: later a whole string of rapid semiquavers in block chords. Bartók did not have particularly large hands, and yet managed to play these passages without undue difficulty.

I knew from the previous year's concert that he had wrists of steel, and was a virtuoso pianist. The opening of the second movement struck me as a typical Bartók slow movement. A quasi-chorale theme clothed in dissonant, acid, arid harmonies: less relentless, perhaps, than the adagios in the piano sonata and the first concerto, where the augmented octave interval seemed to have replaced the common octave.

I passed over some pages until I reached the presto section of this two-sided movement, which combines slow movement and scherzo, and raised my eyebrows enquiringly at my first sight of tone clusters. He smiled, then replied in that soft, almost inaudible voice of his: "Not my invention, I'm afraid. I got the idea from a young American composer, Henry Cowell."

Bartók was a very quiet, shy, calm and thoroughly collected person and disliked being made a fuss of. It was said that when gushing admirers addressed him as "Master” or “Maestro" he would reply, with barely concealed irritation, "My name is Mr. Bartók” So I did not press him for any further information about Henry Cowell.

Many years later, when I was in Boston in l954, I met Henry Cowell by chance when I was visiting Nicholas Slonimsky, musicologist and author of Music since 1900 in Latin America.

By that time I was well acquainted with Cowell's work. Experiments in extending the tone colour of' the piano; continuous rows of keys struck by the open palm; clenched fists or the entire forearm; plucked strings and strings rubbed by the fingers, and so on. I found Cowell a most likeable and fascinating fellow, and like Bartók himself, fanatical about folk music.

He told me, that when he was in London in 1923, Bartók accidentally overheard him playing some of his own music, which employed tone clusters. He was extremely interested in this new technique, and later wrote asking if he might be permitted to use similar tone clusters in his own compositions.

Cowell said that his chance encounter with Bartók was one of the most exciting episodes of his life. Bartók had invited him to come to Paris and demonstrate his revolutionary technical devices to some of' Bartók’s friends, including Ravel, Roussell and Manuel de Falla. Composer Ronald Stevenson has incorporated several of the Cowell pianistic devices in his magnificent Passacaglia which he played at a Hiddingh Hall concert in 1964.

Bartók also had in his music case, the manuscript of his 44 violin duets, or at least some of them. These, he said, had their origin in folksong material which he had adapted for educational purposes: the violinistic counterpart to his earlier collection of easy teaching pieces in the, For the children volumes, and similar works.

The composer had given a highly successful performance of his second concerto on June 23 1933, in Frankfurt, and was to play it again in London with Sir Henry Wood a week after his Glasgow recital. It may be of interest to read you some Bartók letters, which led up to his second Active Society concert.

New address: Budapest 11, Csalan UT 27. Aug 13th 1933

Dear Mr. Chisholm

I am very glad to hear from you again. Now, I have a BBC engagement (Queens-Hall) for November 8, 1933, so it would be possible for me to come to Glasgow after that day. There are only two questions to be settled:

1) What kind of programme? Could you not engage the Hungarian violinist Zoltan Szkely (living in Nijmegen, Kroakenbergweg, 275, Holland)? Of course you know his name? We could play my two violin sonatas both.

2) As for the fee, could it be fixed at £15 for me? Is there perhaps any possibility for me in Edinburgh?

Expecting your answer, I am

Yours sincerely,
sgd Béla Bartók.

Note that Bartók asked only for a fee of £15 (was, indeed, glad to come to us for that modest sum) and wanted also to play in Edinburgh. The Hungarian violinist, he mentioned, Zoltan Szekely, visited Cape Town leading the Hungarian Quartet.

Letter of August 29th

Dear Mr Chisholm

I got your letter of August 21. Now November 9 would be too early. November 10 or 11 would be the best date. If you want a mixed programme that will do. There could be included some of my own transcriptions of old cembalo music (Purcell, Italians) and some of Kodaly’s piano pieces. I will ask Mr. Szekely, maybe he is at that time in England? What is the maximum you could offer him?

The only obstacle is now that the BBC business is not yet quite definitive. They offered my only one engagement, that for November 8 and I must have - as usually - another in their studio. They are - as usual - so very negligent in their correspondence. I cannot get their answer and decision about the latter engagement.

Yours sincerely,
Béla Bartók


September 13th, 1933

Dear Mr. Chisholm,

I have just posted my last postcard, when your letter of September 6 arrived. It is quite possible for me to play in Glasgow on November 3 or 4. The only difficulty is to know the exact date of my studio engagement at BBC, or to know, when will be the first orchestra rehearsal. If you want to know it as early as possible, perhaps you may write directly to BBC and ask them. In any case the Glasgow concert has to be two days before I am obliged to be in London.

Waiting news from you,

Yours sincerely,
Béla Bartók


But, to return to our conversation in the bedroom. Bartók spoke also about another educational project he had in hand, the collection he called Mikrokosmos. "Beg pardon”, I said, the word being new to me. “Mikrokosmos” he repeated and spelled it out. He started working on this opus as long ago as 1926, and did not complete its 153 items until 1937.

These pieces were intended to introduce young pianists to traditional and contemporary, compositional and pianistic techniques. They began with six very easy unison melodies, then combined hands, introducing dotted notes, repetition, syncopation, change of position, imitation and inversion, canon at the octave and so on - a kind of Gradus ad Parnassum, a cross between a piano tutor and an Album for the Young. Each group of pieces increases in difficulty. In the quiet earnest manner in which Bartók spoke about this novel piano “tutor”, it was clear he was extremely interested in the project, and that it was one very much after his own heart.

As a matter of fact he had a personal interest in this collection. He intended it primarily for the musical education of his nine-year-old son, Peter and, indeed, dedicated the first two volumes to Peter. Peter later said that while he could cope with the earlier volumes, and struggle through the middle volumes, the last two books were quite beyond him. At the time Peter was 40, possessed a major financial interest in Bartók Recording Studio, New York, and assuredly made more per month from sales of his Dad's music on records than the old man ever coined in during his entire lifetime.

I remember that Bartók carried a stopwatch as he played part of the Mikrokosmos, and at rehearsal in the Berkley Hall, placed the watch at the side of the piano and timed each piece to a split second. If the timing was not precisely as expected he would shake his head in gentle reproof. In fact, it was a fetish of his that he supplied the most accurate timing for all his smaller pieces.

Bartók began his Glasgow recital with four of his own transcriptions of early keyboard music. The transcriptions published by Fischer of New York have received scanty notice from Bartók biographers. However Halsey Stevens in his book The Life and Music of Béla Bartók states that Bartók was occupied in 1926-27 with the transcription of 17th and 18th century Italian keyboard music. He wrote that this interest had a direct bearing on the style and character of his own Out of Doors suite, written in 1926.

After he had played through these pieces, on the morning of his concert, Bartók turned to me saying: "You know, Mr. Chisholm, that whenever I play these transcriptions, the critics always complain that I have made considerable modifications in the originals. As a matter of fact, I have not altered a single note."

Although I didn't say so at the time, I could see why this mistake had been made. Bartók played this music in his own dynamic, rhythmically arresting fashion, so that, even if all the notes were the same, the music sounded as though Bartók had altered it.

For his second group Bartók had chosen pieces by his friend and colleague, Zoltan Kodaly. The Bartók-Kodaly axis is now musical history. Both composers were engaged separately in the study and collection of Hungarian folk music, which was genuine peasant music. They joined forces in 1906, and remained devoted friends and artistic partners for the rest of Bartók’s life. The Kodaly pieces Bartók played were his Op. 11 Nos. 2, 7 and 4 (Chanson Populaire, Szekely, Rubato and Epitaphe) followed by Op. 3 Nos. 4 and 5 (Allegretto scherzando and Quos ego.)

For the rest of the programme Bartók played his own music beginning with the sonata in B. I have never heard anything to equal the rhythmic intensity, the sheer percussive vitality, the dash and abandon, the actual physical reality (some critics called it brutality) of the sound content in Bartók’s playing of the first and last movements. The only pianist of this time who approached Bartók in this respect is the Hungarian and unofficial pupil of Bartók, Andor Foldes. When he played, the legs of the piano seemed to be twitching in an effort to join in this animalistic, choreographic, Pan-worship rite.

You might be curious to know what audience and press reactions were to Bartók’s recital.

Here's what Percy Gordon, B.Mus. the only full-time music critic in the city, had to say in the Glasgow Herald: "The Kodaly pieces were played with rare sympathy and understanding by Mr. Bartók, who found ample use for his notable command of tone gradation, expressive rubato and precise pedalling."

On Bartok's music, Mr. Gordon was non-committal, although he spared us the hoary excuse "It is impossible to judge a new work at its first hearing."

Bartók had first played for us on February 28, 1932. It is clear from the letters I had had from him that at that time he was moving about Europe pretty fast. He was in Budapest December 1931; London, February 2, 1932; back to Budapest, February 10; in Paris, February 18; in Holland February 22-26, then direct from Holland to Glasgow on February 28. He was a man in demand.

Here now is the amusing account of the first meeting between Bartók and the Active Society. My first wife, Diana Brodie who for a time was honorary-secretary of the Active Society, wrote it.

When we knew Bartók was coming to Glasgow to stay with us, the first thing, which worried us, was - language difficulty. None of us, of course, could speak one word of Hungarian. Would our famous guest be any better with English? I immediately bought an "English-cum-Hungarian" dictionary, (by the time I left Scotland I had entertained so many continental composers, musicians, and singers, that I had a very comprehensive collection of "English-cums"). I pictured myself standing on the station platform anxiously scanning the face of every male, who, in my opinion, looked “foreign", and gesticulating wildly with the dictionary. However, I was rescued (or thought I was) from this predicament by the Hungarian Consul in Glasgow, Sir William Burrell, who telephoned me the day before Bartók's arrival to say that he also would like to come to the station to receive this distinguished visitor from Hungary.

"Luck", I thought, "this lets me out". So you can imagine my disappointment, when, on meeting Sir William a few minutes before the train was due to arrive (8.35 p.m. on February 28 1932), he said he hoped that either my husband or I could speak Hungarian because he could not.

"Well", I said laughingly, "you're the official representative so you can get on with it." But we need not have worried. When the Flying Scotsman arrived and the passengers alighted from the train it was quite simple to recognise him. There was only one Béla Bartók! A small white-haired man, wearing a black Homburg hat, thick black coat with a heavy Astrakhan collar and armed with a music case in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Who I wondered had forewarned him about Glasgow' s weather?

Sir William went forward at once to greet him, and I swear I saw a look of relief flit across the consul's face when Bartók said in a softly spoken, broken English accent, "Bartók is my name". After that all went smoothly. Later in the day, my husband and I admitted to each other that we had both felt ashamed that not one of the party who came to receive him could reply to him in his language, least of all the Consul.

Bartók was very shy. Where music was concerned he would and could talk at length, but apart from the fact that he told us he had a wife and son, he spoke very little about himself. He made a great fuss of our baby daughter Morag and seemed to be extremely fond of children, yet I felt he had built an invisible barrier of defence for himself against the outside world. We do know that he was really badly off financially, and that apart from his heavy overcoat, which was beautifully warm and looked new, his suits though well-tailored and well pressed were equally well worn. His shirts too were frayed at the cuffs and collars. Altogether he gave one the impression of “putting a face” on things generally, and being harassed by some secret worry. The face of a pathetic little man - but an intensely proud one who was also a musical genius.

His stay was a very pleasant one for us. He was almost fanatical in his passionate love for folk music. Not just Hungarian or Slav, but the folk music of all countries. He told us something of his experience in searching for and collecting the folk songs of his own country. Normally his face looked rather stern and taut, but his whole face lit up and his eyes became pools of liquid fire when recounting what was obviously the most vital part of his life. At first he did make one feel he was unapproachable and distant. But when he found that he could relax, and was in no danger of being “lionised” (the soul-searing penalty the celebrity pays for being a celebrity) and that he was among friendly, sympathetic people, his whole personality seemed to change, to become electrified.

Then one became aware of the terrifically forceful personality of this seemingly quiet, shy, self-effacing musician. Here was someone with dynamic strength of will to achieve what he had set out to do with his life. Erik asked him if he had ever come across the folk music of Scotland, and in particular, if he had heard any of our ancient piobaireachd (Pibroch) music. Bartók confessed that this was one branch of folk music he had had no opportunity to study.

In fact, I think he had not quite realised just what scope there was in it. To many continentals Scotland just seems to be the top-part of England with no particular characteristics of its own. How wrong they are! If they travel to the North of Scotland and make contact with the Gaelic-speaking population, see our tartans, Celtic Crosses, and hear our piobaireachd music, they may realise that we have certain Asiatic qualities which are not shared by the Sassenach.

Now, Scottish folk music, and especially Piobaireachd happened to be Erik’s pet subject and particular study at that time. For years he had been doing considerable research in this line, so of course, he brought out various collections of folk music and gramophone records, and Bartók listened and studied these for hours. The result of this conversation was that the next day Bartók went to a well-known shop in town, which supplied all Highland requisites. He came home with a tartan rug, a chanter, all the piobaireachd music he could lay his hands on. He told us that the manager of the firm had arranged with one of our most noted Pipe-Majors to come next day to the Grand Hotel to play the bagpipes to him. Bartók was enchanted.

It is a moot point whether his studies of the Asiatic piobaireachd had any influence on his subsequent works. In the first movement of his Third Piano Concerto there appears to be some Scottish melodic influence, but then again, the similarity between much of the Hungarian and Scottish Folk music which Bartók himself seized on, is such as to make a definite claim on this matter rather rash.

He spoke about his compositions with detachment and could criticise them almost as though someone else had written them. He said that his greatest failure was his ballet “The Wondrous Mandarin”. “The story” he said with a sly smile “was considered immoral by some theatre managers and consequently had only a few performances. We asked him how many. “Oh”, he replied “not more than 100.”

According to Erik “The Wondrous Mandarin,” Opus 19 (written before 1918 and 1919) received its first performance in Cologne 1925, and was not performed in Budapest in the composer’s lifetime. It was played in Prague and after its second Cologne performance was proscribed and the composer taken to task by the City Council.

Bartók was 51 when we first met him and there had been a move to give the work in Budapest a year earlier to honour his 50th birthday, but was officially banned after the dress rehearsal. Clergy raised objections to it when another attempt – 10 years later - was made to stage it. So it is a little difficult to see how anything like 100 performances by 1932 could be accounted for.

It could be that when he said “about a 100 performances” he was having a joke with himself and us. Or he may have counted in performances of the suite he made from the unsuccessful ballet around 1918 - for the music is one of the most thrilling and original scores ever penned.

One amusing incident took place in the concert. Bartók asked Erik if he would turn the pages for him both at the rehearsal and at the concert. Just before the rehearsal Bartók pointed out a particularly difficult passage in the score and asked Erik if he would play the notes in the bass for him. Somewhat surprised but anxious to please Bartók he agreed to do this. When it came to the actual playing of the part at the concert, Bartók gave my husband a flashing impish grin, and, of course, played the whole passage brilliantly.

But to return to my own thoughts of Bartók, I recall his disappointment on learning that no authoritative or basic collection of Scottish folk music existed in print; (since then the Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies have largely supplied this deficiency). He tapped out several subtle and elusive rhythms which he had heard sung by so-called inferior races in Eastern Europe (who, by the way, like so many of our own Africans, are completely ignorant of the difficulties their - to them, natural rhythmic patterns give to musical experts of so-called superior races!) Bartók asked me if I would write them down. I had to confess myself completely stumped - rhythms like alternating 7 and 1/8, with 6 and 5/8. His own Six dances on Bulgarian rhythms are stylised examples of these.

I started to ask him the question "Why do you write ... " and was going on to say” so many small compositions for piano”, when he interrupted me ... “the kind of music I do? Well, I suppose I've just got into a habit - bad or good I don't quite know which. Anyway, it's far too late to think of getting out of it. I began composing in the Brahms tradition, then moved over to Liszt; became interested in the peasant music of my own country, and somehow this led me almost imperceptibly into what I have come to believe is my true path. Well, there it is. I cannot help it if people don't like my music - I do."

Finally a few trivia about Bartók. Psychologists say that even such a trivial action as the way a man turns his head reveals certain facets of his personality.

We served him a typical Scottish high tea - a plate of meat or fish supported with cake, scones, butter, jam and tea. I asked him if he would like gooseberry or strawberry jam. He said, "No thank you," then as an afterthought - "Is it manufactured or homemade?" I said it was homemade. "Then I'll have some" he replied: "Homemade jam has character and taste, bought jams neither.'"

On another occasion he lunched at the home of my friend, Ernest Boden. He hardly spoke at all during the meal, but once expressed interest in the fish course, which happened to be halibut. Apparently he had neither heard of nor tasted halibut before.

Many years later when Bartók was in Los Angeles he tasted for the first time avocado pear. The Spanish word abogado means advocate but avocado is a corruption of their word aguate. Writing to a friend, Bartók said, “In Los Angeles I ate an advocate (avocado). This is a fruit somewhat like a cucumber in size and colour, but quite buttery in texture, so it can be spread on bread. Its flavour is something like an almond but not so sweet. It has a place in this celebrated fruit salad which consists of green salad, apple, celery, pineapple, raw tomato and mayonnaise”.

Another little story. In 1928, Bartók and Alfredo Casella were numbered among the competitors for a $6000 prize for a string quartet, offered by a musical society in Philadelphia. The judges decided the first place must be divided between Bartók and Casella. The Budapest papers got the story muddled and reported that the entire award went to Bartók.

“You can hardly imagine the sensation this caused in Budapest,” said Bartók $6000! From the beginning I told every one that the amount would not be so great, but of course in vain; so the public still believe that I won a fortune of $6000.”

Paul Saucer, founder and director of the Swiss Balsa Kamei orchestra - a life long friend of Partook and promoter of many of his works - left this personal note about the great Hungarian composer.

“Whoever met Bartók, thinking of the rhythmic strength of his work, were surprised by his slight, delicate figure. He had the outward appearance of a fine nervous 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 exceptionally hazardous and refractory passage came off well, he laughed with boyish glee, and when he was pleased with the successful solution of a problem, he actually beamed. That meant more than fulsome compliments, which I never heard from his lips."

I never saw Bartók after 1933. Shortly afterwards, Hungary was moving politically nearer to Germany. 1933 was a fateful year for Europe with the rising Nazi party beginning to assert its belligerent national policies. Bartók was much perturbed, and after Hitler annexed Austria, he began to see that he could no longer live and work in Hungary. He felt reluctant to abandon his Mother in her advancing years. He wrote: "What I have written so far relates to Hungary: where, alas, the civilised" Christian people are almost entirely devoted to the Nazi system; I am heartily ashamed I come from this class."

Bartók was sent a questionnaire about his ancestry and allegiance, asking, "Are you of German blood, related race or non-Aryan?" He made a bitter joke about this: "Aryan means Indo-European (so I learn from my Lexicon). We Magyars are, however, Finno-Ungrics, yes, and what is more, perhaps originally Northern Turks; consequently not at all Indo-European, and therefore Non-Aryan." Bartók catalogued his manuscripts and sent them to a friend in Switzerland for safekeeping. Then his beloved mother died, a severe loss to him.

He made a farewell appearance in Budapest and 1940 found him in America. He wrote to Fritz Rreiner in 1942: "I hope that in October at the latest, I may return to a free Hungary." His stay in America is a story in itself, and it is anything but a happy story. "The trouble with Bartok" wrote Paul Hindemith to me "is that he refuses to believe that the old order has passed away in his own country possibly never to return. He kept living in the belief that he would waken up one day and find everything in Hungary as he had known it in past years."

In his will, Bartók stated that "My burial is to be as simple as possible. If after my death they want to name a street after me, or to erect a memorial tablet to me in any public place, then my desire is this: as long as streets in Budapest remain 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."

When I was across in Glasgow a few years back, I bumped into D C Parker, the one-time critic of the Evening Times in Buchanan Street. We hadn't seen one another for 30 years. I couldn't resist the opportunity of saying, "Do you remember the nasty things you wrote about Bartók's music? You weren't much of a prophet then, now were you, old boy?" To which he replied stiffly: "Sorry - Chisholm, but I still feel the same about Bartók as I did in l932!

So we live but don't learn'.