Béla Bartók in London
© David Karlin

In the great hall of 20th-century composers, Béla Bartók stands out as a true globetrotter. He has also become a symbol: he can be seen as the exiled man, full of nostalgic yearning for his roots, or the misunderstood genius, or even the militant working-class composer. All these myths about Bartók can explain why nowadays there are a dozen statues of him all over the world. In these days of confinement, we want to offer you a little world trip, in search of the different busts and statues of the greatest Hungarian composer. Please fasten your seatbelts!

Of course, we couldn’t have started our journey anywhere else but in Budapest. Bartók is a true legend there and there are countless events that pay tribute to him during the year, the latest one being the Bartók Spring International Arts Weeks which strives to highlight rarely-played works by Bartók, such as the Concerto for Orchestra, all the string quartets and the Wooden Prince.

After completing his studies – during which he met Dohnányi and Kodály – Bartók was quickly appointed piano teacher at the Budapest Conservatory. But did you know that he was also an active member of the famous “Sonntagskreis” (“Sunday Circle”), alongside his beloved librettist Béla Balázs? If you ever have the chance to visit Budapest, I warmly recommend you to leave the Széchenyi Baths for a few hours and visit Bartók’s house, in the hills above the city. It is hard to miss: a life-sized statue of the composer, sculpted by the great Hungarian master Imre Varga, stands in front of it. Inside the house, you will discover the famous wax rolls with which he recorded folk songs from his native land... but also an old shoe clog in which Bartók kept his ground coffee. Ideal for the conservation of the aromas! Now you will understand why the French call bad coffee “sock juice”!

Early on, Bartók felt the urge to travel. He went to Romania, where he tried to organise folk concerts with peasants. Although it ended up in a disaster, Bartók left a lasting artistic imprint on the country, as evidenced by the bust standing in the city centre of the lovely medieval town of Târgu Mureș.

Of all the countries he visited, England was the one he gave to and received from the most. It all began with Bartók’s first great orchestral work, Kossuth, a vibrant nationalistic hymn in which one can hear a parody of Haydn’s Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser. There was only one problem: the German musicians in Budapest refused to play that part of the work! It drew the attention of János Richter, director of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. And here we are, in 1904, with Bartók taking his very first trip to Great Britain! In his entire life, 50 concerts dedicated to his works took place in the country, particularly in London, which Bartók visited at least 16 times. If you are curious enough to visit house number 7, Sydney Place, you will find an English Heritage Blue Plaque that testifies the great friendship between Bartók and his British host, diplomat Duncan Wilson. A short walk away, next to South Kensington tube station, there is a fine statue of Bartók (again the work of Varga).

Béla Bartók in London
© David Karlin

Wilson was a great music lover who counted Rostropovitch and Britten as close friends, and his daughter married pianist Radu Lupu. And in case you need proof that it's a small world, let me tell you of the romance that took place between Bartók and Jelly D’Arányi, a well-known violin prodigy who was the granddaughter of the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. They met in Budapest during their early years and were reunited in London in 1922. Bartók was so happy that he wrote his two Violin Sonatas for her. The premiere in London was electric. In the audience, a French composer was so amazed that he decided to write a concert piece for D’Arányi, based on Central European folk music. Thus was born the now world-famous Tzigane by Maurice Ravel.

Béla Bartók in Paris
© Tristan Labouret

And indeed, Bartók also had a really profound relationship also with France. In Paris, there is a statue (yet another by Varga) in a public square named after him. Another interesting thing you can find in this square is a sculptural transcription of the composer's research on tonal harmony. However, his Parisian adventure did not start very well: Bartók first came in 1905 as a candidate for the Rubinstein piano composition competition. He didn’t win, but he earned the respect of the French musical intelligentsia: the composers from the “Group of the 6” programmed his works in 1919. In 1922, a legendary evening reunited Bartók with Stravinski, Ravel, Szymanowski, Poulenc, Auric and Satie. The high esteem they held him in only transformed into public triumph after his death. According to French composer Florent Schmitt, “Ils sont tous bar-tokés!” (“They are all Bartóked!” – a pun on the French word “toqué”, which means “crazy”).

In the context of the Cold War, the Communist Party tried to exploit Bartók’s music. He even became a symbol of the struggle of the working class. This ideological battle made Bartók’s work subversive and appealing: in 1957, a survey listed him as one of the favourite composers among young students. But of course, nowadays, Bartók is mostly seen as the composer who was brave enough to stand up against fascism and took the path of exile. In the splendid Koerner Hall of Toronto, a statue of Bartók (always and forever the work of Varga) bears the painful mark of his exile: it was offered to the Hall in the 2000s by Tamás Fekete, a Hungarian immigrant who moved to Canada in... 1956!

The poster for Carnegie Hall's Contrasts premiere
© Musicologie.org

When one speaks about Bartók’s exile, one's mind wanders to his last years in the United States. The relationship between Bartók and the USA was not always a straightforward one: in 1927 he had been invited to Philadelphia to showcase some of his compositions. Alas, the concert turned into a disaster – because of a forgotten score! The public did not appreciate the last-minute programme changes and were not shy in expressing their displeasure... Nevertheless, after that, Bartók’s success in the United States went steadily upwards, as evidenced by the creation in Carnegie Hall of his piece called Contrasts, with Joseph Szigeti (one of the most distinguished violinists of his generation) alongside jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman. It was an outstanding success. This motivated the composer to move to America in 1940, when the Nazis started to prevent him from performing. He settled in New York City, at 309 W. 57th Street, at which address you can see a bust depicting him and a plaque dedicated to him.

But to be honest, Bartók had never been quite happy in New York. In a really touching article, Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun reveals that when Bartók decided to leave Hungary, he asked him if there was a possibility for him to find a job in Turkey. Bartók’s links to Turkey go back to 1936, when he went on an incredible trip through the country, in search of folk songs. Saygun's lively account tells us how Bartók marvelled at everything: “At one point he stopped in front of a store where he had noticed a kind of fruit that he had never seen before. [...] I can still see him looking at it as we walked along, and then stopping [...] to ask me if we had any songs with texts describing this fruit. Thus a new subject of conversation was broached – fruit and folk music.” And how many times did they have to run after the moving train, with their luggage full of traditional objects!

Bartók was so puzzled by the similarity between their two languages that he and Saygun tried to find a sentence that would have the same pronunciation in both languages. Would you like a nice anecdote to share at your next posh social event? Here is the sentence!
In Hungarian: “Pamuk tarlon sok arpa, alnia, teve, sator, balta, esizma, kicsi kecske van.”
In Turkish: “Pamiik tarlasinda çok arpa, alma, deve, çadir, balta, çizme, küçüh keçi var.”
Translation: “In the cotton field there is a lot of barley and many apples, camels, tents, axes, boots, and young goats.”
Next time you go to Ankara, take the time to visit the State Conservatory: a bust of Bartók is located in the front yard as a memory of this great cross-cultural adventure.

The Béla Bartók fountain in Square Henri Collet, Paris
© Tristan Labouret

Ultimately, Bartók truly is an all-round European musician: indeed, the very last statue in our world-trip stands in Brussels. The statue is located in Place d’Espagne, in a place appropriately called “the crossroads of Europe”, and when it comes to the sculptor... well, if you have read this article attentively, I am sure you can guess who it is!

Our Belgian friends will also maybe remember the name of Paul Collaer, huge Bartók admirer, head of the INR (National Institute of Radiodiffusion), thanks to whom Bartók’s music came to the ears of the Belgian people. Collaer first played Bartók through his Pro Arte orchestra in the 30s, then, during the war, in underground concerts. After the war, it was him who commissioned the INR Orchestra for the European premiere of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Dear passengers, our virtual trip now comes to an end. Whenever you are in the world, you may take a moment to listen to a bit of Bartók and think of the many trips he made. In a world where nationalism puts up boundaries between all countries, Bartók always remained interested in the way one particular culture could meet another one. Therefore, it's no surprise that today, anywhere in the world, at the corner of a street or on a quiet square, you can find his thoughtful face.


This article was sponsored by Wavemaker Hungary.