Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and I go back quite a long way... right back to the time we crossed the Atlantic together. And before you go marvelling at how well I’ve maintained my youthful looks for a nonagenarian, I should explain: he had been dead for 43 years at the time! The composer fled his native Hungary during the Second World War, reluctantly emigrating to the United States in 1940. He died there five years later and was buried in New York.

Béla Bartók, transcribing from the phonograph, ca 1918
© Bartók Archives, Budapest

As Communism crumbled across eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the Hungarian government requested Bartók’s remains be repatriated and so, in June 1988, a coffin draped in the red, white and green national flag was brought aboard the famous ocean liner, the QE2, with great ceremony for a transatlantic voyage of a – not quite – lifetime. Among the passengers was a teenaged me (my father was the purser and we had joined him for a family holiday). I didn’t know much about Bartók then, only that Mum had warned me against his music – and that of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, I remember – describing it as “difficult”. There was a chamber recital on the return voyage to Southampton and it sparked my curiosity.

Concerto for Orchestra

One of the first pieces of Bartók I got to know was one of his final works. The Concerto for Orchestra was composed in 1943 for Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. Most concertos are written for a single virtuoso soloist, but Bartók’s casts the spotlight far and wide, allowing the entire orchestra to shine. The nimble second movement “Games of Pairs” features bassoons, oboe, clarinet, flutes and muted trumpets in jocular duos.

Mikrokosmos

The first Bartók I played were some simple parallel motion clarinet duets with my teacher based on his Mikrokosmos, a series of 153 progressive piano pieces. Bartók dedicated the first two books to his son, Peter, while Books 5 and 6 are at professional level. In 1940, the composer arranged seven of these for piano duet for him to perform with his wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók. We could sit through all two and a half hours of the six books, but here are those seven duets instead!

Romanian Folk Dances

Bartók was an avid collector of folk music, recording it using a phonograph. In many ways, he was one of the first ethnomusicologists. I learnt the first of his Romanian Folk Dances (the Stick Dance), one of my clarinet Grade 5 exam pieces. But Bartók was Hungarian, no? His 1915 score was based on folk dances from Transylvania (then part of Hungary) but Bartók changed the title when Transylvania became part of Romania in 1920. Originally for piano, and then orchestrated, I think they actually work best in Zoltán Székely’s arrangement for violin and piano, where one gets that real earthy folk feel, especially the crazy final Mărunțel (which I could never quite get my fingers around!).

Hungarian Sketches

Folk music inspired Bartók’s suite of Hungarian Sketches, although only the final movement – the Swineherd’s Dance – was based on a genuine folk melody. But there Bartók assimilates that folk feel into his music, which displays plenty of humour too, especially in the Bear Dance (no.2) and Slightly Tipsy (no.4) with its unsteady steps and off-beat accents… caused by too many glasses of Tokaj perhaps?!

Music for strings, percussion and celesta

Back in 1991, Channel 4 ran a television series called Orchestra! in which Dudley Moore – comic genius but also an excellent pianist – teamed up with Sir Georg Solti to explore classical music. I vividly remember the Hungarian maestro (“My dear boy!”) explaining how Bartók used the piano as a percussion instrument in the Music for strings, percussion and celesta, conducting a slightly terrified Dud in the Allegro second movement… but when it clicks, what rhythm!

String Quartet no. 4

In that film, Dudley Moore admits that he didn’t “get” Bartók’s string quartets until he saw the Juilliard Quartet play them. This unsettling music does make more sense if you can see it being played, especially to see the knotty interactions between the four instruments. The fourth of his six quartets is in five movements and employs various effects such as glissandos and snap-pizzicatos. The second movement is played entirely with mutes, the fourth entirely pizzicato (plucked). There are definitely Hungarian folk influences in the finale.

Divertimento for string orchestra

One of the things I love about Bartók’s music is his rhythmic drive. We heard it in the Music for strings, percussion and celesta and it’s evident in the outer movements of his Divertimento. Both works were commissioned by Paul Sacher for the Basel Chamber Orchestra. The Divertimento was composed in the spirit of the 18th century concerto grosso – and Sacher was very much Bartók’s patron, providing him with a Swiss chalet in which to compose, complete with a chef to cook his meals!

The Miraculous Mandarin

A tour of Bartók’s music wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the theatre. Strangely, you’re more likely to encounter the gruesome pantomime ballet The Miraculous Mandarin in the concert hall than on the stage. It’s a lurid ballet: a pretty young woman dances provocatively to lure passing men into a thugs’ den, where they are robbed. The third victim, a Chinese Mandarin, however, puts up a struggle and, despite repeated attempts to kill him – stabbing and smothering – he refuses to die.

Bluebeard’s Castle

Bartók’s only opera also has a lurid synopsis. Duke Bluebeard escorts his new bride Judith to his castle, a dark, gloomy place. Judith asks for all the doors in the castle to be opened to let in the light. Bluebeard refuses, but Judith persists. Seven doors in turn are opened, each revealing horrors within, from a torture chamber to a treasury stained with blood to a silvery lake of tears. The final door opens and three of Bluebeard’s former wives appear… what fate lies ahead for Judith? It’s a one-act operatic chiller, open to a variety of imaginative stagings, although with coloured lighting for each of the doors, it can work very well in concert, especially this outstanding “lockdown” rendition by Gabór Bretz, Rinat Shaham and the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest under Karina Canellakis. I wonder what Mum would have thought?!

Discover more Bartók at the Bartók Spring International Arts Weeks.

This article was sponsored by Wavemaker Hungary.