19 January 2018

Béla Bartók: Pictures of a Life – Part II


 

THE TOWER OF SILENCE

 

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, which Bartók composed to the libretto of the poet Béla Balázs, a friend of both Bartók and Kodály, was completed in 1911, but for many long years it remained the symbol of the moral triumph of its creator. Bartók entered it in a competition advertised by the Lipótváros Casino, one of Budapest’s cultural centres, where it was rejected as “unfit for production”. Since István Kerner, the respected conductor of the Opera House, was also a member of the jury, Bartók could not very well hope for an Opera premiere. Consequently, for years Duke Bluebeard’s Castle lay dormant in a drawer of his desk.

The same year a number of Hungarian composers with Pongrác Kacsóh, the nationally renowned composer of the romantic musical play János vitéz among them, founded the New Hungarian Music Society (UMZE). Kacsóh, who was president of the society, championed Bartók from the first moment he appeared in musical life. Their aim as a way of supplementing the activities of the conservative Philharmonic Society – was to form a professional orchestra devoted to the new music. Bartók as well as Kodály participated in the preliminary planning. However, due to the lack of the requisite moral and financial backing, their plans were frustrated, with the periodically re-emerging Society giving sporadic chamber music recitals. In 1912 this series of disappointments led Bartók to withdraw from public musical life altogether.

He had been living for a year in Rákoskeresztúr by then, a garden suburb of Budapest an hour’s ride by train. Although the house was without electricity, gas and plumbing, he was satisfied with this style of life, whose difficulties were smoothed over by his wife Márta, the daughter of His Excellency Károly Ziegler who had been used to better things – to all appearances, without her minding. Bartók did not give concerts and did not look up publishers or the Philharmonic Society with new works; his teaching at the Music Academy was his only tie to musical life. On the other hand, basically at the last moment before the outbreak of the First World War his folk music collecting took him to Africa, where he collected Arab folk music in the settlements around Biskra, which were as yet untouched by civilisation. The effect of this trip would later manifest itself in several of Bartók’s works.


With violinist Joseph Szigeti in New York, February 1928. Photo by Ernest Nash

With the outbreak of the war, the failures of the recent years paralysed Bartók. This paralysis was relieved somewhat in 1915, when he began to compose once again and at the same time he turned his attention to contextual and formal questions of organising folksongs into art music cycles. He also wrote two song cycles, one to poems by the contemporary poet Endre Ady, the other to the poems of two women poets perhaps meant as the afterthought to Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, in order to prove that the poetry in his own soul had not died out altogether.

Bartók wrote two masterpieces during the war yearshis String Quartet No. 2, in whose slow movement he mourned Debussy by conjuring up a motif from his Pelléas et Mélisande, and The Wooden Prince, a ballet composed to a scenario by Béla Balázs. The scenario seems to hark back to the Ballets Russes’ Budapest performance in December 1912–January 1913 and Stravinsky’s Petrushkawhich also has a puppet come to life as its main character. In Balázs’s scenario, however, the puppet is not the main character but the naïve schemer, and Bartók takes his dramatic function one step further, turning him into the veritably Wagnerian representative of evil. In Balázs’s conception, the work sometimes eclipses its creator; with Bartók, on the other hand, the story becomes yet another treatment of the fatal conflict between Man and Woman. It was thanks to Balázs’s efforts that the pantomime was performed on the stage of the Opera House with a stunning scenic design by the Intendant, Count Miklós Bánffy. The performance was directed by Balázs – who for the first time tried his hand at directing – and it was conducted by the thorough and conscientious Italian conductor, Egisto Tango. The press was geared for a scandalous failure. Balázs described the premiere atmosphere of 12 May 1917 as follows: “The ticket prices were raised steeply. They were preparing for a huge Opera scandal. Reviews were written beforehand to the effect,For Christ’s sake, Béla, stop composing!’ And it was a memorable evening. After the last note of the music had died away, there was total silence. No clapping. No hisses and catcalls either. It seemed for a while as if an invisible scale of gigantic proportions were being tipped this way and that. In the deadly hush of the auditorium, a silent battle, like some inner struggle. Then the ecstatic applause from the gallery shattered the silence and swept down to the boxes and the stalls like an avalanche, sweeping the rabble of the press with it. Many reviews had to be rewritten that night. This was Béla Bartók’s first resounding success.” In his own objective style Bartók commented as follows: “The year 1917 brought a change in the attitude of the Budapest public toward my compositions. I had the good luck to hear a major work of mine, The Wooden Prince, performed in a perfect manner under the direction of Maestro Egisto Tango.”

With his second wife Ditta Pásztory and their son Péter, October 1932. Photo Ditta Pásztory

On 24 May 1918, one year after the premiere of
The Wooden Prince, Bartóks opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, was finally performed seven years after it was composed. Once again, the conductor was Egisto Tango. In the wake of the performance, Universal Edition, the respected Viennese publisher of contemporary music, offered Bartók a long-term contract for all his manuscripts, past, present and future. This gesture was all the more significant considering that no new scores by Bartók had appeared since 1913, and many earlier ones were also waiting for publication.



With Paul Sacher and Conrad Beck, for the debut of “MUsic for Strings and Percussion” in Basel, January 19

Events
around Bartók speeded up. Europe’s terrible danse macabre was approaching closer and closer to him, trying with all its might to lasso him into the group of its attendant dancers”. The Spanish flu epidemic, to which millions fell victim throughout Europe, caught up with him as well, attacking his hearing. When Kodály accompanied a physician to Rákoskeresztúr, Bartók asked him to act as guardian to his eight-year-old son, should it come to that. A month later, however, Bartók regained his health and as the “answer” to his ordeal, he wrote his own danse macabre, the pantomime-grotesque The Miraculous Mandarin after the libretto by Menyhért Lengyel, the popular dramatist of Bartók’s age, and later a Hollywood legend (Melchior Lengyel). The piece – the rhythms and scoring of which echo the pagan pursuits of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps is about dehumanised man, about civilisation that has turned on humankind, about sympathy that blooms even amid filth, and the triumph of passion-driven desire over death.

In 1919, during the short-lived dictatorial Hungarian Republic of Councils, also known as the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Bartók was a member of the Music Directorate along with Dohnányi and Kodály. Although he had many good and noble plans for reform, he soon fell out of favour with the so-called restoration (the reinstatement of the monarchy) to follow. Because his stage works were based on scenarios by the “émigré Communist” Béla Balázs, who was forced to flee, they were taken off the programme of the Opera House. The Mandarin composition, completed in 1919, remained unorchestrated, since Bartók saw no hope of it ever being produced. His income, too, was gone with the wind. In a letter to Menyhért Lengyel dated 10 January 1920, he wrote: “We live in great misery; true, there are no material shortages now, but whatever is available is unaffordable for poor people like us. As a result, I spend the whole winter with my family in one room, in our smallest, where I cannot even work on orchestration. Not only am I unable to think of the Seherezáde but there is not a single sheet of the score of the Mandarin finished yetMy income is hardly enough to meet the only luxury we have, not going hungry.”

Though his circumstances were severe, Bartók at least managed to veer from the path of death sneaking in on him time and again. Still, it seemed that he would not be able to continue his work in Hungary and would have to look around Europe, in every sense of the word. It was his only chance of leaving his Tower of Silence.

 

IN EUROPE ONCE AGAIN

 

In the early 1910s Bartók did not enter the tower of his own accord, he was forced into it, and the war years, the Hungarian Republic of Councils and the counter-revolution increased his isolation tenfold. On 23 October 1919, he wrote his mother: As much as possible, I have already asked around in three countries about the chances of prospering there. Because one can make a living here, but to work, meaning to work on what I want (studying folk music), won’t be possible for at least ten years. In short, if I can manage to pursue this sort of work abroad, it makes no sense for me to stay; and if I can’t make a living from something like this abroad either, it’s still preferable to teach in Vienna than in Pest, because at least Vienna has good music institutions (orchestras, the Opera, etc.), all of which are in decline here, seeing how the best, the one-of-a-kind, Tango, Dohnányi, etc., are hounded out of them.” The moment the borders were reopened in early 1920, he applied for a passport and headed for Berlin, where he gave his first post-war European concert. He was involved in discussions with Max Reinhardt’s theatre company about a possible commission, but nothing came of it. He could not very well count on a teaching appointment, much less on making a living as a music ethnographer. After nearly three months, he returned to Budapest. “The folksongs won’t let me go west; all is in vain, they’re pulling me east”, he wrote his Romanian adherent Buşuţia from Berlin.

On his return, Bartók decided to leave the suburbs, and accepted an invitation from the banker and art lover József Lukács, the father of philosopher György Lukács, to live in his villa, where Bartók and his family spent two years. The newly defined national borders made folksong collecting more difficult; on the other hand, Bartók the ethnomusicologist had no need of enhancing the material he had amassed over a decade and a half. The new circumstances prompted him to write his first large-scale comprehensive study, The Hungarian Folk Song. This too was written in the Lukács villa, along with the piano cycle entitled Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs and his Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1. Both were born after years of creative silence, and now that Bartók was au courant with respect to the music of Europe, he had to decide on the road to take.


The cover of the score of Mikrokosmos, 1939

In his Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 (1921) and in his Sonata No. 2, written a year later, Bartók had approached Arnold Schönberg’s expressionism without, however, deserting his own musical conceptions. Bartók wrote the two works for Jelly d’Arányi, the Budapest-born violinist who settled in London; his lyrical self-revelation was addressed to her sensitivity as woman and artist. Bartóks emotional outpouring reminds one of his emotional exuberance of fifteen years before – this violinist saw only the composer in him, and not the man, and after a while Bartók was forced to face facts. His family life was transformed all the same; in the summer of 1923 he divorced Márta Ziegler and a couple of weeks later married one of his piano pupils, Ditta Pásztory, twenty-two years his junior, who from 1938 would become his partner in their two-piano recitals. A year later Ditta gave birth to their son, Péter. As a composer, Bartók soon rejected Schönberg’s music. He explained the reason for doing so in a lecture, explicating why the trend based on folk music is irreconcilable with the Zwölfton-Musik trend.Folk music”, he explained,is exclusively tonal; atonal folk music is wholly inconceivable. And atonal Zwölfton-Musik cannot be based on tonal folk music, that’s a contradiction in terms. It is undeniable that among the impediments to the atonal trend is the fact that some twentieth-century composers have a certain interest in old folk music, a fact that we cannot ignore.”

He distanced himself from Schönberg and drew closer to Stravinsky whose novel, ostinato-based development, the rousing effect of the frequent repetition of brief rhythmic and melodic figures attracted him. He was fascinated by the neo-barbaric blocs of the Russian master’s scoring for large orchestras as well as the surprising chamber music effects of his orchestration for small orchestras with their novel soloist effects. Meanwhile, both as a theme and as a model of organic development, nature also came to play a more and more important role in Bartók’s works.

Béla Bartók and Ditta Pásztory at the time of playing the piano duos, 1938-39. Photo by Mariann Reismann

In
1923 a commission for the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the unification of Pest and Buda offered Bartók a chance to experiment. He paraded a string of themes inspired by the folk music of various peoples (Hungarian, Romanian, Arabic and Slovak) but composed by himself, creating a unified musical vernacular from them, until in the final section of the piece, he united them formally as well; while preserving their independence, he gave them a unity of a higher order, an achievement that except for his artistic vision, no politician or politicians have been able to emulate.

The Dance Suite this was the title of the new piece – did not make much of an impression at its 1923 premiere in Budapest, but it was greeted with accolades two years later in Prague at the International Festival of Contemporary Music, and during the following two seasons, it was performed nearly seventy times in the concert halls of Europe and America.

With conductor Ernest Ansermet in Budapest, 31 October, 1938

This triumph – as is only to be expected in Bartó
k’s career – was soon followed by disappointment. In late 1924 he finished orchestrating The Miraculous Mandarin, hoping that the premiere would be held either at the Budapest Opera or at one of the large German theatres. However, citingmoral” considerations the management of the Opera refused to stage it (and would stick by its decision for another twenty years), so after weighing their options, Bartók and his publisher decided on Cologne, where Eugen Szenkár, the music director of Hungarian origin, championed the cause of the Mandarin. The premiere, however, was a fiasco. According to music critic Hermann Unger’s account, “Cologne, the city of churches, monasteries and chapels whose praises Heinrich Heine had sung, has experienced its first truly big opera scandal; the long minutes of hissing, booing, whistling, drumming, hooting that did not hold itself back in the presence of the composer and which after the fire curtain came down, when the composer and the conductor appeared in front of the small door escalated into yelling, all this says a lot to us … Protest in the press with the exception of the left, the emergency meetings of both creeds … the dictatorial intervention of the chief burgomaster and quick action to have the piece removed from the programme … The waves of moral indignation are whipped up …”

In short, then and there, the piece was a failure. What is more, the Cologne debacle continued to influence the European production of the Mandarin for decades, and Bartók was never again to see it on stage.

With violinist André Gertler in his home in Brussels, 1938

On
the other hand, the fiasco could not tarnish his reputation. He had won acknowledgement not only as one of the leading lights of the new music, but also as an exceptional pianist. The manner in which he composed remained hidden from audiences and even those closest to him. But the energies that were released when Bartók played the piano in public could be witnessed and experienced by thousands. Antal Molnár, the first to offer a serious analysis of Bartók’s compositions, described Bartók the pianist’s metamorphosis on the podium in these terms: “He approaches the piano with a slightly undulating walk, his advance held back, he sits down in the usual manner and rests his long fingers on the keys. From the moment he began to play, he underwent a dramatic change. Every muscle sprang into action as if the whole man were discharging electric sparks in answer to some demonic power … Only the face of the player remains neutral and pale throughout. But the fire-and-diamond flash of the fiery eyes flares up again and again: this is where he’s truly in his element. Then the waves subside, the windstorm subsides, the musical piece is over, and the audience is lost in ecstasy and recovers only after some seconds only to break out in the applause of violent emotion. And by then he is standing once again with his impassive outer mien, and without the least sign of his mission the ‘petty functionary’ acknowledges the ovation with a reluctant shake of the head and leaves the podium with the same circumspect steps with which he mounted it. He bears no traces of excitement or other emotion, there is no trace of … self-satisfaction or gratitude.”

From Maja Sacher’s guest book during a visit in Pratteln on 9 May 1939. On the right, Georges Braque’s drawing. On the left, Ditta and Bartók’s handwriting in German, and a hand-written passage from Bartók's score of “Music for Strings and Percussion”

1926, the year of the fiasco of his
Miraculous Mandarin, was also the year of new works for the piano in Bartók’s life. It was the year of his Sonata, the Out of Doors cycle, the Nine Little Piano Pieces, the Piano Concerto No. 1 and, finally, the Three Rondos on Folk Tunes completed in 1927. A whole slew of exciting experiments are summarised in these works the tensions, the intensification of extremes, the excitement of the interplay of symmetry and asymmetry, the appearance of baroque forms and means of expression, the maximal use of the melodic and percussion functions of the piano, and the appearance of various ways in which folk music can be turned into art music. The slow movements are replete with feeling, though not in the romantic sense of the word, of course; enigmatic, mysterious and threatening nature-sounds erupt and surface. The third and fourth String Quartets, which followed each other in quick succession (1927 and 1928), and the two “peasant baroque” violin concertos, the two Rhapsodies (1928), unite the experiments of the new period into a group of true masterpieces. On 8 September 1930 Bartók finished another masterpiece of summation, the sibling of the stage works not meant for the stage, the composer’s new ars poetica written with strict adherence to baroque form and painterliness – his Cantata Profana. Bartók’s piece, based on a Romanian kolinda about nine brothers turned into stags, is about the struggle between the old and the new, the miracle of transformation, the discord of nature and civilisation, and the harmony that springs from identification with nature. However, nature in Cantata profana is not idealised, it is not benign and idyllic but rather wild, fearful, enigmatic and mysterious and yet after the composer had seen so much of the world, from North America to Soviet Russia, it is in nature that he finds a safe haven for himself.

The great slow movements of the thirties (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, 1936; Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, 1937; Divertimento, 1939) no longer concern themselves with the voices of nature that is welcoming despite its severity, but the danger signals of the approaching catastrophe – dread and raw fear – the voice of mourning. “Europe, watch out!” shrills Bartók’s music. Death, which has been lying in wait for him since his youthful years, now seems to want to fence in and annihilate an entire continent, along with its culture. Is there escape from its clutches? And if so, where and how?

Bartók, who had earlier answered the challenges posed by the world around him either with stubborn silence or outrage sublimated through music, now found himself increasingly given to protest in writing. In 1931, when Italian fascists assaulted the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, who refused to conduct their anthem, the Giovinezza, Bartók drafted a declaration “for the protection of artistic freedom”. After Hitler came to power, he refused to give concerts in National Socialist Germany. Along with progressive-thinking musicians, writers, artists, scientist and politicians Kodály, Zsigmond Móricz, István Csók, Józsi Jenő Tersánszky, Béla Vikár and Lajos Zilahy, among others – in 1938 he protested in the newspaper Pesti Napló against the so-called Jewish law, a resolution that was meant to institutionalise discrimination and was about to be enacted by Parliament. The same year, when the German Reich annexed Austria, Bartók wrote a letter to Annie Müller-Widmann, a close friend and confidante in Switzerland, in which he prophesied “the imminent danger that Hungary will also surrender to this regime of thieves and murderers; the only question is when and how? How I can go on living in a country like that or – which means the same thing – go on working, I can’t begin to imagine. I would feel it my bounden duty to emigrate while it is still possible.”

In the Vermont mountains, 1941. Photo by Dr. Alexander Honig

Day by day it became more and more apparent where Hungary was headed and that
Bartók, who would not tolerate injustice and inhumanity, must leave, or else suffocate. He wrote his Divertimento in the summer of 1939 in a peasant house in Switzerland as a guest of Paul Sacher; at the same time, he also launched into the composition of his String Quartet No. 6. The Sachers looked him up in his self-absorbed creative solitude to warn him that the war could break out at any moment. Bartók curtailed his work and headed home. His mother’s health, too, was declining; she had recently suffered a stroke, and mother and son could no longer communicate. Mama died just before Christmas and with her death the last tie that had bound him to Hungary, a country teetering on the brink of the gravest peril, was severed. In the spring of 1940 Bartók headed for the United States to give concerts and gather information about his possible future prospects there. He returned for his wife and to attend to his affairs, and on 8 October 1940, the Bartóks gave a farewell concert to their Budapest fans. Four days later they left Hungary for good, reaching the boat headed for America by traversing six countries in war-torn Europe. “Basically, this journey is a leap from the certain intolerable into the intolerable uncertain”, he wrote in his last letter to Madame Müller- Widmann. “But we have no choice; it isn’t at all the question whether this has to happen; for it must happen.” As in his music sometimes, Bartók quotes Beethoven here, too, specifically, the motto of “A hard-won decision”, the last movement of the latter’s String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135 in F major: Muss es sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein!”

The Bartóks boarded the SS Excalibur on 20 October in Lisbon and reached the shores of the United States at the end of the month. Bartók was not to see either Hungary or Europe ever again.

 

EVENING IN AMERICA

 

To traverse the ocean aflame with wartime, heading from the certain intolerable into the intolerable uncertain – this put an enormous emotional burden on the composer, whose body had embedded in it a highly sensitive radar system that responded to the perils of the age. But as if that were not enough, Fate, his steadfast adversary which attacked him either in the form of illness or tried some other means to detour him from the main path of his life, now placed yet another road block in his way, designed especially for him and his wife. In the midst of the war-time confusion, their luggage, which contained the most important objects needed for their survival in America (manuscripts, research material, concert clothes), was detained at the French and Spanish border. The Bartóks had to board ship without them, and when they reached America, they got off the boat with nothing but their hand luggage. Luckily, four months later, when they had given up all hope of ever seeing them again, their belongings arrived safe and sound.

Letter by Joseph Szigeti to Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor, New York, April, 1943

But
the temporary loss of their belongings was not the only reason why Bartók could not continue his European way of life on the other side of the Atlantic smoothly. Though his physical safety was ensured in America and he did not have to fear the spread of “pernicious ideologies”, this world was not his world – he was no longer a guest, but he did not feel at home either – and never would. In Europe he was Someone, with a capital S, who had to shield himself against annoying public attention; in America, he received no public attention at all. With the exception of some good friends and loyal admirers, no one even noticed he was there.

On the other hand, it is true that America was swamped by European refugees in those years. No wonder if the public did not turn its attention to a man like Bartók, who was so humble in his ways, who had a horror of the limelight except when it came to music, and who never demanded anything for himself. He and his wife cared little for the outer formalities of their concert appearances, but audiences cared all the more. They were bothered by Bartók’s schoolmasterly, unsmiling demeanour and the fact that he and his wife played from score sheets and came on stage accompanied by their sheet turners. Apart from a small and select circle of music lovers, the public was probably not prepared in any case to hear and appreciate the Bartóks’ music. Consequently, their recitals for duo piano drowned in the ocean of musical offerings and were hardly ever followed by further performance requests, which at first dwindled in number, then ceased altogether. Their last appearance together was in January 1943, when they held the American premiere of the Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra in New York with Fritz Reiner conducting.

Serge Kouusevitzy’s letter, commissioning Bartók to write Concerto, 4 May, 1943

Still,
they did not live in privation, at least not in the physical sense. Bartók’s publisher, the London-based Boosey & Hawkes, opened a concert agency in their New York branch office expressly to manage the composer’s affairs. Despite the wartime difficulties, they continued publishing Bartók’s manuscripts, which involved sending them back and forth between the United States and England for proofing, and they regularly gave him advances on his royalties. Furthermore, Columbia University, which in November 1940 had conferred an honorary doctorate on Bartók, entrusted him with transcribing Serbo-Croatian folk music recordings and editing them for eventual publication. The appointment, which began in May 1941 and lasted until 1943, provided Bartók with a humble but secure source of income, which for him was of utmost importance at the time. His friends, pupils and admirers joined forces to help him in his daily affairs as well as in the shaping of his future. Helping Bartók, however, was no easy task; correct to a fault and preserving his human dignity regardless of circumstances, he could not accept anything if he could not return the favour. And of that meaning returning favours – he was becoming less and less capable. For about three and a half years he was incapable of composing, of writing anything new; he lacked the necessary stability and atmosphere and – let us admit – the impetus from an outside world eagerly waiting for his music.

Since the 1920s, Bartók had been writing most of his major works on commission, but during his first years in America, he was not flooded with offers. Nonetheless, he flatly refused to teach composition, whereas he had plenty of opportunity to do so; with one or two rare exceptions, he never accepted such requests in his entire life. He said time and again that in his opinion composition cannot be taught, and he would not have afforded a glimpse into his composition “workshop” in his wildest dreams. He would have been willing to teach the piano, but no institutions asked him, while his private piano teaching was sporadic. The famous orchestras did not include his works in their programmes, and Bartók felt that his career was grinding to a halt. “My career as a composer is at an end”, he wrote his former student, Wilhelmine Creel on New Year’s Eve 1942. “Otherwise, my career as a composer is as much as finished: the quasi boycott of my works by the leading orchestras continues, no performances either of old work or of new ones. It is a shame – not for me of course.”

Also, the illness that for a while had allowed him breathing space attacked him when he was least able to resist it. Initially he felt pain in his arm and shoulder, which after a while incapacitated him and he could no longer give concerts; then he suffered from mysterious bouts of fever which came at regular intervals and which gave him cause for concern. His doctors could not agree on the diagnosis; one explanation seemed to be the recurrence of the lung disease he had suffered from in his youth. All this added not only to his other worries, but to his expenses as well, and by early 1943, it seemed that there was no return to normalcy.

Yet, just as Bartók hit rock bottom, aid came from a source and in a guise he could accept. Thanks to the unrelenting efforts of his admirer Ernő Balogh, the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), of which Bartók was not a member, agreed to cover the cost of his hospital care and his sanatorium bills.

Bartók was in hospital once again when the violinist Joseph Szigeti turned to Serge Koussevitzky, the respected conductor of the Boston Symphony, on Bartók’s behalf. Their long conversation at Bartók’s hospital bed resulted in Koussevitzky commissioning Bartók to write an orchestral work in memory of his departed wife.

The composer, who had not written so much as a single note of a new composition since he completed his String Quartet No. 6 in Budapest, was elated, and his health took a dramatic turn for the better, and in just fifty-five days during the summer and early fall of 1943, he finished his Concerto for Orchestra in five movements. Just like his First String Quartet, written thirty-five years earlier, the Concerto also contains many biographical references, some obvious or easily decipherable, while others must remain wrapped in mystery. The Boston premiere of the Concerto in December 1944 and its first performance in New York soon after were a veritable triumphal march for the composer, the first of its kind for him since he left Hungary. Commissions came pouring in Yehudi Menuhin asked him for – and was given a Sonata for Solo Violin; the Scottish viola player William Primrose ordered a Viola Concerto which, however, Bartók could not finish; and Ralph Hawkes, his publisher, commissioned a seventh string quartet of which only ideas for themes remain.

Second leaf of the programme of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, playing Bartók’s Concerto under Serge Koussewitzky, 1 December, 1944

Bartók spent the summer of 1945 at Saranac Lake resort in New York State. He
and his wife Ditta, who was in frail health herself, lived in a small guesthouse under the simplest of conditions, though neither cared. Bartók felt that his physical strength had returned and even undertook walks and short excursions. He also began work on new compositions. A finished piece, whose manuscript he had hidden under the half-finished Viola Concerto, was meant as a surprise for his wife’s birthday in October. Its title: Piano Concerto No. 3. After a long time, the Concerto was the first of Bartók’s compositions in which the slow movement is not dominated by dread or pain. Instead, the composer conjures up Beethoven once again, specifically, the movement of the latter’s String Quartet Op. 132 entitled “Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity”. It is followed by nature music, or more like a pastorale, in which the composer captures the concert of bird song he had previously heard in Asheville, North Carolina, while he was staying at a sanatorium there.

The war came to an end; Europe lay in ruins. Bartók would have liked to return to Hungary “for good”, but he knew that circumstances would not yet allow it. Apprehensive, he enquired after his relatives, friends and loved ones. He turned in writing to those of his American acquaintances he thought were well off, asking them to help the Hungarian people, who had suffered so much in the recent war. Meanwhile, he was working on his piano concerto. Their son Péter, who had come to the United States in 1942 and who was discharged from the Navy in August 1945, went to join his parents at Saranac Lake. Life seemed idyllic – the weather, Bartók’s progress with his music, and his recovery. Little did they know that this was the respite before illness launched its final assault on Bartók’s weakened physique.

In late August Bartók felt ill and they hurried back to New York. He became bedridden, but continued to work on the score of his Piano Concerto No. 3. Though the people around him remained hopeful, he knew that the end was near, and that his pen was running a desperate race against death. In the second half of September, around the 20th of the month, his physician sends him to the hospital. Bartók asks for a single extra day, saying he had something important to take care of first. Had he been given that extra day, he might have been able to finish scoring the Piano Concerto. As it is, however, he could only write the piano part into the last seventeen bars. Still, he completed the draft, and after the last note, just like after the unfinished last bars of the full score, he wrote – atypically – THE END. From the hospital he bid farewell to his former primary physician in Budapest: “If you knew the heavy baggage I’m leaving with, how many works remain unwritten.” And then on 26 September 1945, a little before twelve noon, it was really THE END.

At the time no one knew that this end was in fact the BEGINNING, that when all is said and done, in the life-and-death struggle Bartók waged all his life, the triumph over the demon was HIS.




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