The personal relationship between Béla Bartók and Paul Sacher was brief, lasting for a mere five years from the summer of 1936 until the composer’s final departure for the United States in the autumn of 1940.

Short-lived as it was, however, it contributed to three masterpieces; compositions that eventually turned out to be fundamental works of twentieth-century music history. They turned out to be not only cathartic masterworks in their own right, but also significant, epoch-making works that would greatly influence the musical development of many decades to come. Even the conductor commissioning them may have only gradually become aware of their full significance.

Paul Sacher (1906–1999) was not even 23 when he came under the spell of the music and personality of Béla Bartók (1881–1945), a quarter of a century his senior. We know the time of their first meeting from Sacher himself: 30 January 1929, when Bartók gave a composer’s night in Basle with two excellent Swiss- based Hungarian musicians, violinist Stefi Geyer and opera and Lieder singer Ilona Durigo. Married to Swiss composer and concert organiser Walter Schulthess and leader of Sacher’s Zurich chamber orchestra from 1935 onwards,  Stefi Geyer was one of Bartók’s sweethearts in his youth. She had in her possession the manuscript of the violin concerto dedicated to, but never performed by her. Possibly it was Geyer who suggested Sacher should attend Bartók’s composer’s night in the first place. But Sacher did not really need a mediator. He had been at the helm of the Basle Chamber Orchestra (Basler Kammerorchester, BKO) a group of professional and amateur musicians, from the age of twenty in 1926. Comprising a choir and an orchestra, their society had set out to discover “early and new music” which involved authentic performances of Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical works, as well as the presentation and popularisation of newly- written compositions. Presumably Sacher followed the events of the international musical scene and was aware of the prices on the international music exchange. Bartók was a rising comet shining on the firmament of Western European music. Following the international music festival in Prague in 1925, his Dance Suite spread around the world like wildfire. It was performed on some 160 occasions under the baton of conductors including Fritz Reiner, Václav Talich, Sir Henry Wood, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Pierre Monteux, Hermann Abendroth, Adrian Boult, Serge Koussevitzky, Clemens Krauss, Issay Dobrowen and Eugen Jochum. In the Twenties it received numerous performances around Switzerland, including Schaffhausen with Oscar Disler conducting (1925), Basle with Hermann Suter (1926), Winterthur with Volkmar Andreae (1926), Bern with Albert Nef (1926), and Geneva and Lausanne with Ernest Ansermet (1926). Conducted by Furtwängler at the world première hosted by the festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music (Internationale Gesellschaft für Neue Musik, IGNM) in Frankfurt, his Piano Concerto No 1 contributed to his growing reputation, as did the scandalous 1926 failure of The Miraculous Mandarin in Cologne. Thus Sacher, a broad-minded man, his lack of personal acquaintance notwithstanding, had every reason to attend Bartók’s composer’s night in Basle in 1929.

This concert revealed “multiple refractions” of Bartók’s art. The programme included his emblematic work for piano, Allegro barbaro, several works on folk- music themes (Rumanian Christmas Carols [Colinde], Rumanian Folk Dances and five songs from Eight Hungarian Folk Songs) and four folk-song-inspired compositions of his own (Suiteop. 14; Dirgeop. 9a, Burlesqueop. 8c and the 1st Rumanian Folk Dance op. 8a/I). The programme also featured Five Songs op. 16 (on poems by Endre Ady), close in character to the world of Bartók’s opera, and the Sonata for Violin and Piano No 2, akin to the spirit of the Second Viennese School. The young conductor would have had a good idea of the stylistic unity, multicoloured character, rhythmic force, Eastern-European sources of theme, and variegated forms of Bartók’s music. “The music I heard made a profound impression”, Sacher recalled decades later.

At this concert Sacher came to meet not only the music, however, but also the man himself. “I had met and talked to him much earlier” – that is, before the outbreak of the Second World War – “at a concert in Basle”, he told the author of this article referring to the concert above. In consequence of their meeting, a year later, in February 1930, Paul Sacher and the Basle Chamber Orchestra performed their first work by Bartók, the small-orchestra version of Rumanian Folk Dances, amid works by Stravinsky, Milhaud, Hindemith and Mozart. At the Basle Chamber Orchestra’s concert on 6 February 1935, Bartók played the solo of his Piano Concerto No 2. As an overture to this concert, the Orchestra gave Hindemith’s Symphony: Matthias the Painter its Basle première, with the composer conducting.

These three events – the Basle composer’s night and the two Basle premières – were the direct preliminaries leading to Bartók’s first commission for Paul Sacher. This marked the beginning of their correspondence, an exhaustive summary of which has been given in this book.1 The correspondence is in German (with the exception of Ditta Bartók Pásztory’s only letter in French and a New York banker’s note in English). The publication comprises, in addition to the original documents, a Hungarian translation of the complete letters and notes for the benefit of Hungarian readers, compiled by the editor of the book.

The correspondence of Bartók and Sacher is arranged around three success stories, with a tragic epilogue. The three success stories correspond to the three works commissioned from Bartók by the Swiss conductor: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937) and Divertimento for string orchestra (1939). All three works received their premières in Basle in the year following their composition. The two orchestral works were given their first performance by the Basle Chamber Orchestra under Sacher’s baton; the Sonata for two pianos by Bartók and his wife Ditta Pásztory, two Swiss percussionists, Fritz Schiesser and Philipp Rühlig. (“For safety’s sake” Bartók suggested that Sacher might conduct the world première, but in the event that was not necessary.) Ditta Pásztory, a former Music Academy student of her husband, is thought to have played a crucial role in the turning of the pianist-composer’s attention towards the two-piano repertoire. In any case the première of the Sonata was a turning point in the life of Mrs Bartók in that it was the first concert appearance in her life. Later the couple appeared in concert halls around Europe and America playing works for two pianos by Mozart, Brahms, Debussy, Bartók and Stravinsky.

For Bartók, a grim counterpoint to his growing success as a composer was the deterioration of the general political climate of the continent and the increasingly imminent possibility of a new world war. From the outset Bartók was aware of the dimensions of the threat of war that endangered the existence of Europe. In response to a question asked by Aurel von Milloss, the famous dancer and choreographer, about the meaning of the Sonata for two pianos, Bartók replied, “it is difficult to describe because it does not have a meaning; it has an essencein it, I sought to express fear”. It was this composer’s confession that led Milloss to create his ballet La Sonate de l’angoisse (The Sonata of Fear) to the music of the Sonata. But the sounds of fear can also be heard in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and the slow movement of Divertimento, completed on 17 August 1939. The latter was all the more warranted, given that only two weeks separated it from the outbreak of the Second World War.

Bartók spent most of August 1939 in Saanen in the Bernese Highlands as a guest of the Sachers. He lived and worked in complete isolation in Maja Sacher’s rented chalet that had a fully modernised interior; his hosts provided for him remotely.

After completing Divertimento he set out to compose String Quartet No 6 which, however, he was forced to suspend. In the evening on 24 August, he telephoned the Sachers in Pratteln to inform the conductor that due to the increasingly aggravating situation, he decided to interrupt his stay in Switzerland and travel home to Budapest. He left on 25 August and arrived home on 26; six days later, on 1 September, the war broke out. Divertimento was given its première in the interim of his two visits to America in 1940. In the process of giving up his life in Europe, the composer had neither the time nor the peace of mind to travel to Basle to hear his work.

He had an invitation to perform works by Beethoven, Debussy and Bartók with world-famous violinist Joseph Szigeti at the Library of Congress in Washington in the spring of 1940. The war situation caused him to cancel the invitation straight away. Later he withdrew his cancellation at Szigeti’s and Kodály’s persuasion. It was important that he should ascertain in situ whether a prolonged stay in the United States would be financially viable for him and his wife. He deemed their prospects in the United States to be good, while their prospects in Hungary gloomy. So in May 1940 he returned to Europe for a short while. He applied for retirement from the Budapest Music Academy and handed over to Kodály the management of folk music research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. With the help of a lawyer he drew up a will. By the terms of his will, he forbade a street or a square to be given his name or a plaque erected in his honour as long as two Budapest squares, Oktogon and Körönd, carried the names they did at the time, Mussolini and Hitler. On 8 October 1940 he gave a farewell concert to his fans in Budapest and on the 12th he and his wife set off via Yugoslavia, Italy, Switzerland, France and Spain to board ship in Lisbon towards the United States.

The couple stayed in Geneva on 14 October and on 15 they boarded a coach heading for France. Stefi Geyer, the muse of Bartók’s youth and later his concert partner, travelled from Zurich to Geneva to make all the arrangements for their onward journey. Bartók wrote Sacher a beautiful farewell letter from Geneva. Just as the conductor gradually came to realise that the Hungarian master was not merely one of the significant composers of the century, but one of the greatest, Bartók also took some time to appreciate that not only was Sacher a “midwife” to three of his great works, but that the Swiss conductor and his wife at all times met the composer’s highest standards of punctuality and reliability, and indeed even surpassed them in integrity and generosity. Sacher, too, had his reasons for being moved: thanks to Bartók, he could be the patron and first performer of one of the greatest works of music of the twentieth century.

The correspondence concerning the compositions he inspired takes the reader closer to the details of the genesis and première of the works; but the epilogue of their personal relationship reveals in close-up the tragedy of the composer fleeing from the war. Bartók’s symbiosis with his native country was comparable to Antaeus’s attachment to Mother Earth – and yet he was forced to leave it behind. One can only conjecture the dreadful visions the uncompromising master must have been riddled with, if they led him to extract himself from his natural habitat and start a new life in an unknown land at the age of almost sixty.

The Bartók’s journey would be filled with many ordeals. With the exception of their hand luggage, all of their baggage – containing music, scholarly papers and their clothes – went missing on the Spanish–Portuguese border due to bureaucratic customs inspection; for months they did not know if they would ever be recovered. They arrived in New York on 30 October where as early as on 5 November they gave a concert. They had to find a place to live, rehearse and buy concert clothes. In spite of this, on 16 November an American bank informed Sacher that Bartók had instructed them to pay back the sum the conductor had lent the composer for unforeseen expenses. Dating from November 1940, Sacher’s letter to Bartók in New York in which he recounts the Bern performance of the Divertimento, together with this bank note, was a miracle of their correspondence.


What is it that makes the correspondence of Bartók and Sacher a collection of documents of immeasurable value in twentieth-century music history? The fact that they clearly bear witness to the genesis of three masterpieces, to the gradual growth of the two musicians’ mutual understanding and respect towards each other. Sacher understood that he could only hope for a new work from one of the greatest composers of the century, after Bartók had finished his season as a pianist and scholar and had recovered his strength – that is, in the late summer and early autumn. Bartók acknowledged the fact that the Basle Chamber Orchestra was financed by private individuals; the number of auxiliaries to be recruited to the core orchestra (operating as a society) was therefore a matter of importance. He also had to take into consideration that country tours invariably had to involve a smaller group of musicians, given that some concert stages were simply too small to fit the entire orchestra.

Bartók provided numerous instructions on the execution of his works. His explanations are cherished documents in the history of performance practice, in particular his new type of pizzicato, glissando and other novel effects. Sacher was chiefly looking for easy-to-perform works, since his group comprised many an amateur musician. In this respect Bartók went to the possible limits; after all, “I never compose with the intention of creating something that is as difficult to perform as possible”. In other words, expression was the most important thing to him, and execution ultimately had to adapt to that. Latterly Sacher admitted that in certain cases he had to put otherwise rightful misgivings aside. “Today I’d never dream of coming up with such wishes; after all, a composer abides by his own rules”, he explained to the author of this article. However, the conductor is above reproach in this respect – how could he have known in advance that this first commission would call to life one of the epochal masterpieces of the twentieth century?


In light of recent research it has become clear that Sacher’s role in the creation of Bartók’s three “Basle” works was to help the composer find a specific framework for moulding his ideas. Bartók would only accept a commission for a work whose primary matter was already “brewing” in his imagination and which he would sooner or later compose anyway in one way or another. The date of the first commission for a work that Sacher sent to Bartók, who was on holiday in Switzerland at the time, was 23 June 1936. The letter was delivered on the 24th or 25th. Bartók replied virtually by return of post on 27 June. “[…] I am thinking of a piece for strings and percussion (that is, besides the strings, piano, celesta, harp, xylophone and percussion); I presume this instrumentation presents no real problems”. Coming from someone passing his summer holiday, such a detailed “extempore” description of his ideas would assume he already had the composition in mind. When a year later Sacher commissioned a chamber work, Bartók instantly presented options for compositions in three different genres: a Quartet (the working title of Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion) for two pianos and two percussion groups, a piano trio, and an idea for works for voice and piano. (He composed the piano trio under the title Contrasts, but never wrote the vocal pieces.) It was decided that the work for two pianos and percussion would be best placed for the concert of the Basle section of the IGNM. Bartók accepted the commission, but did not for a moment suggest himself or his wife as a performer. Instead, he waited for Sacher to ask. And surprising though it may sound, the composer acknowledged without a word that neither he nor his wife would receive a single rappen as an honorarium for learning and premièring the Sonata for Two Pianos. Arriving in Basle as an interim station in the middle of a concert tour, he did not even require reimbursement of his travel expenses. He paid his wife’s train ticket from the fees he received for his two Basle lectures and radio presentations. It was not without foundation, then, that Sacher wrote, “we are almost ashamed to ask for so much understanding”.

The Sachers were all the more obliging when inviting Bartók in summer 1939. For over a month the composer lived and composed alone in a chalet in Saanen that Maja Sacher had rented; his absent hosts provided full board and even had a piano transported there from Bern. Bartók’s growing reputation was reflected in his honoraria. The fee he received for Divertimento, composed in Saanen, equalled the total of the fees he had received for Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.

I would like to draw the reader’s attention to another interesting episode in the correspondence. Withdrawn as he was to his own world and his works, the composer warned the conductor, a man with considerable business acumen, as early as in 1936 about the devaluation of the Swiss franc. Sacher doubted this was true, and was all the more surprised to discover the composer’s information was true. Naturally, he compensated Bartók.


The main body of the book takes its source from the Sacher Collection of the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basle and the Bartók Archives of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Without exception, Bartók wrote all of his letters to Sacher by hand, without a copy, while the conductor wrote his on a typewriter with a carbon copy. Thanks to this technique, the carbon copies have allowed us to add to the correspondence those of Sacher’s letters that went missing in Budapest during or after the war. In this publication, Sacher’s original letters are distinguished from the carbon copies by the fact that in the latter the letterheads (which do not appear on the copies) are in square brackets.

In this publication we have sought to faithfully reproduce the original documents. Neither Bartók nor Sacher used the so-called “scharfes s” (ß); in transcribing the texts we kept the original “ss” form. Where it seemed absolutely necessary, we corrected Bartók’s few typographical or grammatical errors, putting the additions or corrections in square brackets immediately after the original passages.

The letters are published in chronological order. Sacher used three different types of printed letterhead paper; one for his private correspondence, a second for the Basle Chamber Orchestra, and third for the Basle section of the IGNM. Consequently, we decided it was necessary to include the letterheads for all of the conductor’s letters. Sacher’s letter to Ditta Pásztory appears in the main body of letters, as well as Mrs Bartók’s French-language letter to the conductor, Maja Sacher’s hand-written letter to Bartók and Mrs Bartók, and finally – by way of an epilogue – the letter from the New York bank dated just two weeks after Bartók had disembarked, stating that it had transferred to Sacher on behalf of “Mr Bella Bartok[!]” the sum that the conductor had lent the composer to help him make the extremely perilous journey across wartime Europe and the wartime ocean.

The Appendix of the book contains Bartók’s eight Hungarian-language letters in the original, translated (with one exception) into German by the editor. Bartók wrote these letters between 1937 and 1939 to his mother, wife and eldest son; all of them concern Paul and Maja Sacher, the rehearsals and performances of Bartók’s works in Basle, as well as the circumstances of the creation of Divertimento.

The Appendix continues with two recollections of Sacher, the Hungarian versions of which have been published in two books by the undersigned editor (Így láttuk Bartókot [Bartók as we saw him], Budapest 1981; Üzenetek a XX. századból [Messages from the 20th century], Budapest 2002). The latter is an edited transcript of a tape-recorded conversation between Sacher and the author of this article (the German version was edited by Ulrich Mosch). The conversation took place in the conductor’s home in Pratteln in November 1995. The German original version was brought out by Schott Verlag in Paul Sacher – Facetten einer Musikerpersönlichkeit (Mainz, 2006).

The question arises as to why this book is bilingual. The publication of historical documents in the original (in this case German) language hardly requires an explanation. The purpose of providing a Hungarian translation was to make readily accessible to the composer’s compatriots an exciting correspondence that has become an integral part of Hungarian music history. The translation seeks to render not only the words but also the meaning of the letters in the other language. That is not an easy task; the parallel original texts serve as a “security”.

Bartók’s Hungarian-language letters included in the Appendix were taken from Béla Bartók, Jnr’s collection Bartók Béla családi levelei [Béla Bartók’s family letters], Budapest 1981.

Bartók’s letters to Sacher (and Mrs Bartók’s only letter) are published on the basis of the photocopies of the originals (Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basle). The main source of Sacher’s letters is the Bartók Archives of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and all missing letters come from the Paul Sacher Stiftung that holds the carbon copies of the conductor’s letters.

Curiously, the highly esteemed scholar of Bartók’s letters, János Demény, whose research extended all over the world and who developed a publication methodology, did not find his way to Sacher. His seminal work (Béla Bartók letters, 1976) contains only a fraction of Bartók’s letters to the conductor, and many of them are fragments – presumably taken from secondary sources with even the errors translated into Hungarian. This book provides a new translation of these letters of Bartók and Sacher.


It is an old observation that scholarship sets out to chart and collect “freely living” phenomena, such as the wealth of Hungarian folk songs, when chances of their surviving independently appear to be getting slimmer. In this case I am referring to the indubitable decrescendo of artistic music in the traditional sense. Hence we need to salvage all that can be saved in a new Noah’s Ark! One day the deluge threatening the survival of our culture will subside and mankind will once more require the vital force of music. Together with numerous other works, this book serves that purpose too.

Translation by Miklós Bodóczky

Bartók Béla – Paul Sacher levelezése. 1936–1940 [The correspondence of Béla Bartók and Paul Sacher]. The Hungarian and German documents were compiled and translated by Ferenc Bónis. Preface. Budapest, Balassi Kiadó, 2013, 340 pp.

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