135: The Bartók and Kodály Anniversaries

There is no question that Hungarian cultural memory exploits every occasion to celebrate the twin stars of its 20th century music, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. The two composers were born a year apart, and their entire career passed in a fruitful professional and personal friendship. Thus, in 2016 celebrations began in connection with the 135th anniversary of the birth of Béla Bartók, and in October 2017 the Kodály anniversary year was launched in Budapest. We are following these events in our forthcoming issues. First we are reprinting, in two parts, the “Introduction” to the monumental Béla Bartók: Pictures of a Life, by Ferenc Bónis. Naturally, ample mention is made in the text of Kodály, too. Ernő Dohnányi will also make appearances on these pages. In 2018 and we will also devote articles to Kodály’s career, beginning with highlights of his last concert tour to the United States in the 1960s. We are also celebrating the music of wider Central Europe on the occasion, in view of Bartók’s many personal successes in Germany and Switzerland, and his wide use of inspirations from East and South European folk music, in addition to Hungarian sources.


I can’t live without the sound of music. This line from a Hungarian song which Zsigmond Móricz, Bartók’s famous contemporary, gave as the title to one of his novels and which so aptly characterised the gentrified world he was describing, is equally characteristic of the environment into which Béla Bartók came into the world on 25 March 1881 in the town of Nagyszentmiklós, Torontál County (now Sânnicolau Mare, Romania). What was this “sound of music” like that one cannot live without? The earliest compositions that the young boy wrote from the age of nine provide the answer: Waltz, Mazurka, Katinka Polka, Jolán Polka, Circus Polka. Short dances, character pieces, name’s day ditties – the fashionable light music of the age, and he also listened with pleasure to the Hungarian songs and csárdás repertory of the Gypsy bands.

Music was present throughout his father’s short and his mother’s long life. Before she got married, his mother finished a teachers’ training school, whose curriculum – back then – included learning to play a musical instrument. In any case, a young girl’s education would not have been complete without learning to play the piano; it was among the obligatory social graces. Her son’s first short pieces, in fact, have survived thanks to her conscientious hand. His father organised a music association in Nagyszentmiklós, of which he was president; and in order to participate in the orchestra, he learned to play the cello. This orchestra was a “gentlemen’s band”; they provided “table music” for the local restaurant to the accompaniment of the clinking of glasses. Rossini’s Semiramide Overture was part of their repertoire. After a while, Béla Bartók Sr (1855–1888) also tried his hand at composing short pieces himself. His son was seven and a half when he lost his father. His mother, as we have mentioned above, was given the gift of a long life. From 1857 – which saw the aftermath of the defeated Hungarian freedom fights against the Habsburgs – to 1939 – which ushered in the Second World War – she lived eighty-two years. Her son, the famous composer and pianist, nourished the closest bonds with her; we can be certain that had Mama lived longer, Bartók would have not made the decision to leave Hungary for America and his life would have taken a very different path. With this in mind, we should be aware of the surprising fact that while he lauded his father’s musical gift at length, he never praised his mother’s musical prowess.

Still, we must not overestimate the role music played in the lives of the composer’s parents. His mother, Paula Voit, came from a family of functionaries from Túrócszentmárton (now Martin, Slovakia) in northern Hungary. Orphaned at sixteen, she moved in with her brother Lajos, who was the overseer of Count Wenckheim’s estate in Békés County, on the Hungarian Great Plain, then she began teaching in Nagyszentmiklós, in Torontál County. Her parents, Móric Voit and Teréz Polereczky, spoke German at home; and though she had full mastery of Hungarian, she always spoke German with her spinster sister Irma, the “Aunt Irma” of the family letters, who moved in with her after she lost her husband and remained with her until her death. She also corresponded in German with her daughter Elza, the composer’s younger sister who moved to Békés County after she got married. Bartók inherited his serious nature as well as his love of precision and frugality, his respect for a well-ordered life, his sense of responsibility and impeccable correctness in all his affairs, not to mention his profound respect for truth and justice, from the Voit branch of the family.

Béla Bartók’s graduation picture, June 1899. All photos are published by the courtesy of Balassi Kiadó, Budapest and the author, Ferenc Bónis

The paternal branch of the family seems more convivial, easy-going and open. The Bartóks had several public administrators, estate overseers and agricultural schoolteachers among their ranks; they had all served in the army, and many of them were passionate hunters, expert at handling horses and dogs. The Bánát and Bácska, where the composer’s paternal ancestors lived, having moved there from the northern Hungarian Borsod County, was the home of a number of military garrisons which enlivened the theatrical and café house life of the local towns and their attendant institutions. We can be relatively certain that the young agronomist who had such a wide range of interests would not have been immune to such entertainment and knew how to enjoy himself, even if in a more cultured and refined manner than many members of his station in life.

On special occasions – and we know this for a fact – a Gypsy band would provide music on name days and other family holidays in the home of Béla Bartók Sr. The father, who had a way with the pen, bequeathed his love and sensitivity for the arts to his son – and, in all probability, his creativity, too, which in his own lifetime he could never fully realise for lack of time and circumstance.

According to family lore, the Bartóks received a title of nobility, and though there are no written documents to prove it, the budding young musician signed some of his early composition as Béla von Bartók. Still, whether with or without a title of nobility, the father, who had graduated from the agricultural academy, was raised thereby to the status of an intellectual and lived the life of the rural petty nobility. While, as witnessed by the many surviving photographs, his wife’s expression hardly changed through time and was always serious, at best serenely serious, her husband’s expression reveals an interesting duality – implacable calm vying with a near-demonic inner explosive force. This is an emotional dualism to which the world cannot help but respond, as it did in the case of his son years later.

After he graduated from the agricultural academy, Béla Bartók Sr taught at the agricultural school in Nagyszentmiklós, where his father, János Bartók was headmaster. After his father’s death in 1877, when he was just twenty-two years of age, he took over his position as the head of the school. On 5 April 1880 he married Paula Voit, the twenty-three-year-old teacher at the town school. On 25 March of the following year, their first child was born, who was given the name Béla after his father, Viktor after his godfather, and János after his grandfather. Their second child, Erzsébet, whom they affectionately called Elza, was born on 11 June 1885. Béla Bartók Sr’s health was precarious by then, and in 1884 and again in 1887 he went to Radegund in Styria for treatment. In 1884 he founded an agricultural journal in Nagyszentmiklós, and in 1886 he heard his son Béla’s first “musical greeting” in honour of his name day. He died on 4 August 1888, leaving his family in dire financial straits – without income and without a roof over their heads. From that moment on, every action of his thirty-one-year-old widow was focused on ensuring that her family had a home and that her children were brought up and properly educated. With the death of the father, the years of “wandering” began in the lives of the family which, in retrospect, took the future composer to places that fostered his development. With the death of his father, his son’s “prelude” to becoming a composer had come to an end.


When he was just three months old Bartók received his smallpox vaccination – and because of improper hygiene or some other cause, we shall never know, he got a rash on his face which later spread over his entire body. The child was plagued by a terrible itch until he was five, which let up somewhat only when he had a fever. When he was better and his fever subsided, his suffering returned. His parents took him to Budapest, but consultation with physicians in the capital did not bring relief either. Consequently, the young boy experienced enough solitude to last him a lifetime. According to his mother’s recollections, “The poor child hid from people as it hurt him when they were always saying, ‘poor little Béluska!’” With the approval of his parents, one of his physicians tried treating him with arsenic drops, which finally did the trick, and “his face and his whole body cleared up and that terrible and painful rash never came back”. He spent nearly his entire kindergarten years without playmates, “he didn’t play with other children; he was a very serious, quiet child”.

He began talking conspicuously late – at the age of twenty-seven months. On the other hand, he discovered the communicative power of music conspicuously early. He liked listening to his nanny sing. “Once, when he was a year and a half, I played a dance piece and he listened attentively, and the next day he pointed to the piano and waved – he couldn’t speak yet – for me to play it; I played several dance tunes, but he kept shaking his head that that’s not the one; then I played that particular piece and he smiled and waved ‘yes’. Two days later I tested him to see if it wasn’t coincidence, but he acted like he did the first day until I played the right tune … If there was Gypsy music at our house (on rare occasions), he waved that we should take him over and he listened to the music with rapt attention; the guests were amazed that such a small child could be so interested in music.”

Another illness: a long-lasting, stubborn inflammation of the bowels followed. The mother’s next recollection brings news of the little boy’s musical activities. “When he was three, he was given a drum as a present, which made him very happy; when I played the piano he’d sit on his little chair, his drum was in front of him on a low stool, and I gave the precise tempo; if I switched from ¾ to 4/4, he stopped playing on the drum for a moment, then continued in the proper rhythm … I can still see how seriously and attentively he accompanied me.” One year later he was familiar with the piano keys and had a memory that belied his tender age. “At the age of four he played the folksongs he knew with one finger on the piano. He knew forty, and if we gave him the first words of the song, he played the tune straight away … When he was ill and had to stay in bed, he always wanted me to sing to him or tell him stories. He loved me staying by his side.” For years to come, such intimate times spent together – necessitated by his illness – were all too frequent. On the other hand, when he was well, his acquaintance and love of music grew by leaps and bounds.

He was five when he first heard music played by an orchestra. After hearing the Gypsy band at home and his mother playing the piano, the orchestral music, amateur as it was, veritably shocked him and opened new vistas for the way he conceived of music from then on. “His father was learning to play the cello at the time and he also played in a small band made up of gentlemen led by a Gypsy musician with some musical training. They held their first concert in the restaurant in Nagyszentmiklós – while the guests were eating, of course – and we went too and took him with us. This was the first time he heard an orchestra. I remember very well that they were playing the Semiramide Overture, the first piece on the programme. The guests continued eating and drinking, but he put down his knife and fork right away and listened intently to the music. He was enthralled, but he was indignant and asked, how can the others eat when such beautiful music is being played?” The other happy event: his mother began teaching him the piano.

“He was impatient and asked me to teach him how to play the piano. He was a frail child, but he was so insistent that I started teaching him all the same, but always for ¼ or ½ hour at a time. We began our lessons on 25 March (which fell on his fifth birthday) and on 23 April, Béla Day, he surprised his father with a little piece for four hands … The lessons were repeatedly curtailed because we had to stop as either he or his father fell ill.”

Béla Jr’s joy lasted six months at most. “When his rash disappeared, he often suffered from bronchial catarrh … Once when he was five and a half, the doctor diagnosed scoliosis. We were terribly worried. On doctor’s orders he was not allowed to sit down; he even stood at the table. If he was tired, he had to lie on his back on the floor, where we put a carpet down for him. Of course, this was very bad for him because he couldn’t play lying down …”

In short, the child could not play the piano – yet another dose of solitude and exclusion, not his last! – from what made him happy. A physical examination in Budapest altered the diagnosis and curtailed the therapy, but his catarrh, inflammation of the tip of the lung, reappeared. The catarrh became his constant companion and at times openly, at times dormant, it accompanied him for a long time, casting the shadow of death over him at an early age. In 1887 he went with his father to Radegund, Styria, where he was much improved by the cold-water cure which, however, did not help his father, who died a year later, but not before he received proof of his son’s extraordinary ear for music. “When he was seven we put his ear for music to the test and were delighted to learn that he had perfect pitch; he was next door and he could immediately name every piano note, he could even recognise simple accords.” In one of his earliest compositions there are references to Radegund, but his father was not fated to hear it, along with all other proofs of his son’s talent as a pianist and composer. He died on 4 August of the same year, and for months the sound of music was gone from the home of the Bartóks.

One cannot help but wonder what shape the young Bartók’s musical career would have taken had his father lived longer. Would he have realised that his own artistic ambitions, which had to remain dormant, could be fulfilled through his son? Would he have become, like Leopold Mozart, the one to discover and take news of his son everywhere, teaching him and getting back the effort of his labours with interest? Or, insisting on the inherited circumstances of his own life, would he have thought of his son as the successor to his post as president of the Nagyszentmiklós Music Society, which to him stood as the symbol of the best musical career that could be achieved under the circumstances? From the little we know of Béla Bartók Sr’s character, we can be reasonable certain that he would have supported his son’s general as well as musical studies with every means at his disposal even if he would have never fully approved, or else only with difficulty, of music as a career for him. Let us not forget: Nagyszentmiklós was not Salzburg in any sense of the word and, seen from the outside, the young boy was not a wonder child, even by Nagyszentmiklós standards. He matured into the artist he became only by stages, though with admirable speed, repeatedly surprising those around him with some new deed or aptitude.

The father’s loss and with it the loss of the family’s financial stability forced the survivors to make a new way of life for themselves, and from one day to the next, the mother, who had been an exemplary housewife and self-effacing nurse, was now the breadwinner and head of the family. But the children also had to do their share, and with good conduct and high marks, they were exempt from having to pay tuition. Had they remained in Nagyszentmiklós, the town would have made them “soil-bound” in more than one way. But now, having been chased out of “Paradise”, like it or not, the world opened up before them. The road they were forced to take was no doubt bumpy, full of potholes and hurdles. On the other hand, the widowed mother could choose the direction herself, as long as it met two conditions – that they should have a roof over their heads and that the most favourable conditions be insured for her son’s continued education. All this took superhuman effort and extreme husbandry, a maternal mindset that later became second nature to her son, who did not alter his views even when his circumstances would have made a certain amount of luxury affordable. In October 1888, the family had to leave the apartment that the agricultural school had put at their disposal while Béla Bartók Sr was headmaster. For a time they remained in Nagyszentmiklós in a rented apartment, with the mother earning a living by giving piano lessons. Then with the beginning of the school year, she started teaching once again and they moved to Nagyszöllős in Ugocsa County.

Brooding portrait among his carved and painted pheasant furniture on Teréz Boulevard, June 1908

The teacher’s diploma she had acquired now proved to be her life belt; in fact, her own daughter and later one of her granddaughters also became teachers. On the other hand, there was no musical life in Nagyszöllős, so the mother continued teaching her son the piano as long as she could. She also had to find a satisfactory solution for her son’s schooling, because due to the earlier exceptional conditions at home, he could not start school when he became of school age. He began school when he was seven; on the other hand, by the time he was eight, he finished the first four years of elementary school with top grades. However, his mother let him repeat the fourth year in Nagyszöllős (now Vinohradiv, Ukraine).

This small town was the scene of one of the turning points in Bartók’s life. According to his mother’s recollections, “Once when he was nine, while I was napping in the adjoining room after lunch, a melody was taking shape in his mind that he’d never played or heard before; he couldn’t play it on the piano for fear of waking me, but when I woke up, he told me about it. He played it for me at once, and it was a waltz, but entirely different from anything he’d heard before; from then on, he composed various dance pieces and others, too, in quick succession; this was his greatest enjoyment and our greatest joy.” In his brief 1918 autobiography, Bartók provides further evidence of this, with a subtle reference to the limits of his mother’s prowess at the piano: “When around nine years of age I began writing short pieces for the piano and at the same time outstripped my piano teacher, we thought it important that we should move to a bigger city where I could further develop my knowledge of music.” The choice fell on Pozsony (now Bratislava, Slovakia) which was close to Vienna and at the time enjoyed the most vigorous musical life among Hungarian towns. In Nagyszöllős Bartók finished the first grade of grammar school, and in Nagyvárad – this was the worst period of his grammar school years – he enrolled as a second-year student. Here, however, he received very low grades, possibly because of his intense musical training, and in spring his mother took him out of school, so he should not fail and have to repeat the year. Due to the poor state of his health, he had to repeat a year anyway, but this was already in Pozsony. He began the third year in a German-language grammar school in Beszterce, where his mother was transferred, but finished it in Pozsony, with satisfactory grades. His mother received a permanent teaching appointment at the women’s teacher training school in Pozsony, where she remained a highly respected teacher until her retirement. Her son’s grammar school years ended with his graduation in Pozsony in 1899 – without further conflict.

After he “outstripped” his piano teacher in Nagyszöllős, Bartók had no one to take lessons from, not even in Beszterce (now Bistriţa, Romania). In Nagyvárad (now Oradea, Romania), on the other hand, he found an outstanding teacher – if only for a couple of months – in the person of the composer and choir master of the cathedral, Ferenc Kersch, who to his pupil’s ill luck, wanted to turn him into a wonder child, and in his over-eagerness, overburdened him. He found a really good teacher only in Pozsony, where first Lajos Burger, then László Erkel, one of Ferenc Erkel’s sons – Ferenc Erkel was lauded as the founder of Hungarian national opera – took charge of his musical development. László Erkel taught him not only the piano, but harmony and music history as well; when he died in 1896, Antal Hyrtl took charge of his musical education. From fifth grade until he graduated, Bartók played the organ at student masses. Indeed, his name began to appear with more and more frequency on the programmes of school festivities not only as pianist, but as accompanist and composer as well. Between 1890 and the spring of 1899, when he began his studies at the Music Academy in Budapest, he wrote about sixty compositions. From 1894 on, when he began studying with László Erkel, the series of the previous childish polkas and mazurkas were replaced by multi-movement works of greater breath – sonatas, fantasies, string quartets and other chamber pieces. Their sound is conventional, but their increasing concentration is out of the ordinary – their composer was undoubtedly worth educating to the full.

From then on Bartók was a good student at grammar school; he received an award, a grant or a scholarship every year. His mother, who continued to live under humble circumstances, later prepared an account of these. Between 1894 and 1907 her son received support in the sum of 5,651 forints or 11,302 koronas which, even if divided by fourteen years, in the times of Franz Joseph was an appreciable sum of money, and Bartók’s mother was proud and appreciative of her son’s achievement. She practiced husbandry in all things; for example, she agreed with the owner of a nearby café that she would buy the daily paper from him the following day, at half price. Her son followed her example, and while he studied with László Erkel, he calculated how many krajcárs per score sheet it cost to play four-hands on the piano with him. This frugal and cautious attitude towards his finances remained with him for the rest of his life. Soon the young Bartók’s musical talent was acknowledged by all of Pozsony. But there was someone whom they thought even more highly of and with whom Bartók’s relationship was anything if not ambivalent – Ernst von Dohnányi, who was four years his senior and who survived him by fifteen years. Dohnányi was a phenomenal pianist with an astonishing ear and memory; when Bartók was still attending grammar school, Dohnányi was already well known nationwide and was touring the world. As a composer, he was a follower of Johannes Brahms, who was considered too modern at the time, especially in Pozsony, and the proverbially impolite Viennese master spoke of his first opus in glowing terms of praise. The young Bartók considered Dohnányi a paragon of sorts whose he should follow. But at the same time, his very existence was a challenge – someone who is stronger, someone he must wrestle with, someone he must one day get the better of. Later their paths diverged; Dohnányi became the Hungarian master of German late romanticism while Bartók, “the hero of tomorrow”, set his sights on more and more distant shores. As a pianist he did not manage to “outstrip” Dohnányi, but in the infinite spaces of music history, as a composer he outstripped him by many light-years. This, however, takes us too far ahead. For the moment we are still in Pozsony in 1899. His mother wanted Bartók to continue his musical studies in Vienna, not far from Pozsony. But Dohnányi studied at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, and following his example and advice, Bartók finally settled on Budapest. In January 1899 Bartók played for the former Liszt pupil, István Thomán, a professor at the Academy. Thomán was so impressed that the gates of the Academy were flung wide open to him. We cannot begin to guess what direction Hungarian music would have taken had the eighteen-year-old Bartók gone to Vienna instead of Budapest; if he had not touched upon the essence of Hungarian historical thinking, if he had not discovered the possibility of, as well as the imperative for, national self-expression in music; if he had not made the acquaintance of Zoltán Kodály and had not become familiar with the undiscovered treasure trove of Hungarian folksong, the revolutionary new poetry of his contemporary, Endre Ady, and through Kodály, the music of Claude Debussy. Around 1900 he could have had no inkling that with all this he was choosing the path to hell, and that suffering would be his constant companion. Through myriads of detours on the way, he had to find the true path, the only possible path for him to tread. At times he wandered into a cul-de-sac, but he found it.

The Amar Quartet performed Bartók’s String Quartet No 1 on 4 November 1922 organised by the Society of the Friends of Music of Donaueschin


In the fall of 1899, when Bartók was eighteen, he moved to Budapest to study the piano with István Thomán and composition with Hans Koessler at the Academy of Music. He lived in various rented rooms, missing the maternal care whose unbroken presence he had gotten used to in the past eighteen years, but was richly rewarded by the feeling which he dared not admit, even to himself, that for the first time in his life he was free and independent of his beloved mother’s overly assertive presence. He rubbed elbows with society; he was afforded a glimpse of the homes and lives of educated, well-to-do bourgeois families with an interest in culture and the arts. He attended concerts, the opera and exhibitions, and in an attempt to enrich his limited rural culture, he did a great deal of reading. As a pianist he soon became one of the well-known students of the Music Academy, where Thomán proved to be not only a loving father figure to him, but his devoted piano teacher who followed his all-around development, giving him concert tickets or sheet music, and helping him to pupils and appearance opportunities.

However, just as it seemed that Bartók’s life was on track, illness once again attempted to silence him or, at the very least, divert him from the main path of his life. Two decades later, his mother recalled October 1899 as follows for the benefit of her grandson: “He [your father] had bronchial catarrh which – considering his earlier problem – appeared dangerous; I called a professor to him who, after he examined him, said he should give up his musical career; he should be a lawyer, for instance. Your father hadn’t cried in a long time, but then the tears rolled down his cheeks and he said he’d never be a lawyer, that was not the kind of life he wanted. Professor Thomán talked to Dr Ángyán and explained to him that for this young man music was like water to a fish; he’d be unhappy with any other career; music for him was the essential condition of life.” With careful nursing and a change of climate Bartók was cured, and he was able to work for the rest of the school year without further delays. His renewed health, however, was only temporary; while he was vacationing in Styria, he was suddenly taken ill, and mother and son had to remain there for weeks until his health allowed him to travel.

After a month of their unwelcome extended vacation, mother and son returned to Pozsony. “As soon as we returned, I had our family physician (Dr Vámossy) examine him, who left with a very grave expression on his face; I went over to him to speak to him privately, and he had the staggering verdict that there was nothing to do; wherever I might take the convalescent, his life could not be saved.” The specialist who was called in for a consultation, the enthusiastic music fan Dr Pávay Vajna, chief physician at the hospital in Pozsony, fought adamantly for his life and prescribed a cure in a health resort in the mountains. Coming up with the expense and finding a way of taking off from work in the middle of the school year was no ordinary challenge for the widowed teacher. They had to stay in Meran, in South Tyrol, from November 1900 to April 1901, where Bartók gradually recovered his health and was able to continue his studies at the Academy. For the rest of his studies, his health seemed to hold out.

However, Bartók had other problems at the Academy with respect to his development as a composer. Koessler seemed to be the ideal teacher for him only as long as they were focusing on technique, which basically meant emulating old masters. But when Bartók began his forays into other modes of composition, Koessler, who was convinced that everything had to begin with the basics, tried to hold him back. In retrospect, this was not a sign of ill will on his part, but pedagogical tact. The real difficulty, he felt, was that the young man, not being satisfied with the more or less apt re-creation of what others had created before him, wanted to take a different stylistic path. The hitch was that he did not know what direction to take. He did not yet understand the significance of Liszt’s innovations, he was no longer attracted to Brahms, and he had nothing to say in Wagner’s vernacular. He had not yet found his own voice. He had no choice but to keep quiet for a while.

He was jolted out of his creative stupor by Richard Strauss’s music. In his own words, “From this stagnation I was roused as by a lightning stroke by the first performance in Budapest of Thus Spake Zarathustra in 1902. The work … filled me with the greatest enthusiasm … At once I threw myself into the study of Strauss’s scores and began again to compose.”

These lines, however, were written two decades after the fact. Bartók’s letter to his mother, written at thetime, is more colourful and immediate even in its fragmentary nature: “I liked Zarathustra tremendously. I have never heard anything by Strauss before, but his Zarathustra captured my imagination. Beautiful parts follow each other in quick succession; the whole thing provides evidence of tremendous genius and is truly original. It contains ‘wild’ passages, to be sure, much ‘wilder’ than in Wagner’s music, but people will get used to them … And the instrumentation is incredibly fantastic. It is unparalleled, the way he handles the orchestra … He brings fabulous effect out of the orchestra.” And then comes a sentence, which in the language of mother and son is the expression of the highest admiration: “I am going to buy Zarathustra’s score, [it costs] 10 forints …” This new beginning sheds light on the problematics of a certain artistic attitude whose time had not yet come for Bartók when doing his obligatory exercises in composition; to wit, the above-mentioned standstill was not due solely to stylistic vacillation, it was also due to the circumstance that the margin of experience was as yet missing from Bartók’s intention of bringing something new to music. In other words, in 1902 Bartók was still vehemently denying the connection between life with its accruing experience and the act of creation. In the fall of that year, Bartók played the draft version of his new E-flat major symphony for Koessler, who said: “The adagio must contain love, and there is no mention of love in this movement. And that’s a mistake. But one of the drawbacks of modern composition is that it can’t produce adagios …” It is a well-known fact that Koessler is very strict when judging adagios. He says: “For someone to write an adagio, it has to have feeling (of what kind?! love, probably, and what goes with it: disappointment, passion, pain, etc.) This latter, i.e., that experience should influence the essence of a composition I do not believe in.” Some years later, staggering back from the threshold of death, Bartók came to the realisation that though with complex transpositions, the relationship between experience and creation is far more intimate than he had suspected.

The symphony was fated to be one of Bartók’s aborted compositions. But a year later he found, if you will, the form, the style and central thought in which and from which he could construct an authentic and, in its spirit, independent work. He himself was aware of the importance of this significant change: “It was the time of a new national movement in Hungary”, he wrote, “which also took hold of art and music. In music, too, the aim was to create something specifically Hungarian. When this movement reached me, it drew my attention to studying Hungarian folk music, or, to be more exact, what at the time was considered Hungarian folk music. Under these diverse influences I composed in 1903 a symphonic poem entitled Kossuth.” The striving to create Hungarian music reflecting national aspirations on the one hand, and the verbunkos transformed into art music on the other, coupled with the symphonic achievements of Hungarian romanticism, the harmonies and the models of orchestration and construction of Richard Strauss’s symphonic poems Zarathustra and A Hero’s Life – these are the ideological-intellectual sources of Bartók’s Kossuth symphony. Bartók defined his first ars poetica at the time he composed Kossuth: “Every man, upon reaching maturity, has to set himself a goal and must direct all his work and actions towards this. For my own part, all my life, in every sphere, always and in every way, I shall have but one objective: the good of Hungary and the Hungarian nation.”

Kossuth was the perfect embodiment of the popular patriotic sentiments of the day, and in January 1904 it made its twenty-three-year-old composer an overnight celebrity, someone quoted on the stock market of Hungarian art. Kossuth was both modern and traditional, both European and the effective expression of national ideas; all of the Hungarian press, including the conservative papers, lowered their banners in respect to him. That same year it was performed in England under Hans Richter’s baton, if with far less dramatic effect than at home. Little wonder; the required emotional response was contingent on familiarity with the Hungarian freedom fights of 1848–1849, something that audiences in Manchester understandably lacked. The composer must have learned his lesson, because he never had his symphony performed after that. The third performance of Kossuth took place in 1961, fifty-seven years after its Manchester debut.

In the score of Bartók’s life, the “melodic line of success” was thus soon followed by the counterpoint of failure, a motif that accompanied him emotionally, at times outstripping the main theme with its persistence. The pseudo-success of Kossuth in Manchester was itself an indication of this.

The failure was even more apparent when Bartók tried to authenticate his strivings as a composer and pianist by entering the 1905 Anton Rubinstein competition in Paris. Seen with the eyes of the Hungarian musician, the result was dismal: Wilhelm Backhaus won the piano competition, while the prize for composition was not awarded. Yet the outward lack of success did nothing to diminish the unarguable signs of inner development. Bartók spent nearly two months in Paris and came into contact with the cultural life of the French capital, which far surpassed anything Pozsony, Budapest, Vienna and Berlin had to offer. He discovered not only the museums and parks, the big squares and avenues, but the Paris of the dance halls and cabarets as well – the city’s frivolous freedom and spirit that did not shy away even from the fashionable fascination with death. Perhaps this is where he received the initial impulses he needed to write The Miraculous Mandarin at a later date. But at the time it was not the enrichment of his spirit or intellect that impressed him the most, but rather the despondency and the solitude he felt, with only a faint glimmer of hope to tame a hostile fate. “I may have friends in Budapest … yet there are times when I suddenly become aware of the fact that I am absolutely alone! And I prophesy, I have a foreknowledge, that this spiritual loneliness is to be my destiny … For solace, I would recommend to anyone the attempt to achieve a state of spiritual indifference in which it is possible to view the affairs of the world with complete indifference and with the utmost tranquillity … Sometimes I feel that for a brief space of time I have risen to these heights. Then comes a mighty crash; then again more struggle, always striving to rise higher; and this recurs again and again. The time may come when I shall be able to stay on the heights.”

Another sudden change occurred in his life in 1905 when he left behind the Hungarian verbunkos style and with it the nineteenth century, and embarked on a search for another source, one better suited to finding something substantial in its depths. And then, at the most opportune moment, he happened upon Hungarian folk music and met his one and only true friend and the only ally worthy of him – Zoltán Kodály.

Yet the search for folksongs was not really an unexpected change of path in his career; after all, even when he wrote Kossuth and his Suite No. 1 he was looking for raw material, a musical mother tongue, a collective conceptual background. In this respect, the fact that instead of genuine folksongs he brought up folksy art songs in his dipping net is basically beside the point. The real change came when he realised with something like shock that the material he had been holding up as his musical ideal would not let him go beyond “the Erkel-Liszt-type Hungarianness”. And then, when studying the musical environment he mistook for folksong, he happened upon authentic folk tradition with its archetypal roots. He avidly familiarised himself with an as yet unexploited goldmine from whose raw material a new musical universe could emerge. He lost no time in excavating and building from his new material, soon to incorporate Slovak and Romanian folk music into it, perhaps not even realising at first that apart from the artistic, he was also constructing a new scholarly world.

Bartók met Zoltán Kodály, who had also attended the Music Academy, but with whom he was not acquainted back then, in the spring of 1905 in Mrs Henrik Gruber’s regular salon. A member of the bourgeoisie, Mrs Gruber was not only quick-witted and highly cultured, she also spoke several languages, was an accomplished piano player and a talented composer – an exceptional woman whom Kodály was to marry in 1910. The first subject the two young men shared was folk music, which initially interested Bartók because of his nationalistic aspirations, and Kodály because of his academic aspirations. Of the two, Kodály, who was a year and a half younger and a college graduate, was nevertheless the more educated and more mature individual, and in him Bartók found a fine ally, a perceptive critic and advisor. He later even said that some of his works owe their final shape to Kodály’s clear perception and unerring judgement. Kodály familiarised Bartók with the technique of collecting folksong with the help of a phonograph as well as the most up-to-date method of classifying the collected material then at their disposal. Kodály, however, did not have much to explain; Bartók, who in his childhood was a passionate collector of insects, plants and minerals, had no problem incorporating folksong into his extant circle of natural phenomena. The two musicians divided the country – then still Greater Hungary – between themselves, from time to time comparing their separately collected material. This soon opened the way to their major endeavour of national significance – collecting and publishing the full corpus of Hungarian folksongs. As a first step, they published Magyar népdalok (Hungarian Folksongs), twenty folksongs set to their own untraditional harmonies for voice and piano, the first ten tunes in Bartók’s arrangement, the second ten in Kodály’s, which they published in December 1906. The foreword, which was in the nature of a call to arms, was written by Kodály in both their names. In it he wrote that their aim was no less than the transformation of domestic musical life into Hungarian musical life. “The vast majority of Hungarian society is not yet Hungarian enough and is no longer naïve enough and is not cultured enough for these songs to find a place in its heart. Hungarian folksongs in the concert halls! Sounds rather preposterous today. To be ranked with the masterpieces of song literature on a world scale and also with the folksongs of foreign nations! But time will come for this, too.” The thin volume attracted little attention at the time, and it took thirty years for its 1,500 copies to sell. Little did people realise that it signalled the birth of the new Hungarian music movement of the twentieth century.

Before the last premiere of his life with his former student, the painist György Sándor

In early 1907 Bartók, who was twenty-six at the time, received a teaching appointment at the Music Academy, which meant that his expeditions collecting folk music had to be restricted to the winter and summer recesses. For a while Kodály too was busy with other things: with his friend, the writer Béla Balázs, he left for a six-month study tour of Berlin and Paris. The most important discovery of his trip was the music of Debussy – his masterpieces as well as his technique. Debussy’s novel conception of melody, the freedom of his rhythm, his new harmonic progressions inspired and liberated Kodály, and with his mediation, his friend Bartók as well.

The two major events of 1907 in Bartók’s life were the discovery of the ancient, pentatonic stratum of Hungarian folksongs and an unrequited love, which caused a great turmoil in his soul. The new discovery was made while he was collecting folk music in Csík County; the object of his heart’s desire was the beautiful and talented violinist, Stefi Geyer. Bartók wrote heated letters to the young girl in which he explicated Nietzsche’s teachings along with the tenants of his own naïve materialism. These letters contained everything; the thing they did not contain were Nietzsche’s third-party attitude, his ability to rise above things, and his sublime indifference. Love brought a dramatic transformation in Bartók’s soul, revealing until then unsuspected depths that had been lying dormant in it. Wagner’s name and his music drama Tristan and Isolde with its lyrical handling of love and death are repeatedly mentioned in these letters, which are often exalted: “I’ve been in such a strange mood lately, falling from one extreme into another. Some of your letters, indeed, some of your lines, your words bring on ecstasy, while others nearly bring me to tears, it hurts so much … How will it end and when? A veritable constant soul’s ecstasy. Just the thing for work (composition)!” “Your leitmotifs flutter round and round me, I live with and in them all day, like in some narcotic dream. And that’s good, just this sort of opium is needed for my work, be it ever so nerve-wrecking, poisonous and dangerous.”

The major preoccupation or rather thematic excuse of these letters was a concerto that Bartók was composing for Stefi. Originally, it would have been made up of the traditional three movements: “The idealised musical image of St. G. [Stefi Geyer] is ready – it is heavenly, intimate; and the untamed image of St. G., too is ready – this one humorous, playful and entertaining. Next I should prepare the picture of the indifferent, cold, silent St. G. But that would make for unpleasant music.” Then one fine day the plan changes. “One day this week, as if on inspiration from above, I suddenly realised the inevitable, that your piece must contain just two movements. Two diametrically opposed images – that’ll be all. I’m just surprised that I didn’t see this undeniable truth before.” These lines reflect not only Bartók’s discovery of the two-movement form as the modern vehicle for presenting and uniting two musical antitheses; they are exciting for his admission of intense experience as a factor in the creative process. A couple of years previously he still denied the significance of personal experience in the act of composition, but the violin concerto dedicated to Stefi Geyer had emotional experience as its avowed source of inspiration.

By the time the concerto was completed, the relationship, which never really got off the ground, was over once and for all. Instead of attracting the young girl of traditional upbringing who was standing on the threshold of a highly promising musical career that demanded full concentration on her part, Bartók’s incendiary thoughts and exalted emotions put her off. Bartók’s feelings were nevertheless deadly serious: “On Sunday, I was a hair’s breadth away from going to my death.” All in vain.

In the end, work helped Bartók recover from his emotional crisis. He wrote his String Quartet No. 1, which was, basically, the continuation of his discarded Violin Concerto. Its first movement unfolds from the slowed-down Stefi Geyer motif that starts the second movement of the concerto in the mood of Wagner’s Tristan. Its closing piece is an unbridled, quick movement, the forerunner of sorts for his Allegro barbaro, and a mourning song from Csík County, “My decaying body falls to the wayside, / My crimson blood into the snow.” Experience has been sublimated into music, tragedy into a memory, into the brilliant conveyor of the skeleton- form wrought in the fire of suffering. Undoubtedly, the First String Quartet is the work of an artist who has been to hell and back, a return from the shores of death into life, into the community of men symbolised by the folksong. Kodály, who was familiar with the inner world of the piece as well as its biographical background called it, with reference to Berlioz, a “retour à la vie”.

Bartók himself was well aware of the significance of his String Quartet. In a letter dated 4 February 1909 – a week after he completed it – he wrote the following to one of his students: “I firmly believe and avow that all true art manifests itself under the influence of impressions – ‘experiences’ – we gather from the outside world … Until I experienced it myself I did not believe that a person’s works speak of the important events and guiding passions of his life with more clarity than a biography. Naturally, we are talking about real and true artists.” The letter was addressed to Márta Ziegler, the blonde, slender daughter of General Károly F. Ziegler, chief inspector of the Hungarian Royal Gendarmerie. At the time, Márta was Bartók’s pupil. They were married on 16 November 1909, after Márta turned sixteen. Their son Béla was born in August 1910.

It is astonishing how much Bartók was enriched by his “sentimental education” in the first decade of the twentieth century. He learned the basic of his “trade” – he learned, then turned his back on Hungarian national romanticism, he learned, then turned his back on German late romanticism. He made Kodály’s acquaintance, in whom he found an ally for life in their joint endeavour to make the new music of a new Hungary a reality. Through Kodály’s mediation he became acquainted with Debussy, became one of the discoverers of authentic Hungarian folk music, all the while that, more than once, illness pushed him to the threshold of death. He experienced great success and lived through great suffering and disillusionment which nearly drove him to suicide. He learned that the relationship between experience and creativity is not a romantic exaggeration but is very much a reality. He discovered and intuited the role of form in his own music, the fact that it is a natural phenomenon with its own organic development, and as such it is irreproducible, but in line with other phenomena of an organic nature, it carries within it the seeds of further development. His finances were in order, he got married and had a son.

The coda of the “sentimental education” was embodied in a one-act opera Bartók finished in 1911, the forward-looking, brilliant summation of the achievements of the previous decade. Its action is based on the basic conflict of Wagner’s Lohengrin – the eponymous Man who keeps part of his being locked away from others and the Woman who wants the Man along with all his secrets. All this takes place in Timeless space, in the sphere of the Soul. It is characterised by balladistic twilight, the recitation of ancient folksongs metamorphosed into songs for the stage, the sparkling fire of personal memories, the perfection of form, the painterly depiction of nature, the depiction of character, ecstasy and renunciation. The piece received the title of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, its function in the composer’s biography – to serve as the foundation of the edifice in which the composer was forced to spend most of the 1910s. This edifice was the Tower of Silence.

To be continued

(English translation by Judith Sollosy. Balassi Kiadó, Budapest, 2016.)

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