Posted by: rbbadger | May 11, 2012

Allegro barbaro

For a small country, Hungary is certainly blessed with great musicians.  The composers Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Georg Ligeti and Franz Liszt were all Hungarians.  It has also produced many great pianists, such as András Schiff, Géza Anda, Edward Kilenyi, Ernst von Dohnányi, and others.  Hungarian conductors include Fritz Reiner, Christoph von Dohnányi, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, István Kertész, Ferenc Fricsay, Sir Georg Solti and others.   

The composer Béla Bartók was an original voice in 20th century music.  Born to a Hungarian family in Nagyszentmiklós, what is now Sânnicolau Mare, Romania, he drew upon the folk traditions of his native Hungary in his compositions.  He also drew upon the folk music of the surrounding countries, such as Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania.  Uniquely, it was precisely because of recording, that Bartók was able to become the great composer he did become.  He and his friend, the Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, travelled throughout Hungary recording folksongs.  Hungaroton, once the state-owned recording and music publishing monopoly, has released some CDs of the cylinders Kodály made, as well as recordings of Bartók playing his own music.  Bartók was greatly influenced by the melodies, rhythms, and ragged harmonies he managed to collect.  Not only is he regarded as a great composer, but also as one of the pioneers of the discipline of ethnomusicology.  (The late Korean composer Yun Isang is sort of a Korean Bartók, in that his music doesn’t quote folk music either, but is heavily influenced by it.) 

Bartók eschewed the atonality of Arnold Schönberg and his school.  By going back to his Hungarian roots, he forged a modernism that is wholly unique.  He didn’t create a school of composition, but he did have some influential students.  One of the best, the late pianist György Sándor, played Bartók beautifully, not in a percussive and banging way.  Yes, Bartók is modern, but it is no excuse for making his music sound ugly.

I have long admired the Hungarian people.  Their small country has had a turbulent history.  Once an independent kingdom, it was absorbed into the Austrian Empire.  It was only in the 20th century that Hungary regained her independence, though sadly that independence would be short-lived.  It would, like so much of Central and Eastern Europe, fall under the sway of Hitler.  Béla Bartók, rather than continue to live under Hitler, whose policies he despised, came to the United States.  He was not Jewish, but he had many friends who were Jews.  It still remains fascinating to me just how many European giants came to my country.  Some of Europe’s greatest artists, musicians, scientists, writers, and other distinguished people moved to America or other countries during that time.  The Dutch royal family sought refuge in Canada.  Queen Beatrix’s sister, Princess Margriet, was born in Ottawa.  In 1956, the Hungarian people rose up against the Soviets, only to be brutally crushed. 

Unfortunately, Bartók’s time in America would be difficult for him.  He was known as a teacher, a pianist, and as a musicologist more than as a composer.  He did get some money doing research for Columbia University.  In 1942, he began to show signs of the leukemia which would kill him.  While he wasn’t poor, his financial situations were precarious at times.  The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) came to his aid and helped him pay his medical bills.  Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, commissioned one of his most famous works, the Concerto for Orchestra.  He also left behind an unfinished piano concerto and viola concerto, both of which were finished by his student Tibor Serly.  He died in 1945.  Only ten people were present for his funeral.  In 1988, the Hungarian government requested that Bartók’s remains be returned to Hungary.  This time, he was given the funeral he deserved.   

The Hungarian pianist Jenő Jandó has made quite a name for himself in recording.  He is quite possibly one of the most recorded pianists of our times.  Like Idil Biret, whom I featured earlier, Jandó does the bulk of his recording on the Naxos label.  He has a quite huge repertoire and has made many, many recordings.  Here he performs Bartók’s Allegro barbaro, Sz 49 with the Hungarian folk group Muzsikás.  I’m not sure what these folk instruments are called, as I don’t know very much about Hungarian folk music.  Perhaps someone who reads these words could enlighten me!


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