Music Post: Taking the measure of Bartok

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When people enumerate the “greatest composers of the 20th century,” most cognoscenti come up with Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and almost as many add a third name, Bartok. The discussion degenerates after that. Schoenberg makes the cut because he developed and evangelized 12-tone composition, a movement that lasted three generations and came to dominate conservatories for while. Stravinsky invented no system but followed his own taste to revolutionize rhythm in classical music. Bartok found new scalic directions, learning from his years researching folk music.

Born March 25, 1881 in the town of St. Nicholas – then part of Hungary but today in Romania – Bartok was Hungarian, more or less. His father was half Hungarian and half Serbian; his mother was ethnic German but spoke Hungarian and was born in Slovakia. He played piano at age four.

Dad died when Bartok was seven, and his mother, working as a teacher, moved them first to Ukraine and then to Slovakia. His musical talent was recognized and nurtured, and he composed while still a child. His first big orchestral piece, “Kossuth,” dates from his early twenties.

In 1904 when he was 23, he heard a nanny singing a Transylvanian folk tune and was motivated to study folk songs by traveling the countryside with a wire recorder, often accompanied by his friend Zoltan Kodaly, whose “Hary Janos” is still widely performed today. Bartok did not merely roam Hungary but peregrinated all over Eastern Europe and even Northern Africa collecting folk tunes.

It’s interesting to note that Bartok could have simply ripped off these folk melodies, with or without credit, but generally preferred in his own works to create fresh melodies using the same pentatonic scales, and the same irregular meters, that he had encountered in the countryside.

Bartok was 28 when he married his first wife, then 16. About 15 years later when he was 42 they divorced and he soon married his second wife, then 19.

Bartok was 30 when his opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” was performed and then banned in 1911. His piano piece “Allegro barbaro,” which influenced other composers, also came out in 1911. In 1918 he composed his equally controversial ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin.” By then he had also written “The Wooden Prince.”

By the end of the Roaring Twenties, Bartok had composed his first three quartets, his first two piano concertos, and his violin concerto, as well as the first part of “Mikrokosmos” for solo piano.

“Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta” came in 1936, “Divertimento for Strings” in 1939, and “Concerto for Orchestra” in 1943. These are the three pinnacles of Bartok’s orchestral music.

There are literally dozens of works entitled “Concerto for Orchestra” including at least a dozen predating Bartok, among them works by Paul Hindemith, Walter Piston and Bartok’s friend Zoltan Kodaly; but none, before or after, has approached the popularity of Bartok’s five-movement masterpiece.

Movements one and three are in Bartok’s more suspenseful style and require concentration by the listener, while the second, fourth and fifth movements are witty and easy on the ears. The “Game of Pairs,” actually titled “Presentation of the Pairs” originally, unfolds a long melody – sometimes described as a succession of themes – featuring two bassoons playing harmony in minor sixths, two oboes in minor thirds, two clarinets in minor sevenths, two flutes in perfect fifths, and finally, as if to signal that they are not woodwinds and should not be in the same group, two muted trumpets in dissonant major seconds. A brass chorale serves as a trio section, then the original material returns, but telescoped so it replays in less time. The movement ends with each pair of instruments sounding its own interval, all at once, which ought to sound horribly dissonant but instead sounds pretty.

The fourth movement, “Interrupted Intermezzo,” is an editorial. Bartok heard Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony on the radio and hated it, especially the warlike movement based on the incessant repetition of a banal folk tune. Bartok’s intermezzo takes the same folk tune and laughs at it, much as his friend Zoltan Kodaly had the orchestra laugh at Napoleon in “Harry Janos,” then offers a melody of Bartok’s own invention, surpassingly beautiful, based on folk music scales and meters but nonetheless original, as if showing how it is done. Only Bartok could do a takedown of Shostakovich and make you like it.

The finale, which is also indebted to Bartok’s folk music researches, is nonetheless a traditional big finish to a big orchestral masterwork.

Serge Koussevitsky, longtime music director of the Boston Symphony, who commissioned Honegger’s “Pacific 2-3-1,” Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony, and the Ravel orchestration of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” also commissioned “Concerto in Orchestra.” The story goes that Bartok tried to turn down the money because he was too ill to fulfill it, but Koussevitsky said the rules of his family foundation required him to present him with the check whether he fulfilled it or not. Bartok, who must have known Koussevitsky was trying to help him with his bills, went into remission from the leukemia that would eventually kill him, and completed not only “Concerto for Orchestra” some other works as well.

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