Mu­si­cian was pride of two na­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY SUDIP BOSE book­world@wash­post.com

In1920, shortly af­ter the end of World War I and the dis­so­lu­tion of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire, the borders of the King­dom of Hungary were rad­i­cally re­drawn. As a con­se­quence of the Treaty of Tri­anon, Hungary lost a con­sid­er­able amount of land — to Aus­tria, Cze­choslo­vakia, Ro­ma­nia and the coun­try soon to be called Yu­goslavia— as well as more than a third of its pre­war pop­u­la­tion. Vir­tu­ally overnight, towns, cities and even en­tire re­gions awoke to a new na­tional iden­tity.

Such was the fate of Nagyszent­mik­lós, the birthplace of Béla Bartók— Hun­gar­ian one minute, Ro­ma­nian the next— although it says some­thing about both coun­tries’ pride in the com­poser that each would claim him as a na­tive son. Bartók spent much of his adult life re­search­ing, col­lect­ing and pub­lish­ing tra­di­tional folk mu­sic, in­clud­ing that of the Ro­ma­nian hin­ter­lands. So ex­ten­sive were his cul­tural con­tri­bu­tions that the Ro­ma­nian res­i­dents of his home town (since re­named Sân­ni­co­lau Mare) wanted to erect a plaque in his honor. This was in the early 1930s, by which time Bartók al­ready had a for­mi­da­ble rep­u­ta­tion as a con­cert pi­anist and com­poser. As David Cooper, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Leeds, writes in his new bi­og­ra­phy, the plaque did not come in to be­ing un­til long af­ter the com­poser’s death, but Bartók’s wishes had been re­spected: Its text was bilin­gual, amark of sol­i­dar­ity be­tween two ri­val na­tions.

Born in 1881, Bartók be­gan study­ing the pi­ano at age 5. De­spite a dif­fi­cult child­hood — he was a sickly boy who, upon his fa­ther’s death, con­tin­u­ally moved to farflung parts of Eastern Europe — he de­vel­oped into a prodi­gious tal­ent. His early in­flu­ences were Ger­man — Johannes Brahms, Robert Schu­mann and Richard Strauss — and he found a kin­dred spirit in Franz Liszt, whose Hun­gar­ian Rhap­sodies were in­flected with Gypsy rhythms and melodies. Soon his own na­tion­al­is­tic con­scious­ness was awak­ened. His ear­li­est suc­cesses, such as the sym­phonic poem “Kos­suth,” drew from the in­dige­nous tra­di­tions of Hungary.

As Bartók ma­tured, how­ever, he be­gan forg­ing a more mod­ern, strik­ing id­iom. It was his moder­nity— the com­plex use of me­ter and the dal­liances with atonal­ity in such works as the mid­dle string quar­tets and two vi­o­lin sonatas — that made so many crit­ics, in Bu­dapest and abroad, re­coil. Not un­til the 1930s, Cooper writes, when Bartók adopted a more ac­ces­si­ble style (in such mas­ter­pieces as the Vi­o­lin Con­certo No. 2 and the Can­tata Pro­fana), did some of this crit­i­cism abate. And only with the com­po­si­tion of his late Con­certo for Or­ches­tra did the ac­claim be­come nearly uni­ver­sal.

When the crit­ics turned vi­cious, Bartók took refuge in the coun­try­side, trav­el­ing to iso­lated parts of not just Hungary and Ro­ma­nia, but as far away as Tur­key and North Africa, us­ing a phono­graph to record the folk mu­sic he en­coun­tered. For Cooper, Bartók’s “al­most in­sa­tiable de­sire to col­lect” was, among other traits, symp­to­matic of Asperger syn­drome. Whether or not this is true, Bartók’s labors did fire his imag­i­na­tion, the col­ors, melodies, and rhythms of dis­tant lands find­ing their way into such pieces as his bal­let “The Mirac­u­lous Man­darin” and the Pi­ano Con­certo No. 1. In this way, he took a dif­fer­ent road from the 12-tone mod­ernists of the Sec­ond Vi­en­nese School. Although Bartók’s pro­lific out­put pre­sented chal­lenges to con­ser­va­tive lis­ten­ers, he was not deemed a “de­gen­er­ate” by the Nazis, as Arnold Schoen­berg and An­ton We­bern were — a point of con­ster­na­tion for the com­poser; given his vir­u­lent op­po­si­tion to to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism, it would have been an honor to be thus sin­gled out by the Nazis. He prob­a­bly was given a pass, Cooper writes, be­cause of the pro-Nazi bent of Hungary’s wartime gov­ern­ment.

Still, Bartók could not re­main in a Europe riven by fas­cism. He spent the end his life in the United States, set­tling in New York but seek­ing respite for his health prob­lems in the Adiron­dacks and in Asheville, N.C. (where he com­posed the Sonata for Solo Vi­o­lin, ar­guably the great­est work of its kind since Jo­hann Bach). Now, sep­a­rated from fam­ily and friends — his wife had ac­com­pa­nied him, but his eldest son and oth­ers had been un­able to leave— he faced a dif­fi­cult end, hav­ing lost, he said “all con­fi­dence in peo­ple, in coun­tries, in ev­ery­thing.”

As a work of schol­ar­ship, Cooper’s bi­og­ra­phy is ex­cel­lent: ex­haus­tive, de­tailed, in­formed by a deep and nu­anced un­der­stand­ing of Bartók’s mu­sic. The lay reader, how­ever, will strug­gle with the sheer amount of har­monic, struc­tural and rhyth­mic anal­y­sis here. Per­haps worse, the book too of­ten reads like a dry and sober se­ries of fact upon fact. Only when Cooper quotes from the com­poser’s letters or from the writ­ings of his con­tem­po­raries do we get a glimpse of what a thought­ful, ide­al­is­tic, an­i­mated and con­flicted man Bartók was.

“He pos­sesses an in­cred­i­ble mag­i­cal dig­nity. . . . And how much in­no­cence, how much charm he has. He trav­els with a knap­sack and ten cigar boxes full of bee­tles and in­sects, which he col­lects with ut­most pedantry and con­stant amaze­ment.” That is a di­ary en­try from Bartók’s erst­while col­lab­o­ra­tor Béla Balazs. It is un­for­tu­nate that we glean more about who Bartók was from a frag­ment such as this than from page af­ter page of Cooper’s oth­er­wise au­thor­i­ta­tive work.

BÉLA BARTÓK By David Cooper Yale Univ. 436 pp. $40

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