Musician was pride of two nations
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