Bartok Would Be Appalled

Bartok. Concerto for Orchestra. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Hungarian Sketches. Fritz Reiner. Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

At some point in the last month, horrified by the destabilization of Eastern Europe and, I don’t know, the continuing idiocy of mankind, I began casting around for a Ukrainian composer in dad’s collection to write about. This proved easier said than done, as the closest I could get was Prokofiev, who was born to Muscovite parents in Donetsk, which at that time was part of the Russian empire and as of this writing remains a fitful part of Ukraine. So is he Ukrainian? Um…It’s complicated, just like Ukraine itself.

But then I realized that in fact I had already landed, in my slow letter-by-letter progress through dad’s collection, on the perfect composer to express some of what I’ve been feeling: Bela Bartok.

Bartok was capital-H Hungarian. According to the liner notes of one disc, as a youth he was a patriot, “always dressed in the Hungarian national costume: black embroidered jacket, black sash tie, and black boots.” At the same time, he was a man of the people, and not just the Hungarian people, going out and collecting folk melodies in the countryside. Alex Ross writes in “The Rest is Noise” that economic circumstances determined authenticity for Bartok: “he paid heed mainly to the people on the social margins, those who had lived the toughest lives.”

While that might have made him a fellow traveler, Bartok was, I think, first and foremost an individualist. He relocated to the United States after the Nazis invaded Hungary, and had this to say of fascism:

“If after my death they want to name a street after me, or to erect a memorial tablet to me in a public place, then my desire is this: as long as what were formerly Oktogon-ter and Korond in Budapest are named after those men for whom they are at present named [Hitler and Mussolini], and, further, as long as there is in Hungary any square or street, or is to be, named for those two men, then neither square nor street nor public building in Hungary is to be named for me, and no memorial tablet is to be erected in a public place.”

In America, Bartok wrote one of his last works, the Concerto for Orchestra. The idea of a concerto, for orchestra, is a bit weird. Concertos of this sort are usually for an orchestra and a solo instrument, a chance for just one soloist to shine. But in this work, the orchestra, bit by bit, *is* the solo instrument. According to the liner notes, Bartok wrote in a note for the Boston premiere of the piece that the title “is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a soloistic manner.” This is especially true, he wrote, “in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages.”

Another theme: This is a stewpot of musical traditions. It’s got strands of Eastern European music going on, some North African stuff, some “all-American brass,” as Ross puts it, and even a couple Russian references, including one to Shostakovich’s Leningrad – albeit one in which everybody gangs up on the Leningrad melody.

Music is in large part about the mood you find yourself in when you are listening to it, or perhaps the mood it puts you in. As I listen to this piece and write this post, the mood I am in makes this an ode to individualism. You’ve got these instruments, expressing themselves as they want to, passing a melody along to one another, giving up the spotlight, while their society, or nation, or – dare to dream – world, has their back.

This, sadly, is a dream that unraveled long ago for Bartok, who died in exile. Ross writes that Bartok often portrayed homecoming in his late works, and that “The ritual of return is most poignant in the Concerto for Orchestra, which Bartok wrote in American exile. Transylvania was by then a purely mental space that he could dance across from end to end, even as his final illness immobilized him.”

The dream unravels still today for others. On a purely individual level, no one wins in situations like that in Eastern Europe.Or, as someone else said with much more eloquence than I am capable of: “The future of Ukraine is now no longer about Kiev’s Independence Square, democracy in Ukraine or European integration. It is about how to preserve a vision of Europe — and, indeed, of the world — where countries give up the idea that people who speak a language we understand are the only ones worth protecting.”

Bartok, I think, would be appalled.

Here is Solti conducting the Concerto for Orchestra in its entirety. The second movement starts at about 11 minutes in.

And here is a beautiful Odessan flash mob playing Ode to Joy.

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