Josh remembers: Around mid-September I was in my car and happened to tune in to the radio station of Columbia University in New York City. I perked up immediately as I heard some familiar music of Bela Bartok, one of my favorite 20th-century composers. It turns out that the station was devoting a lot of time to this eminent Hungarian musician because the 67th anniversary of his death was coming up on September 26th.
Listening to the final movement of the Concerto for Orchestra and then the Third Piano Concerto brought up some powerful memories for me. With the outbreak of World War II, Bartok found asylum in the United States in 1940. He wrote these two works between 1943 and 1945, during what proved to be the last two years of his life. He was in failing health then, combating leukemia.
What made this so personal for me is that for part of the time Bartok held a research position in folk music at Columbia University–he was a formidable scholar in that field of study– working in some of the same spaces I was to occupy many years later as a graduate student in musicology. One of my mentors, Pr0fessor Paul Henry Lang, a renowned Hungarian compatriot of Bartok and a highly distinguished figure in his own right, had helped secure an academic position for Bartok there. He was always one of Bartok’s most ardent champions and was among only ten people present at his burial in Westchester County in 1945.
The Concerto for Orchestra (1943) was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It is one of those rarities– a spectacular virtuoso showpieces that is also deeply confessional. It combines biting satire with passionate Hungarian rhythm and melody. It culminates in a transcendent finale that glowingly affirms the power of the life force itself.
The performance below of the Concerto’s Finale is truly inspired. Christian Vasquez conducts the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. It certainly shows what wonders are being achieved by the cream of musical talent in that country.
The Third Piano Concerto (1945) was something of a valentine for his second wife, the pianist Ditta Pasztory. Bartok hoped she could use it to generate some income for herself and their son after his death by performing it with orchestras. It is virtually his last work, something he was feverishly trying to finish on the very last day he spent in his small apartment at 309 West 57th Street , one block west of Carnegie Hall (there is a plaque outside the building now). He died in the hospital four days later. Once again, even though death was approaching, in the concerto’s last movement Bartok manages to convey a sense of optimism that is awesome to hear.
Below is another magnificent performance, this one by the great Hungarian pianist, Andras Schiff, with a passionately engaged Sir Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony.
Bartok, Piano Concerto no. 3, III (Allegro vivace)
Lynne adds: Optimism is one of the most important capacities human beings can have. As Josh points out, Bela Bartok was able to convey his belief in a life force through his music, even though he knew he was dying. He thought about the future for his family, and in fact he did play a positive role in their subsequent fortunes: his reputation started to soar soon after his death and his music was then able to support them as he had hoped.
On a personal note, I first heard Bartok’s music in 1956 in Munich at a concert during the Hungarian Revolution. I remember the students there stamping their feet on the wooden floor of the concert hall to express their strong approval of the music and their solidarity with the Hungarian people. It was one of the most transcendent experiences of my youth and returns every time I hear any Bartok in a concert.
Do you have memories of powerful experiences like that? Please share them with us.