Friday, April 08, 2011

Bartók, Father & Son

Gretna Music presents the Calder Quartet who will be performing all six string quartets by Bela Bartók over the span of two evenings, Friday April 8th and Saturday April 9th at Elizabethtown College’s Leffler Chapel. The concerts are at 7:30 pm and an hour before each program, there will be a pre-concert talk.

(You can read my post about Bartók's String Quartet No. 1 and its biographical background, here.)

Tonight, at 6:30, I’ll be interviewing the composer’s son, Peter Bartók.

When I mention this to friends, eyebrows shoot up and I’m met with questioning looks: familiar with Bartók’s music, they are not aware that his son could still be alive. After all, Bartók was born in 1881, wasn’t he?

Peter Bartók, the second son of Bela Bartók, was born in 1924 when his father was 43 years old. He was with his parents in New York City during much of the time they were living there, what turned out to be Bartók’s last years.

Peter went on to become famous in his own right as a recording engineer and is currently living (and maintaining Bartók Records) in Florida which is where we will reach him by way of Skype!

In 2002, he published a memoir about his famous father which he called, simply enough, “My Father.” It is not easy to track down – it took a few weeks by way of Interlibrary Loan for me: the folks at Gretna Music are still waiting for the copy ordered on-line – but I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Bartók’s music, obviously, but to anyone interested in human side of the lives of Great Composers, those personal details that often get lost in the “and-then-he-wrote” biographies and chronologies.

And Bartók certainly is a Great Composer, generally regarded as one of the three greatest voices in the first half of the 20th Century along with Schoenberg and Stravinsky, though he founded no “school” and the events of World War II coincided with his deteriorating health to cut short a career that might have had more impact if circumstances had been different.

But it is not always good to play “What If,” tempting as it is – after all, consider what Mozart could have written if he lived to be as old as Beethoven, dying in 1813 instead of 1791 at the age of 35; or Schubert, rather than dying at the age of 31, if he'd lived to be 80, dying instead in 1877; and so forth.

One thing I learned from reading Peter Bartók’s book was that there might have been a 7th String Quartet (”My Father,” p.114). Unfortunately he was unable to get around to it in that final summer: he left two other works incomplete, as it was – the last 17 measures of the 3rd Piano Concerto still needed orchestration and “filling in,” not a great problem, but the Viola Concerto, though “ready” according to the composer, was in such a state, the sketch pages unnumbered, it was difficult to tell what went where and which came next.

The two photographs of father and son, posted here, were found on-line, taken in 1932 when Peter was about 8 years old, his father 51 – and around the time Bartók was composing the first volumes of teaching pieces called “Mikrokosmos,” many of which originated with the piano lessons Bartók gave his son. Another photograph, taken on one of their vacation mountain hikes can be seen here.

Just to place his life within the chronology of his father's life, Peter was 3 when Bartók composed his 3rd String Quartet and 21 when his father died in New York City at the age of 64.

When I first opened the book just to glance at it, once it arrived at the local library – thank you, East Shore Public Library for tracking it down – I saw this:

“My father’s objection to radio went beyond his fear of unwanted musical sounds at home.” (”My Father,” p.30)

Now, having spent 18 years working in radio, this intrigued me. As a composer, I could imagine the sound of a radio would be an intrusion into the solitude needed to write.

But there was more to it than this, as Peter explains: “radio and phonograph,” his father talked about in a later lecture on ‘Mechanical Music,’ “may discourage people from making their own music, so they never experience the satisfaction that goes with music-making, even if clumsy.”

That’s true, considering family life in Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s. In the days before such “mechanical music-making” became technologically possible, people made their own music at home, being actively involved in it, not simply the passive couch-potato of today.

Later in the book, he quotes from this lecture more extensively:

“While conceding the usefulness of radio for sick or otherwise immobilized people, [the lecture] contained some critical thoughts: the easy availability of music coming out of a home loudspeaker at the flick of a switch – no need to dress up, buy tickets and sit in silent attention with some thousand others in a big hall – may lead to superficial listening: people can turn the music on and off at any time, make it loud or soft, and they ‘may even chat during the music!’ He characterized radio music for many as no deeper experience than ‘being caressed in a lukewarm bath.’” (”My Father,” p. 226)

He concludes by pointing out that playing a radio with the windows open should never be allowed: “Without laws,” his father writes, “protecting the quiet of others, radio may become one of God’s curses on humanity.” (”My Father,” p. 227)

It makes me wonder how Bartók would fare in New York City today, beset by muzac everywhere and boom-boxes galore. It is almost impossible to avoid being subjected to “mechanical music” today.

Of course, his argument against the radio – the convenience, not having to get dressed or buy tickets or sit in silence in a communal socio-religious setting – is often the complaint of many of the younger generations who argue these are reasons the Concert is Dead.

As a friend of mine on Facebook commented, when I posted this quote, “a different time.”

- Dick Strawser


  1. I came across this while do a little early morning research on Bartok. I have always wanted to find a good book on the composer and it appears you found it for me. Enjoyed reading your post.


  2. Anonymous4:48 AM

    Thank you for this article, and what a great opportunity to talk to Peter Bartok! I will try to get a hold of the book, and, if at all possible, also of the speech on mechanical music.

    I have a comment about "Concert is Dead": I understand the aversion to radio completely, as I am a musician myself, and like many of my colleagues, I prefer silence to annoying background music (which non-musicians often find entirely inoffensive), The more developed one's musical senses, the harder it is to "tune out" noises and unwanted music, so they must be torture for someone of Bartok's caliber. However, it is wrong to blame radio and recordings for "killing" concert. "the convenience, not having to get dressed or buy tickets or sit in silence in a communal socio-religious setting" also has great advantages, and not only for the "sick and immobilized". It only takes living on the countryside, away from the music halls, or being too poor to afford a ticket. "muzac everywhere and boom-boxes galore" aside, I wonder what Bela Bartok would think about the fact that I fell completely in love with his music sitting in a small town in the backcountry, listening to recordings. Sure, I do what I can to play his music (which is why I know that even after a decade of highly professional training, one is still quite "clumsy", to say the least, with his string quartets), but without recordings, I would be entirely unaware of much of what he has written. Of course, as soon as I was in the city, I started bying the concert tickets. I have seen similar paths with many other people of my generation (yes, still "younger"), so I would argue that recordings are the "gateway drug" to becoming a concert-goer, and that they are an important reason that concert (and classical music as a whole) is NOT dead.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.