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January 1, 2015 · Posted in Commentary 


Bela Bartok in 1927 (left), Eugene Zador, late 1970s (right)

Bela Bartok in 1927 (left), Eugene Zador, late 1970s (right)



I know practically all of Bartok’s orchestral works, including his ballet and his opera. But I still don’t feel like an authority on his music and am not able to give you a profound analysis of his works. I leave it to the musicologists. Instead of this, I rather give you a few glimpses on his life and a few personal impressions, which might be even more interesting, since you can’t find them in books.

Many people claim now that they were Bartok’s friends. Just like hundreds of people claimed to be classmates of Abraham Lincoln after he became president. No, unfortunately, I was not one of Bartok’s friends. He lived in Budapest and I in Vienna, so we saw each other only when he came to Vienna, which was always a short visit. But when he was there, I was practically is only personal guide. He always notified me when he came. I waited at the station and we took a cab to his hotel. Bartok was the simplicity itself. He didn’t like fancy hotels, on the contrary, where he stayed was an old, cheap hotel on the Wiedner Hauptstrasse, but he didn’t care; It was near to the Musikvereinsaal (the concert hall) and to the Radio, where he performed.

The conductor of the Vienna Radio, Mr. Kabaska, wanted to meet him. I suggested to see him either at the hotel or in my home, but Bartok refused, and preferred to meet him in a Kaffeehaus, which is a kind of cafeteria, where you can sit for hours. Bartok smoked and I will never forget when he pulled out his old and beaten up metal cigarette container, refusing Mr. Kabaska’s cigarettes, offered him in a golden tabatiere.

Two other memories come to my mind. Bartok taught one summer at the American-Austrian simmer school at Mondsee. This was a summer resort and classes were held in a big castle of an Austrian count who rented it to the school. A lady was much too anxious to meet Bartok, so he escaped to the other end of the hall, hiding behind a davenport until the lady left. Later, I accompanied Bartok to his quarters and my admiration for him only grew when I saw the simple, almost poorly furnished room where he lived. Before the window was a big table. Matter of factly, he pointed to the score on the table and said, “I am in the middle of my second violin concerto.”

I knew that in his early years, Richard Strauss’ music made a tremendous impression on Bartok, especially Zarathustra. You can imagine my surprise when I sat next to him in 1933 at Maggio Musicale in Florence and they played Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. Through the whole piece, Bartok made loud remarks like: “I don’t like this music, not at all, not one bar interests me” etc., but so loud that I was afraid we will be kicked out any moment. And by the way, Richard Strauss sat above us in a box, about 30 feet away.

He liked simple Hungarian food, so my mother cooked him goulash, almost without spices. During the meal, I mentioned that I had sometimes digestive troubles. Very few people know that Bartok was an expert in this matter too. Anyway, he gave me valuable advices regarding food and especially how to conserve the acid we need for digestion.

I didn’t understand Bartok’s music at that time as well as I do today, but even more as his music, I admired his honesty, his unsophisticated human simplicity and his uncompromising character. A man who dares to write to the aristocratic president of the Hungarian Royal Academy when elected as a member, I quote “I don’t want to be a member of your reactionary society, not in my life, not in my death” is for me a very strong man who acts on his conscience.

They say his piano playing was cold. I would rather say it was classical, objective and absolutely true to the score.

Bartok spoke several languages, but he spoke from the heart when he spoke or wrote in Hungarian. I quote from his last letter to me, written July 1, 1945, just about when the war ended and shortly before his untimely death. The letter is a sad one. It speaks about conditions in Hungary after the war. I quote: “From Hungary I get extremely depressing news about tremendous destruction, famine and menacing chaos. As I see, we can’t even think of going home. No transportation, no Russian visa. God knows how long it will take until the country can in some way pull itself together, and how much I would like to go home, but forever. With warmest regards, Bela Bartok.

The original of this letter is now in the Hungarian national Museum.












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