THE WORLD of music will mark a special anniversary this Wednesday when it remembers the 100th birthday of Bela Bartok. One of the giants of this century, he stands with Stravinsky and Schoenberg as a composer of genius, a creator whose music bears the stamp of an individuality as personal and instantly identifiable as that of any great composer of his age.
Like Schoenberg, Bartok came to this country when the life of a creative artist was no longer tolerable in a Europe increasingly overshadowed by the threat of Adolf Hitler. While still living in Hungary, Bartok had forbidden performances of his music in Nazi Germany. In 1940, he immigrated to the United States, where -- in an unhappy parallel with Schoenberg -- Bartok found the economic aspects of life more than he could handle. His financial problems and personel traits combined to make the five years that were left to him after he arrived in America more difficult than they needed to be.
Life looked brighter when Bartok first visited this country in 1927. He toured the nation playing concerts of his own compositions, and was one of the first foreign musicians to play for the Chamber Music Society of Detroit. He was a superb pianist whose playing could easily have won him a place among the great virtuosos of his young days, as well as a composer whose music of advanced idiom, was steadily building its creator's reputation as one of the great, original geniuses of his time. Bartok's pianism was still in outstanding shape when he came to live here, as evidenced by the recording of his first concert in the Library of Congress in April 1940. With his friend and fellow artist, Joseph Szigeti, Bartok played Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, his own First Rhapsody and Second Sonata, and the Debussy Sonata. His playing is patrician in style and guided at every point by a superb techinque.
He was also apparently an excellent teacher. Among his students is one of today's masters of style, the eminent pianist Lili Kraus. She studied under Bartok in Budapest in the '20s, and recently recalled the experience:
"He would listen to each of us play what we had prepared. Often, when we had finsihed, he would sit with his head bowed, not saying a word. Then, finally, he would raise his head and say without any other comment, 'Play it again.'" Kraus smiled with a look of enigmatic rememberence and continued: "I do not know why or what the process was, but I know that when you played it again you played it differently than you had before." She called Bartok "a teacher of unbounded imagaination, a man who knew everything about music and a man of truly noble spirit. He was a saint -- a knight."
It is widely believed that Bartok was largely ignored after he came to America in 1940. But Paul Henry Lang (who. like Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Reiner, joesph Szigeti, Antal Dorati and Georg Solti, is Hungarian), writing in the current issue of High Fidelity magazine, has cleared up this mistaken legend.
Lang believes that Bartok felt that he sould not teach composition because of his strongly personal style, to which he felt young students should not be exposed. But while there had been offers for Bartok to teach composition, there wre none in the two areas he wanted to teach: piano and ethnomusicology. However, thanks to what Lang calls "a genial conspiracy," Bartok was appointed a research fellow in anthropology without teaching duties at Columbia University.
Unhappily the funds, limited at best, that paid Bartok's stipend at Columbia gave out by 1942; and in the face of wartime privations, the university felt unable to continue its grant to a non-teaching composer. It was also a time when, although he has some concert appearances and some of his music was being played, the income from both of these sources was minute.
During all of this time, Bartok would have refused anything that seemed remotley like charity. Thus at the same time that a fatal leukemia was making inroads into his frail system, Bartok was deprived of almost every source of funds. At this point, ASCAP, in a gesture of true generosity, supplied Bartok with some money, claiming it came from royalties.
Then in what seems like almost every story of last-minute salvation from certain defeat, but was actually the result of another "genial conspiracy," Serge Koussevitsky made a historic visit to Bartok's hospital room to announce to the grievously ill musician that the Koussevitsky Foundation was commissioning him to write a large orchestral work. The $1,000 commission had come about thanks to the joint plotting of Szigeti Reiner and Koussevitsky. And when the sick composer, even though desperately in need of financial support afforded by the commison, tried to refuse it saying that he had grave doubts that he would live to finish a major work. Koussevitsky simply informed him that the money was being paid over to him, whether or not he chose to accept.
Fortunatley for music lovers, something in Bartok's system -- was it physical, metabolic, spiritual? -- took over for a time. His strength, though feeble, returned sufficently for him and his wife to go to North Carolina where the climate was right for a temporary convalescence. And he began to write. Steadily, rapidly and without hesitation, there emerged what became the most popular of all his orchestral compositions, and one of the most frequently played symphonic works of the past half century, the Concerto for Orchestra.
Once it was finished, the strength that had made it possible again diminished, and for the last time. Even so, enough iron determination remained for Batok to compose the third and last of his piano concertos, a gift that he knew would benefit his wife, Pianist Ditta Pasztory, both in performance fees and royalties. Finishing the last 17 measures, Bartok had created another of his greatest and most spiritually inspired compositions. Even then the creative spirit refused to be extingused. Like the dying Maurice Ravel nearly a decade earlier, Bartok still had new ideas fully formed in his mind. But there was no longer sufficent strength to set them dowm.He made sketches for a viola concerto, but its existance today is due to the work of the composer friend, Tibor Serly, the man who had completed the orchestration of the Third Piano Concerto, and who wrote out the Viola Concerto from what he understood of Bartok's intentions in the sketches.
Today, 100 years after his birth, his native Budapest has a Bartok Street and the Hugarian government issued a series of stamps carrying the composer's portrait. Nearly every note of music Bartok ever wrote had been recorded, and of his great works there are multiple recordings by the world's greatest artists. Perhaps the happiest fact about his music is that is has not had to wait for this centennial year to be heard widely. His six string quartets are staples in the repertoires of most major qartets; his orchestral compositions are reguarly heard from American orchestras; pianists know his solo works and concertos; and enterprising choruses keep his remarkable choral writing alive.
There is no possibility that this steadily mountng appreciation and enthusiasm for Bartok's music will disappear. It is only regrettable that the upsurge in interest did not begin until after his death.