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Remembering Bartók

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 12, 2011 03:41 PM

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Classical music can seem remote from the present, as though it were written long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. In fact, though, only a single lifetime separates us from the life of a composer like Béla Bartók, who died in 1945. In a beautiful, just-published interview with The Hungarian Quarterly, one of his piano pupils, Elisabeth Klein, offers a glimpse into the web of personal bonds which connects composers, performers, and audiences.


The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.

Klein, who died in 2004 at the age of 93, studied with Bartók in Budapest for a few years around 1934, when she was in her early 20s. She and a few other gifted pupils would go to his apartment for lessons. "In his study were two pianos: he sat at one and we at the other, taking it in turn to play for him," Klein recalls. "At the first mistake we had to stop and the next person continued." Bartók was small, intense, and always neatly dressed - apart, that is, from his interest in nudism. Klein remembers giving a piano lesson in his neighborhood; her student kept looking out the window, distracted by "Bartók and his family completely naked, a not infrequent circumstance that caused bad relations with his neighbors." He liked experiences, she says, which were "untouched."

Bartók wasn't a particularly great teacher - he was too reticent - but his genius came through nonetheless: "It was enough that he was who he was," Klein says, citing his "piercing eyes." He insisted on only the most austere and restrained interpretations of the music they prepared. And they practiced Bartók's own music, too. "I think that was why he took us on as pupils," Klein says. "He wanted pianists of good technique who could be moulded to play his music in the way he wanted. We would therefore be a new generation to carry his music forward, especially if we performed abroad."

That's exactly what happened: Klein fled Hungary during the War ("I earned my living mainly by accompanying singers for three Kronen an hour... sometimes it was twelve hours of Wagner - non-stop!") and launched a career as a pianist in the West, performing Bartók along with other modern composers, like Stockhausen and Boulez. Bartók is famous for exploring and documenting folk music, and for incorporating it into his own compositions - he's often credited as a founder of the field of ethnomusicology - and Klein says that she finds traces of his musical innovations everywhere.

And yet, after a lifetime of performing his work, she says she is "very worried about the future of his piano music." It's not as widely performed or admired as it once was, in part because of its difficulty, but also simply because of the passage of time. To encourage other gifted pianists to learn Bartók, Klein has given many lecture-performances. "Many years ago I gave the first Danish performance of some of Bartók's music in Copenhagen and had a full house," she says, but "that would be very difficult today.... There are distinguished recordings of his works, but how often are his piano pieces programmed? He hoped his pupils would promote them, which we did. Now others must study them and take them forward."

Some pieces of music are so famous that one can't imagine that they won't always be performed; that musical continuity is part of what makes classical music so rewarding. Other pieces, though, can reach old age only through a chain of teachers and pupils. Music, if it's going to survive, needs personal continuity, too. You can watch some Bartók performances below.


Out of Doors.

Romanian Folk Dances.

Piano Sonata No. 1
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