Composing a Concerto while the War is Raging

Vienna-Budapest. © Charles Thibo

More than a year ago I passed a rather expensive looking hotel in Vienna. Modern architecture, a lot of glass, a lot of metal, geometric forms, angular. The total opposite of what I associate with Vienna. The total opposite of what I cherish about Vienna. A provocation. Here’s another provocation, a rather brutal contrast to the classical music I traditionally associate with the Austrian-Hungarian Empire: Zoltan Kodaly’s Concerto for Orchestra (K. 115). An impressive piece, full of edges, dynamic, powerful and well-balanced at the same time, with beautiful melodies and resounding harmonies, reminiscent of the generations of composers that preceded Kodaly.

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Glory to the violin!

Bartok ViolonConcerto2_SW
Strings of Fantasy. © Charles Thibo

If I had to nominate a piece to glorify the violin as an instrument, I would choose Bela Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (Sz. 112) without hesitation. The first bars the soloist gets to play in the first movement constitute an unmistakable signature of Bartok’s work and at the same time a highly condensed statement of the composer’s origin, the Romantic era. Of course, all of the following bars point towards the evolution of Music, Bartok the pioneer, Bartok the innovator, Bartok the fusion artist takes over from Bartok the Traditionalist. I truly love this piece!

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A Piano Quartet Ressurected from the Archives

Bartok Piano Quartet-1
Black and white and grey. © Charles Thibo

December 1898: A young man of 17 travels to Vienna for an audition. He has worked the piano for years and written a few compositions: a string quartet, a piano quartet, a few melodies for piano and voice. He is nervous, certainly. Vienna – the musical center of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. But all goes well, he is accepted at the conservatory and he even is awarded a scholarship by the emperor. But the young man decides otherwise. Bela Bartok prefers to study close to home, in Budapest, where in 1875 the Royal Academy of National Hungarian Music has been inaugurated, in the wake of a national awakening in the multi-ethnic empire. The name of its director is Franz Liszt.

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Inspired As a Child by a Gypsy Band

The colour of tradition. © Charles Thibo

In 1933 Zoltan Kodaly wrote a symphonic poem called “The Dances of Galanta”. Galanta is a small town in what is today Slovakia. It used to be part of Hungary, and Kodaly spent several years here when he was a young. A well-known gypsy band stimulated the boy’s interest in music and gave him a first idea of harmony and melody. “The Dances of Galanta”, written to mark the 80th anniversary of the Philharmonic Society Orchestra in Budapest, take up material form 18th-century verbunkos dances, and became Kodaly’s most popular work.

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