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.
Mysticism. If you are tempted by mystic experiences, Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (BB 114/SZ 106) should enchant you. It certainly did enchant me and the audience in the 1930s. In a time of disenchantment, when frivolity and hate rule, Bartok’s music hints at man’s desire to retrieve a state of internal purity, that does not change over time and that alone allows creativity, the French writer Pierre Jean Jouve once opined. Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is a landmark in the history of 20th-century classical music and one of Bartok’s best known works.
Pompous, clear-cut, irritating, frightening, oppressive, siege mentality, bunker atmosphere, reinforced concrete, hard, sharp – the aesthetics of Hitler and Stalin. Those were my associations when I listened to Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (BB 123, SZ. 116) for the first time, more than two years ago. A brutal piece, a fascinating piece, one that I have grown fond of over time.
Something compelled me to go back to this violin concerto, and I can’t quite say what it was. I felt a certain urge to immerse myself into it again, to see if I would enjoy it in a different way or more deeply, with amplified emotions after having it initially dismissed as being of lesser interest.