Hearing the voice of Béla Bartók remains startling for those who knew it only through his music.
It was on a Sunday, July 2, 1944, and Ditta Pásztory-Bartók was performing some of her husband's piano works at the Brooklyn Museum. Also on the program were some arrangements of works from Bartók's Mikrokosmos made by Tibor Serly for piano and strings. The performance, and interview by David LeVita, were part of a series called "Ask the Composer." The performances and interviews were recorded and archived by the Brooklyn Museum.
The first exchange concerns Bartók's Sonatina:
LeVita: "Dr. Bartók, can you tell us something about the movements of the Sonatina which Mrs. Bartók is going to play for us first? The titles suggest that there is some reference to Hungarian folklore or everyday scenes from Hungarian life. I refer of course to the names of the first movement, 'the Bagpipe Players,' and the second movement called the 'Bear Dance.'"
Bartók: "This sonatina was originally conceived as a group of Romanian folk dances for piano. The three parts which Mrs. Bartók will play were selected from a 'group' and given its present title of Sonatina. The first movement which is called 'Bagpipe Players' is a dance; these are two dances played by two bagpipe players, the first by one and the second theme by another. The second movement is called 'Bear Dance.' This was played for me by a peasant violinist on the G and D strings (on the lower strings in order to have it more similar to a Bear's voice. Generally the violin players use the E string). And the last movement contains also two folk melodies played by peasant violin players."
Bartók replies with an organized strategy; he considers the overall set and its derivation first, then briefly details each movement in order. He is formal in his response, but subtle humor can be savored in his details of how the peasant played the music and the effect that was intended by playing this way. This information was colorful and not structural so it show him at ease. Bartók finds his way back to formality using a bridge that is pedagogical--he indicates how a violinist would normally have played that particular tune.
This performance of the Sonatina is by Béla himself:
The second "dance" of the opening movement begins at the timing [0:32] with the return to the opening dance at [0:53]. The "Bear Dance" begins at [1:37], the final movement at [2:06] with the "second folk melody" beginning at [2:32].
The next several exchanges: LeVita: "Dr. Bartók, do you consider the Suite op. 14, which Mrs. Bartók is going to play next, representative of your abstract piano compositions and if so, what qualities make it so?"
Bartók: "If by abstract music you mean absolute music without program, then, yes. The Suite op. 14 has no folk tunes. It is based entirely on original themes...of my own invention. When this work was composed I had in mind the refining of piano technique, the changing of piano technique, into a more transparent style. A style more of bone and muscle opposing the heavy chordal style of the late, latter romantic period, that is, unessential ornaments like broken chords and other figures are omitted and it is more ... a simpler style."
LeVita: "Dr. Bartók, is there any essential difference between the next number on our program, the First Rondo composed comparably recently in 1932, and your early works?"
Bartók: "Actually the Rondo is of the same period as the Suite you just heard. In its original form they were three separate pieces, all based on Slovakian folk material. Much later in 1932 they were welded together to make one complete movement in rondo form."
LeVita: "Following the First Rondo Mrs. Bartók has two other piano pieces in her group and the first one of course is the Bulgarian Rhythm. The second one of the piano pieces, 'Evening in Transylvania,' suggested it may have been composed with some special situation or event in mind. And I know that your music is never meant to be personal. Can you tell us about it, Dr. Bartók?"
Bartók: "'Evening in Transylvania' is an original composition that is (my) with themes of my own invention but it ... the themes are in the style of the Hungarian-Transylvanian folk tunes. There are two themes. The first one is a parlando rubato rhythm and the second one is more in a dance like rhythm. The second one is more or less the imitation of a peasant flute playing. And the first one, the parlando rubato is an imitation of song: vocal melody. The form of it is ABABA."
Bartók playing Evening in Transylvania:
The outline of sections described by Bartók [A 0:00, B 0:40, A 1:00, B 1:39, A 2:02]
The final exchange with Bartók comes after a noticeable splice. This splice was probably to edit out the performance itself and join the conversations into a continuous interview.
LeVita: "The Mikrokosmos Cycle which Mr. Serly has transcribed for piano and string orchestra is such a vast work. I wonder if you can tell us briefly what it comprises."
Bartók: "The Mikrokosmos is a cycle of 150 and 3 pieces for piano written with didactical purposes. That is to give pieces, piano pieces which can be used from the very beginning and then going on, it is graded according to difficulties. And the word Cosmos may be interpreted, Mikrokosmos may be interpreted as a series of pieces (in) all of a different style that represent a small world. Or it may be interpreted as a world: a musical world for the little ones...for the children."
The interview also contained an exchange between LeVita and Serly that is not included with this audio clip. The question was directed to Bartók but Serly intercepted:
LeVita: "Do you know whether Mr. Serly found it necessary to alter material much in transcription?"
Serly: "Yes Mister. Certainly."
LeVita: "Yes, perhaps Mr. Serly would be the best one to answer that."
Serly: No treatise or text-book has ever been written that so tellingly reveals the story of the development of musical styles as these brief minute microcosmic sketches. These miniature gems illustrate scale structures, chords, modes, forms, rhythms, harmonies, imitations and canons with dazzling ingenuity. Regarding the transcriptions we are to play, I have selected six to illustrate that they are more than mere piano pieces. As is often the case with the musical part, a more expanded treatment brings to the fore many actual and implied inner voices that are not apparent in the original piano form. Naturally, voices have been shifted, contrapuntal parts have been separated into instrumental units and occasional sonorities have been filled out. Otherwise materially nothing has been altered nor has anything been added."