Saturday, June 19, 2010

Béla Bartók through Agatha Fassett

“I'd like to play something for you if you'll tell me what you want to hear.”

Overwhelmed by a violent attack of my old diffidence, I sank into one of the chairs and managed to say, “Oh, anything—-thank you—-anything at all. Whatever you please.”

But Bartók still waited, and neither moved nor spoke. Finally Ditta broke the long silence. “Something of Bartók, perhaps?” she murmured, trying to help me out.

“Oh, yes, please! By all means!” I said quickly.

“But exactly what?” Bartók insisted, resting his hands on the keys as he waited for an answer. “Give me your choice.”

There was another silence, and I realized that I was not going to be spared the ordeal of deciding.

“Allegro barbaro.” I said the first thing that came into my mind.

“Why Allegro barbaro?” He looked at me sternly, leaving no doubt that mine was a particularly unfortunate request. “Do you think it's such an outstanding composition?”

“Why, of course.”

“You do?” he asked......”
Agatha Fassett’s book on Bartók, from which this passage is drawn, is a wonderful account of his personality, and a source of many colorful anecdotes. It allows us one angle toward knowing what he was like as a person. the book provides a context for us to humanize the distinctions that articulated his musical style.

Fassett helped Béla and his wife Ditta find a suitable rental in Riverdale, and invited them to her summer home in Riverton, Vermont. She wrote a book in 1958 about the experience called "The Naked Face of Genius: Béla Bartók's American Years." The book was reprinted by Dover publications in 1970 renamed "Béla Bartók; The American Years."

The book is filled with delightful recollections. "The episodes the author recounts are concerned mainly with little things," wrote Bartók biographer Halsey Stevens in a book review. "Food, cats, house hunting, radios, toadstools, Proust--and one finishes by seeming an intimate of the Bartók household."

We are in the middle of one of these anecdotes. In it, Bartók is relaxed and has offered to play for Agatha. She chose his famous early work "Allegro barbaro:"

“All right then,” he said flatly, “here is Allegro barbaro. But I want you to understand that it represents a period I left behind me long ago, so if you find it somewhat mechanical, remember that I warned you.”

This was a remark from his own private world of fine distinctions, where each solution of a creative problem was a progressive gain over the last one of even a day before. But this distinction, however, failed to register in me as he brought the piano to life with a fire that seemed to kindle the entire house into a blaze of rhythm, consuming away all the excitements and tensions of the day. Bartók, playing his own music, was a demonstration of the absolute values in which and for which he
lived.”

“At other times I was able to remember this experience, and remind myself that the very intensity that was such an alive force in his music presented itself in every other layer of his life and set him far apart from everyone else I knew. It was his genius and his misfortune that he was incapable of triviality in even the most trivial circumstances. This was a discovery that held me completely as I was listening to him play the Allegro barbaro that afternoon.”

As often as quotations from this book spice the Bartók literature it is just as often smashed. Hamish Milne described the book as "disconcertingly novelettish" and claimed that Agatha Illés wrote it under a pseudonym. Illés was her maiden name. But this person who told us so much about Bartók's personality is someone about whom very little is known. It would be wonderful to have more of the biographical details of her life made available.

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