Hidden Gems - The Music of Bela Bartok | Mechanics' Institute

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Hidden Gems - The Music of Bela Bartok

In the 1920s, when he was in his 40s, no less, Bela Bartok and a friend carried a reel to reel tape recorder, and big heavy batteries to power it, into the Carpathian Mountains! Among the first of what we now call ethnomusicologists, Bartok recorded Hungarian peasants playing their traditional instruments and singing songs passed down through generations. Whenever I think of what Bartok accomplished, a line from an old Jane Sibbery song, The Empty City, runs through my head: 

Because if no one gets this down -- then it's gone forever. 

Bartok saved an enormous body of music from loss through industrialization and modernity. Because the people creating the music were not educated in a music conservatory, they also did not have the limits a formal education could impose. What we called "modern" in the 20th century -- dissonance, atypical rhythms and meters, deviations from the Western standard diatonic scale -- we can hear in Bartok's music, inspired by and borrowed from the music that Bartok recorded on that heavy, cumbersome reel-to-reel tape recorder in the 1920s. He did similar research in Turkey in the 1930s and later worked at Columbia University Libraries with his wife classifying Serbian and Croatian folk music. 

Bartok immigrated to the United States in 1940, having antagonized the Hungarian government with his outspoken anti-fascist views. In the last 5 years of his life, his music did not enjoy much popularity, although he did earn some money from concerts. He died of leukemia in 1945. 

In the 1950s, another Hungarian-American, the comedian Ernie Kovacs, in an episode of his innovative television show, staged a wordless New York City street scene to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. This segment, so unusual and wonderful, came out of that period of television programming in which brilliant people explored the possibilities of the new medium.  

Ernie Kovacs' Street Scene / Béla Bartók "Concerto for Orchestra"

In the 21st century, Bartok's music continues to appear on concert programs and new recordings and interpretations of his works have come out on CD and on classical music streaming services. Mechanics Institute Library has 13 Music CDs of Bartok's compositions.

Posted on May. 17, 2023 by Steven Dunlap