In the yard outside the Bela Bartok Memorial House is a statue of the famous composer. And comfortingly he has his clothes on. Why would that be a surprise? A couple of years ago in the Hungarian Quarterly, pianist Elizabeth Klein, a student of Bartok’s in the 30’s gave an interview in which she told the following anecdote: “However, in his (Bartok’s) personal life he was somewhat unusual. When he lived on the Hill of Roses in Buda, a neighbor asked him to give his two boys piano lessons. Bartók was not keen so he passed them over to me. They were in their mid- to late teens and not really interested, so disciplining them was difficult, especially since I was not much older than they. On one occasion the elder boy kept looking out of the window and motioning me to join him. There was Bartók and his family completely naked, a not infrequent circumstance that caused bad relations with his neighbors. The police were summoned, but Bartók talked his way out of it and continued as before.”
Bartok with or without his clothes on was not to be taken lightly, he was a serious man. That statue of Bartok in the yard has him with his back turned to the viewer. Bartok was that kind of man, a visionary with his own singular, unique style, who did not suffer fools or for that matter anything artificial or esoteric. Bartok looks the type who would have thought likability a vice. His gaze burns with an intensity that seems at best arrogant, at worst unhinged.
Genius has been likened to madness, but looking at photo after photo of Bartok with his deep, penetrating stare, I felt his genius was informed more by a perpetual edginess. Perhaps it was the tension between his arrogance and edginess that produced sounds that changed the world of classical music. His style, incorporating Hungarian folk melodies, was not so much about beauty, but instead purity. The singular pursuit of that purity meant Bartok had to maintain a troubling intensity. This created a record of work that is spoken of with reverence, but outside of classical music circles is rarely, if ever listened to. The question today is not so much whether anybody is listening, but rather would Bartok really care if they were? My guess is he would not.