A Troubling Intensity – Bela Bartok: Bare & Naked

Anyone can walk around outside without their clothes on, but hardly anyone ever does. Bela Bartok did. On the lawn outside the Bela Bartok Memorial House in Buda stands a statue of the famous Hungarian 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 1930’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.” Why did Bartok feel the need to stand naked on his lawn? No one will ever really know. This was a man of great complexity, intensity and difficulty, a man who committed his life to the service of the musical arts. He cared less about what other people thought of him.

Bela Bartok statue at the Memorial House in Buda

With his back to the world – Bartok statue at the Memorial House in Buda

Incredible Gifts & Incredible Hardships – The Cultivation of Genius
Bela Bartok with or without his clothes was not to be taken lightly, he was a serious man. He was also an eccentric man. How could it have been otherwise? Bartok was a child prodigy, a boy genius whose musical talent grew with age and cultivation. Today Bartok is remembered for his many musical achievements, but so often overlooked are his early, formative years. Long before he became one of the greatest composers of all time, Bartok was a little boy with amazing talents. These gifts began to manifest themselves before he could even speak. His mother Paula, noticed that her toddler could discern the different dance rhythms she played on the piano. At the tender age of four, the young boy showed his own talent for playing the piano as he was able to play no less than forty different pieces. While most children were learning the alphabet, Bela Bartok was recreating sounds and melodies beyond the ability of most adults.

The young Bela Bartok

The young Bela Bartok – a musical genius right from the start

Despite these gifts or perhaps because of them he was also a sickly child. This is something that the young Bartok has in common with many an artistic prodigy. He was plagued by eczema, a sickness that caused chronic skin rashes to break out across different parts of his body. The illness is caused by a dysfunction between the skin and nervous systems. There is little doubt that Bartok had an extremely sensitive nervous system, this was both a detriment and an asset. These sensitivities helped infuse his later musical compositions with passion. Eczema was not the only hardship Bartok would suffer at an early age. When he was just seven years old his father suddenly died. The elder Bartok had been the family breadwinner, working as the director of an agriculture school. His death led the family to journey far from their lost cocoon of security and familiarity. Bela was now to be raised solely by his mother, a teacher who fortunately recognized her son’s other worldly musical talent.

The family moved from Nagyszentmiklos (present-day Sannicolau Mare, Romania) to Nagyszolos (Vinogradiv, Ukraine). It was in the latter that Bartok first performed publicly at the age of eleven. The performance included an original composition. Soon thereafter, another move brought the Bartok’s to Poszony (Bratislava, Slovakia). It is interesting to note that during Bartok’s formative years he lived in three different places that would end up just outside the borders of post-World War I Hungary. Each of these areas was home to multiple ethnic groups. By the time Bela Bartok was a teenager he had lived among Swabian Germans, Serbs, Romanians, Ruthenians (Ukrainians) and Slovaks. He would have come into contact with their languages, songs and customs. Whether consciously or sub-consciously the impressions these groups made on him had a lasting effect. To the point, where in his mid-20’s Bartok would join another famous Hungarian composer, Zoltan Kodaly to travel far afield in Hungary to record the peasant songs of these Kingdom’s many different ethnic groups. One of many experiences from Bartok’s youth that shaped his character, music and beliefs.

Bela Bartok in 1927

A Gaze of Intensity – Bela Bartok at the height of his powers in 1927

A Perpetual Edginess – Bartok With His Back To The World
Perhaps Bartok’s youthful experiences led to his eccentricities and above all to his seriousness. Disease, death and upheaval were all part of the defining events that made the boy into a man capable of magical musicianship, but they also shaped and warped a complex personality that was difficult, even at the best of times. Bartok was a visionary with his own singular, unique style, who did not suffer fools or for that matter anything artificial or esoteric. This persona is exemplified by the statue of Bartok at the Memorial House in Buda. It is positioned so Bartok has his back turned to the viewer. His face contains a gaze that burns with a troubling intensity, genius infused with a perpetual edginess. This stare must have been his protection against the world and also a reaction to it.

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