Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Béla Bartók’s American Exile

Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and his second wife, the pianist Ditta Pásztory (1903-1982), photographed in New York City circa 1942
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and his second wife, the pianist Ditta Pásztory (1903-1982), photographed in New York City circa 1942

We mark the death on September 26, 1945 – 77 years ago today – of the pianist, composer, and Hungarian patriot Béla Bartók. Born in what was then the Hungarian town of Nagyszentmiklós(now Sînnicolau Mare in Romania) on March 25, 1881, Bartók died – during what he called his “comfortable exile” – in New York City.

Before moving on to Bartók’s “American Exile”, let’s establish –as we can from our vantage point in 2022 – his creds as a great and influential twentieth century composer!

In 1961, 16 years after Bartók’s death, Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) – composer, conductor, and, in the words of his teacher Olivier Messiaen, the great insufferable one – wrote this about Bartók’s music:

“The pieces most applauded are the least good; his best products are loved in their weaker aspects. His work triumphs now through its ambiguity. Ambiguity that will surely bring him insults during future evaluation. His work has not the profound unity and novelty of Webern’s or the vigorous controlled dynamism of Stravinsky’s. His language lacks interior coherence. His name will live on in the limited ensemble of his chamber music.” 

Boulez was not just wrong; he was snotty wrong

But the degree of his “wrongness” has only became apparent in time.

You see, Boulez and the modernist community he spoke for rejected Bartók’s music because they believed he had copped out, that he had squandered his potential as a compositional radical by employing elements of folk-music, tonality, dance rhythms, and Classical era forms to create a body of music that was on occasion – heaven forbid – viscerally exciting, and, even worse, accessible: music that employed such dreary and tired things as recognizable thematic melodies and was “expressive” in an unabashedly Romantic sense. (In direct response to Stravinsky’s assertion that music, in itself, “is powerless to express anything”, Bartók wrote:

“I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing.”) 

The post-World War Two modernists considered Bartók to be a dinosaur, an evolutionary dead-end, a Romantic nationalist holdover who composed music during the first half of the twentieth century that was irredeemably irrelevant to the second half of the twentieth century.

Thankfully, we here in the twenty-first century know better. And it’s not just the fact that it is once again okay for “concert” music to be fun to listen to; or the fact that from a purely technical point of view, Bartók was one of the most accomplished composers ever to put pencil to paper. No, what truly makes Bartók a composer for the twenty-first century is the degree to which his music represents a synthesis nearly global in scope. His is a compositional language of purposeful diversity integrated into a singular and singularly personal musical language. Bartok’s music offers a model for one of the most pressing issues-slash-questions facing composers today: in an increasingly global culture, in which “diversity” and “variety” are not just buzzwords but real cultural descriptors, how might a composer go about incorporating and reconciling some aspects of that diversity into an integrated and personalized musical language? …

Continue reading, and listen ad-free, only on Patreon!

Become a Patron!

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now