When a grandiose culture encounters a “lesser” one in its midst, the potential for something remarkable arises. One instance is when a man of the Hungarian minority within the Austro-Hungarian Empire journeyed beyond societal borders into villages in Transylvania. Béla Bartók lugged an Edison cylinder recorder and blank wax rolls to capture sound. Among the Romanians of the zone were Germans, Hungarians, Jews, Gypsies, Huzuls, Greeks, Turks, Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians and others living in harmony foe centuries until World War II split them and forced all to become chattel for insane dictatorships,
On a trek around 1910, Bartók strayed onto a flutist and a few fiddlers. We hear five cylinders among the thousands recoded after he gained the confidence of people who had no idea that such technology existed and relented to sing and play into a mysterious horn without losing their souls.
One single LP of a few cylinder came to the light when UNESCO funded Hungarian ethnomusicologists to preserve and publish their heritage, an action no longer a part of the UN’s agenda. Their editions of regional folk music extended into central Asia, covering Mongols and ethnic groups thriving along the Western route taken by the Magyars some one thousand years ago. Bartók’s research dried up when funding was no longer forthcoming and after a 1936 field trip to Turkey for which he prepared by studying their language, his expeditions ended with exile in New York.
When Bartók’s machine was at home with him, a few waxes were made of his son and relatives.
In 1915 he played the Romanian Folk Dances, composed after having heard the cylinders streaming above that document the first moment when he encountered these dances. The first contains its opening dance upon which a recording is superimposed, perhaps from an earlier trip to Biskra, Algeria. Although it seems like an accident, the pitches and their shapes oddly resemble his Romanian field recording: a serendipitous collage or perhaps an intention aside on stylistic propagation?
(an A440 pitch blown by Bartók at the end was his way of making sure the cylinders would be played back at the correct speed).
The remaining dances of a second cylinder are damaged by gaps in the wax, something now capable of being restored through a digital scanning of the original cylinder. It and many others will languish until the forces that possess such expensive technology awaken to what’s at stake and intervene to preserve all possible before time erodes them further.
Irén Marik (1905 Szölnök-1986 Independence California) had studied with Bartók for some six months, as she explained to me. After she played some of his works to the composer, he commented: “I see you understand it so we’ll work on other composers.”
Friends of Bartók’s that I had located in Budapest in 1984 implied that they had worked together for a good two years. Marik often made practice tapes at home on a 9-foot Steinway grand located in her one-bedroom house off the desert in California’s East Sierras. Her neighbor and companion, the writer Evelyn Eaton, once pulled me aside to hand over a large bag. “Irén throws them out but I always put them aside. Here you are, and make good use of them!” One was an unpublished performance of the Romanian Dances, undated but made c.1974 she was 71 years old. It may be of interest to compare the chain of how Bartók set the tunes like precious jewels and maintained the integrity of the music he captured, and how Marik grasps elements in his own playing.
The Romanian Folk Dances were further devoured when Bartók would perform them as a transcription for violin and piano, recording it with violinist Joseph Szigeti in 1929.
Classical music grows especially when cultures mix. Keeping it reined in creates atrophy and we can witness that when the languages of Bartók and others developed in this way, they end up keeping Western Classical music alive and healthy.
©Allan Evans 2017