This edition of my blog comes on the heels of two performances with the Symphony Orchestra of India, and my apologies to readers if its content is more relevant to musicians – but having promised to write on whatever is in my head at the time of writing, these sentiments can’t exactly be switched off. At any rate, it might be a good thing to look back on. On the 26th September, 1945 the great Hungarian composer Béla Bartók succumbed to secondary polycythemia – a complication of Leukemia. This 26th September was the 70th anniversary of his death – and I had the very great privilege of marking this anniversary in a very special way. I was in the enviable position of being able to conduct perhaps his greatest work – the Concerto for Orchestra – with the Symphony Orchestra of India. Also, on the program was Zakir Hussain’s brand spanking new Tabla Concerto which was world premiered the evening before, a piece for which I wrote substantially in my August blog. More on that later, but suffice it to say, we have a great work that’s just joined international repertoire, and I’m very honoured to have been a co-deliverer of this great piece along with Zakir Hussain the orchestra.
It was a particularly poignant moment to make something of this Bartók anniversary. As I have noted, this is the 70th death anniversary of anyone who perished in the last year of World War II – which include the atomic explosions over Japan, so 1945 took a lot of lives and Bartók is clearly not alone in our remembrances. But, all musicians realize that the last 70 years of music would have been poorer and less well articulated without his tutelage. I have long revered the great maestri Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Ferenc Fricsay, Eugene Ormandy and Georg Solti. All of them would have been just that bit a little less informed and less constructed, had their great teacher not interacted with them and left his insoluble mark. Last night (26th September) from the podium we were able to dedicate our performance back to his memory – in gratitude and reverence.
When placing a score on review in the months prior to a performance, one searches for the strength of the piece – that performers might derive that strength in playing and then transmit that strength to the listener. We owe the composer that process…that much at least! After the usual memory of great structural moments and caveats from previous performances had sunk into my processes, I began to search for more – taken forward by the story of the commission that everyone knows so well. In brief, Bartók had left for the United States in 1940, strongly opposed to the fascism that was sweeping through Europe. He had cancelled all engagements in Germany in protest of the Nazi regime and found his way to New York. He brought with him the beginnings of his struggle with cancer, which had started as a pain in the shoulder and remained misdiagnosed even after medical consultation. Bartók – the great pianist – could not find teaching assignments leave alone concert performances and by 1943 found himself in a hospital bed struggling with death – and almost certain to give way to illness or depression or both. If this had occurred, Bartók’s last piece would have been his sixth quartet written in Budapest in 1939, we would not have known his great concerto for orchestra, the third piano concerto or the relevant sketches for the great viola concerto. He would also have left less of a mark on the standard concert repertoire and it is entirely possible that I would not be writing this blog or offering remembrance as I did last night. At any rate, the great violinist Szigeti – with whom Bartók had collaborated on many occasions – joined in a pact with compatriot Fritz Reiner to save the moment as best they knew how. They approached Dr. Serge Koussevitsky – Music Director of the Boston Symphony – and asked if he might help, which he did, offering Bartók a cheque for one thousand dollars (c. $13,000/- inflation adjusted) at his hospital bedside to write a grand piece for orchestra. And so we have the Concerto for Orchestra.
I started to wonder what that might have been like. Imagine it, damn near dead of Leukemia, – which in whatever way one slices the cake, can’t be pleasant – and then having this prominent musician come to you in your very private delirium and offer you the chance to write a great orchestra piece. What would you think? Why didn’t you give me this chance in 1940 when I first arrived and was fit enough? Why now? I started to search for clues in the music that might relate to this extraordinary feeling the way I’m describing it to you now – and I was amazed at what the score revealed.
A quick aside on two areas of interest before I explain what I discovered. Bartók, it is well known, was interested in numerology and though hotly debated as to how much, and in what way, – there is no doubt that it resonates. Somewhere in the Hungarian psyche whether mystical, from the earth or from the sky, all the great Hungarian musicians have a close bond with numerical structure, the precision of rhythmic measure and the impelling force of an internal energy found in music once the living pulse has been correctly gauged. We see this in the conducting and rehearsing habits of Solti, Reiner, Szell and Fricsay to an obsessive level, and it’s what makes their music making so vibrant and compelling. We see this in the music of Kodály or Bartók – and we can hear it in the great music making of a cellist like Janós Starker, with whose style I was familiar in my Indiana University days in the late 1980’s. It is unmistakable.
Now to the numerology – at least as I have understood it. The number three represents perfection. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It represents completeness or spherical harmony. Without bringing too much theological notion into it, if you “thrice times thrice” something, as happens in the Bible -you emphasize it with an irreversible judgement. The number two represents imperfection, by being one less than perfection – or rather falling a measure short of perfection and therefore creating imperfection. Thrice times thrice perfection is 999 – the number one might assign to ultimate good. Thrice times thrice imperfection is 666 – the number one assigns to ultimate evil, – that’s where it comes from. It is said that the number assigned to man is the number 7. It is two parts imperfect and one part perfect. The two parts imperfection are as a result of our physical frailty and existence in our ‘mortal coil’ and one part perfection is supposedly present in our mental and spiritual connections that take us beyond the rest of our animal brethren. (Though I think it’s a bit rich to just assume that we are the only evolved beneficiaries of psychosis.)
We are also familiar with the great Fibonacci sequence and its mathematical and graphic account of natural growth, life and evolution. The numbers 220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168…and so on create a ‘golden’ harmony in understanding the spiral of a sea shell, or the proportions of rose petals. It is, of course, not rare to find the beauty of mathematics go hand and hand with the beauty of nature, but perhaps that’s exactly my point about these great Hungarian musicians bringing something taut, precise and numerical whilst unlocking the secrets of natural music making. Let us assume that all this is correct for my hypothesis, and then the score of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra starts leaping off the page. This blog is intended in part for my musician colleagues who might find it easier to follow in detail. I hope that readers who are not musicians might still hold some fascination for all this, as powerful as the subject matter.
Imagine, that you are half dead from Leukemia and you must find a path to write your way to wellness. The one noticeable element – lying back in your hospital bed must be the human frailty, which is symbolized by the two parts imperfection creating the number 4. The interval of the fourth throughout the Concerto for Orchestra is so overbearingly present that it is almost as if Bartók is reminding all of us of the pervasive ‘dead end’ our human frailty will eventually yield. Nevertheless, he tries to get out of bed, on uncertain feet, treading in fourths. Then, as is common with this specific illness, he has a short bout of fever. The C sharp of the celli and the double basses is met with the C natural of the first violins making it instantly apparent – as fevers do – that something is not quite right. The fever spreads like an infection through the second violins and the viola and then disappears almost as soon as it came. Exhausted and worn out, the synaptic sparks of the fevered mind are brilliantly shot off by the flute – coming out of the fever as it does with a repeated ‘zinging’ in one’s brain. Anyone who has had a fever, can not only hear this in the introduction of the piece, but can see it on the page, without needing to know how to read music. Then the steps to get out of bed start again, in fourths, but succumb to another short bout of fever, in the same manner, the mind shooting its exhausted remnants of delirium to one extra note. Then comes a period of physical stepping (again in fourths) with greater strength without the attending fever and as consciousness returns, the mind conjures a melody in the flute that is partly clear thought, partly delirium, partly dream and partly faltering. As is common with this stage of the illness, there is shortness of breath and the flute solo collapses back into silence. These first conscious thoughts are translated to the trumpets, while the stepping in the strings is more illusory than terra firma. Then follows a musical motif so filled with pain, illness and struggle. A terminally ill man, knowing that he is ill, now alert and conscious to feel every mental and physical anguish that wracks his body. I’m certain, those who know this work, or are coming to it for the first time, might hear and see in this introduction what I have described. To boot, the whole thing is reverse Fibonacci. The bars at the beginning marked by faltering steps and fever are 21 in number. There are 8 bars of the steps that come with greater strength followed by 5 bars of mental delirium from the flute – making a total of 13. The reversal of the Fibonacci sequence and the symbolic diminishing towards death, as opposed to the growth towards life is terrifyingly obvious, and clearly audible in the flute solo at the end of the fourth movement. I cannot be sure that these were all intended calculations by Bartók, but I’m astounded to see them in such clarity.
The interval of the fourth is never far away. The first time it is given forte to the horns, is in a strange and ‘out of place’ bar marked ‘molto ritenuto’. I always thought the perfunctory slight slowing of the 3/8 tempo just missed the whole point. Given the rhythmical tautness of this movement, that one bar should be played in a way that gives each note a whole measure to speak, – in other words a single bar that lasts for the duration of 3 bars. This not only satisfactorily underlines the importance of the interval of the fourth, satisfies Bartók’s marking ‘molto ritenuto’ but satisfies as a firm precursor of the fanfare that is to come, so solidly measured as to defy objection. The other readings don’t. Similarly, in the second movement there is a notable moment for the clarinets where the marking ‘pochissimo ritenuto’ is placed over a quintuplet. Players should first take into account the important, all pervading leap of the fourth perhaps giving ‘tenuto’ importance to the first two notes and finish the quintuplet flourish with a triplet that matches the accompaniment in the Seconds and the Violas. If Bartók wanted the quintuplet played precisely then why mark ‘poch. rit’.
The number seven appears and reappears, reasserting or questioning a life force. The downward energized groups of seven notes in the third movement are in stark contrast to the upward moving group of seven in the opening horn motif of the last movement. The ‘life assertion’ as Bartók intends is so strong and so daring in this last movement, as if to conquer death. It is also singularly his music, and not written for anyone else’s tastes. There is genuine Bartók unfettered by the European avant-garde that had been left behind. This is certainly part of the work’s strong appeal, and lasts into the other two concerti that follow. I suppose one needs that sort of thought process to write feverishly for 53 days and complete a grand arch. It is not dissimilar to the three week outpourings of Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ or Handel’s ‘Messiah’ or for that matter the Hussain concerto, which it was revealed, had a real gestation period of about three weeks. Everything is possible when the muse sits beside you – and everything else in life seems to get better along with it.
I have been completely absorbed by these thoughts, and it has made my experience of sharing and realizing the music with the orchestra that much more special. There are those who say that conductors shouldn’t talk to orchestras during rehearsals, and that players simply want to know the nuts and bolts and couldn’t care less about larger philosophies. This jaded view of life on the platform is perhaps partially true and I agree that large scale pontification from the podium doesn’t fix the sound – but there was quite an extraordinary difference in the quality of the opening, once this information was shared. I took a chance and I think it was for the better.
There are so many other small bits of interest that have occupied my mind in bringing this fascinating score to life that one could continue to write endlessly. I hope this has been of some interest. To my wonderful orchestral colleagues at the Symphony Orchestra of India, I am grateful for their patience with me.