One of the earliest folk music archivists as well as one of the most original composers of the 20th century, Béla Bartók considered the folk melodies of his country’s villages as equal to the greatest works of music coming out of the tradition of Bach and Beethoven. In a similar way, our American countryman, Pete Seeger, spoke out about music of the folk: such “songs are sneaky things. They can slip across borders …Penetrate hard shells…I always believed that the right song at the right moment could change history.” It did for Bartók and for history.
The renowned Takács Quartet and the legendary folk outfit Muzsikás teamed up for a program of compositions by Bartók and a rich selection of folk music from their country for the Celebrity Series of Boston at Jordan Hall on November 16. Also in on this atypical musical offering-lesson-appeared Márta Sebestyén, “skylark,” as she is known in her native country. Some may remember her singing in the movie, The English Patient.
A near sold-out Jordan Hall fixated on Hungarian music. Several of Bartók’s own field recordings were played back. An incredible vocal imitation of the bagpipes was rendered by Sebestyén. There was the “Ballad of the murdered shepherd,” a sad, enchanting melody, conveyed with heart and an instrumental-like voice she says comes from the skylark. In Hungary, when the workers in the fields take a breather, wiping the sweat from their foreheads, notice the bird singing, they say, “What a gift, thank you skylark!”
There were bear and stick dances. Many of the dances came from Transylvania, Moldavia, and Romania. But no matter the where: Bartók only wanted what was pure. These and other folk songs and dances tied into composer’s life were interspersed with his String Quartet No. 4, a sonatina and a set of violin duos. There was the sound of the Takács Quartet and that of Muzsikás, who also presented their music on the citera, koboz, mandolin, long flute, three-stringed bass and gardon-all Hungarian instruments.
What happens when two such potent and opposite forces, the folkish and the artistic, combine? A program note asserts, “juxtaposing Bartók’s compositions with their related folk counterparts… illuminates the connections between Hungary’s most famous composer and the music of its people.” For Bartók, folk music is not merely dressed up in art music; rather, the two breeds bond in a new, distinct voice to capture, on a very real and personal level, the feelings, atmospheres, and rituals of Hungarian life, those of the peasant in particular, the pure, which so appealed to him. The uneven counting of indigenous dance rhythms, the melodies cast in Hungarian scales and the drones, especially bagpipe-like ones, emerge in his highly crafted Central European music mix.
Combine two ensembles, Muzsikás, meaning musicians who play the traditional folk music of Hungary, with the Takács Quartet whose repertoire spreads across European ground on which Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms lived. On Sunday afternoon, the two identities flickered and flashed between folkways and artistic ways.
Who has ever listened to Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4, most of its five movements each followed by a folk song or dance?
What a wondrous time! Borders were crossed. This was a whole new experience, a brand new creation for concertgoers. The nine Hungarians (two of them “honorary,” as pointed out by the MC) transformed this Bartók into “folk-art.” All too often his quartets are delivered with severity-even morbidity, but not here. Takács took each movement into moods that peasants would have taken to. With the arrival of the third, slow movement came a moment of very rare beauty, deep, nearly overwhelming. And there was fun in the fourth movement and rustic ecstasy in the final movement.
The program concluded with Bartók’s most often heard and performed pieces, his Romanian Folk Dances.
For these two hours or so, Hungarian music lit up heart and mind. The experience with Takács Quartet, Muzsikás, Sebestyén, and Bartók was long overdue. Not a graduate seminar by any means, their program led to summits of discovery through the act of showing rather than telling-as Bartók well might have had it. We were at the source. Were only more of our learning such that could, at once, bring joy and be so moving, pure like the skylark, where many of the senses are completely absorbed, naturally. This was an afternoon of and by the Hungarians, at once beautiful, moving, and illuminating.
Appreciation goes to Boston Celebrity Series and to Susan Pravda and Gabor Garai, Honorary Consul General of Hungary, and the Hungarian Society of Massachusetts.
David Patterson, Professor of Music and Chairman of the Department at U. Mass Boston for the past 15 years, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award in Teaching and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. Also a composer, he lives in Watertown.