Program Notes: TRIPODS I

TRIPODS I : Bartok in Seattle (1999)

This is the first in a projected series of musical snapshots of composers in unfamiliar situations and circumstances. I have long been a history buff, but not in the conventional sense of the scholar who distances himself from the things he researches by burying himself in the musty libraries of academe. As a travel enthusiast and writer, I have re-traced the footsteps of a number of my composer-subjects in my own travels, particularly during the 18 years that I lived in North America (1981-99).

One such episode of sleuthing originated in Seattle, the last of my American homes (1996-99). In the Archives of the University of Washington was a fascinating folder of correspondence between Professor Carl Paige Wood, an early Director of the University’s School of Music, and the composer Bela Bartok.

The 46-year-old Bartok had made his first visit to Seattle in 1928, when the city itself had barely reached its 60th anniversary. At the time, Bartok was a respected but not particularly well-known pianist and teacher, an unequalled scholar of the folk music of his native Hungary, and generally unrecognized as a composer. He returned to the city 13 years later where he played a piano recital of Bartok-Kodaly.

At that time, in early 1941, Bartok had every reason to be anxious about his future. His appointment as a researcher at Columbia University was temporary and he had refused several offers to teach composition, a discipline he viewed as unteachable. With the onset of War, performances and royalties were drying up. And then, in May 1941, he received a letter from Professor Wood suggesting that the University of Washington could offer him an appointment as visiting lecturer there, affording him the opportunity for research and creative work which might be shared with any advanced students capable of profiting by it.

Bartok responded enthusiastically, particularly as he had already had the chance to speak with Professor Melville Jacobs about the University’s extensive collection of Native American recordings in its Anthropology Department. Perhaps, they thought, mindful of Bartok’s excellent transcriptions of Hungarian and Rumanian music, he could turn his attention to the 25,000 or so recorded examples of this music?

The folder of correspondence makes for sad reading. The Columbia University appointment dragged on longer than anticipated, the War intervened preventing further staff expansion and Bartok’s health began to deteriorate. The handwriting in Bartok’s letters mirror this disintegration: they begin with his immaculate calligraphy and slowly dissolve into a series of barely decipherable scrawls. A nice idea, yes, one that might have saved Bartok for several more decades beyond the age of 64 when he died, virtually penniless, in New York on 26 September 1945.

What if Bartok had transcribed this music, I wondered, would it have given a new direction to American music? But even the most cursory listening to a very few samples of the recorded collection was enough to suggest that, although it would have provided him with physical security for several more years, at least, it may have provided little inspiration for further creative growth, such is the very basic nature of the drum patterns and chants.

So, this little movement imagines what might have happened had Bartok processed some of that music into a work for, say, that very New World combination of instruments – clarinet, violin and piano – which convene in his Contrasts, written for Benny Goodman in 1940. In a sense, the three instruments debate the subject matter and attack the task at hand – Bartok working with two graduate assistants, perhaps.

After a series of false starts, the ensemble examine a series of modal melodies, a heated discussion which yields a cadenza for the clarinet, perhaps the assertive voice of Bartok himself. Then, the drumming begins in the lower registers of the piano, over which we hear a terraced dialogue for the two melody instruments. The discussion ends unresolved.

Further episodes in this series may take George Gershwin to Charleston, S.C., and may follow Dvorak to the wilds of Iowa, and eaves-drop on Ravel as he charms the lunching ladies of Houston.

These pieces were written for and commissioned by the Verdehr Trio and are dedicated to two good friends in Washington, D.C., Mark and Kathleen Carrington. My thanks to all five, patient souls all.

Copyright Vincent Plush – Brisbane, Australia, October 2006