Lou's Reviews

Music Review by Lou Wigdor

Folk Virtuosos in Bartók's Footsteps
Muzsikás at New England Conservatory, Boston, MA, February 25, 2002

MuzsikásHearing Hungary’s leading folk chanteuse, Márta Sebestyén, on disc is a good thing. But it is no substitute for the real thing. I own seven or eight of her discs, (most with Hungary’s premier folk group, Muzsikás), and recommend them all. But none of them quite captures the unique, commanding, physicality of her unmiked voice in an intimate gathering. This I learned last February at The Folk Roots of the Music of Béla Bartók, a lecture-demonstration by Muzsikás at the New England Conservatory, in Boston. At 4 in the afternoon, in the company of about forty others, I found myself front row center in a parquet-floored room with neoclassical moldings and a thirty-five foot ceiling. Out sauntered the five informally garbed, middle-age Hungarians, with lead violinist Mihály Sipos on the far left followed by Dániel Hamar on bass, Péter Éri on viola, and László Porteleki on second fiddle. On their heels emerged the diminutive Ms. Sebestyén, who positioned herself in the center of the group, about eight feet in front of me.

Dániel Harmar, who did most of the talking during the two-hour demonstration, explained that shortly after the turn of the 20th century, a young Béla Bartók ( 1881-1945) and his colleague and close personal friend, Zoltán Kodály Bela Bartók and Zoltán Kodály(1882-1967), had helped launch modern ethnomusicology in Hungary. Their mission: to collect, transcribe, analyze, and propagate Hungary’s living folk music* while the getting was still good. The two divided the job geographically, with Kodály beginning in the northeast and Bartók in the southwest. Muzsikás, continued Harmar, would in the next two hours perform material from regions that Bartók had visited, including some music that the composer had collected himself. But the group was no less indebted to Kodály. Today, thanks to both composers’ pioneering work, Muzsikás and other performers and scholars can draw on more than 200,000 field recordings, Harmar noted with gratitude.

Following that prelude, Harmar picked up his bass, and joined by the violins and viola, bowed up a medium-tempo dance--a caradas-that had been collected by Bartók in southern Transylvania (which had belonged to Hungary before the Great War). Then Ms. Sebestyén demonstrated her vocal authority. Emanating predominantly from her throat center, her laser-like voice parted the sea of semi-sweet strings, etching out the song’s leading edge of bitter-sweet emotionality. For its next offering, the ensemble, this time without Ms. Sebestyén and deploying a three-foot vertically held wooden long-flute, launched into a brisk dance that pushed against the outer limits of pitch and rhythm, and built to a furious tempo. Under other circumstances, dancing would have been irresistible.

“We were all born in Budapest,” noted Harmar. “I studied classical piano for 18 years and classical bass for six. I learned to play in a style dominated by German ideas of classical precision and intonation. I had relatives who lived in the villages, but I never heard actual village music until I was twenty,” he confessed. Instead, Harmar like many Hungarian urbanites shared the misconception of Hungarian folk music as either packaged performances by state-run ensembles or polished restaurant fare in the hands of virtuosic Gypsies. Not so Péter Éri and Márta Sebestyén. Eri’s father was a Kodály colleague, who did fieldwork with the composer. Sebestyén’s first contact with the music, she insists, was prenatal. “My mother was a student of Kodály. I truly believe that I absorbed the music when she was pregnant with me in his classes,” she mused.

Béla Bartók’s first exposure was closer to Harmar’s experience. A classical music prodigy in both piano and composition, Bartók grew up in several towns** in eastern and northern Hungary, as close as six miles from traditional villages. “But he didn’t know this music at all,” observed Harmar. Bela Bartók - Studies in EthnomusicologyThat changed dramatically in 1903 when at age 22 Bartók discovered the real thing, sung by a talented maid at the country estate managed by his brother-in-law. Before that, Bartók had embraced the commonly held myth that credited Gypsies as the true progenitors of Hungarian music. (Hungarian village musicians were thought to have learned (and corrupted) everything they knew from the Gypsies.) In 1905, the young pianist/composer met and joined forces with Kodály, then on the threshold of receiving his doctorate from the University of Budapest for a thesis on the stanzaic structure of Hungarian folk songs. Armed with a Edison phonograph, Bartók went into the field in 1906, visiting Slovakian villages (Slovakia was then part of Hungary.) Subsequent fieldwork brought him to Transylvania in 1907 and Romania in 1909. In 1912, he sought out Ruthenian, Serbian, and Bulgarian melodies at their source, and even visited Northern Africa in 1913, where he recorded about 200 Arabic melodies. By and large, the end of the Great War marked the end of Bartók’s field work (Kodály, in contrast, kept at it for decades). But Bartók continued to write books and articles that analyzed the folk songs of Hungary and its neighbors structurally, morphologically and comparatively. (Bartók was emphatic in attributing the origins of Hungarian music to a non-European pentatonic scale and tracing the Magyars’ ancestral origins to the Volga River basin.)

Hungarian folk music was grist and inspiration for Bartók’s own compositions, but it was just as much an end unto itself-a “precious spiritual treasure,” he insisted. Listening to Márta Sebestyén and Muzsikás reveals why. In their hands, the music always conveys a mixed emotionality. It is rarely unilaterally sweet, or despondent, or bitter, but ranges along terrain from sweet-and-sour to bitter-sweet. Nearly every song, regardless of its lyrics, imparts a mixed emotional message-an echo, if you will, of life’s joys and aspirations holding hands with life’s inescapable disappointments and limitations. To convey that effect, Muzsikás and other practitioners employ a variety of Muzsikás - The Bartók Albumdevices: slightly sharped, wavering intonation; marginally unsettling melodic interval leaps; unexpected syncopations; accelerating tempos; and resinous, vinegary timbres.

“The Hungarian source is nearest to me and therefore the strongest,” Bartók wrote to a Romanian folklorist in 1931. That is evident throughout his 40+ years as one of the 20th century’s great composers. Bartók’s compositions include avowedly idiomatic works like the violin duos and the Mikrocosmos piano studies, that preserve the structural integrity of peasant melodies while recasting them in expanded 20th century harmonic and chromatic language. There are creations like the 4th quartet and the final movements of the fifth and sixth quartets that deconstruct and reconstruct folk themes in consistently surprising ways. And there are late-period commissioned pieces like the Concerto for Orchestra and the Violin Concerto that, while lacking sustained folk melodies per se, still retain melodic, rhythmic, and coloristic nuances informed by the Hungarian cultural-spiritual heritage.

Bartók repeatedly railed against the repackaging of Hungarian village music by Gypsies for consumption by bourgeois urbanites. His own music as well has received more than its share of tampering in the urban elitist market -not by Gypsies but by classical music interpreters. As in so many earthly endeavors, there are multiple ways to skin a cat. One is to give the music a waxed-fruit gloss and to pump up anything suggesting nativistic mannerisms. I remember leaving the Kennedy Center reeling one night twenty-five years ago after hearing Hungarian expatriate Eugene Ormandy and his Philadelphia forces treat Bartók’s Divertimento for Orchestra to--the Philadelphia Cream Cheese Sound. A very different strategy is to imbue the music with vampirizing precision, by obsessing on the score while neglecting the music’s roots and soul. That isn’t to say that classical musicians should play like Hungarian peasants, but why not at least strive to find a stillpoint where the music can breathe on its own terms? For a recorded performance that gets it right, I recommend a new cd of Bartók’s 44 violin duos (ECM) by violinists András Keller and János Pilz of Hungary’s Keller Quartet. Their restraint, finesse, and technical mastery consistently allow the music to resonate on its own spiritual terms.

Ms. Sebestyén and Muzsikás cut their folk music teeth in Hungary’s Táncház movement of the 1970s. Taking its name from the traditional village dancehouse, it brought the roots music of the villages to Budapest and other cities and blossomed as a borderline subversive alternative to “official” state-run folkloric ensembles. The Táncház movement combined several key attributes: audiences dominated by urban professionals attended events to dance as well as listen; and scholars and performers traveled to the villages to learn the music and instruments at their source (including at times precarious jaunts over the Transylvanian border into Ceaucescu’s Romania.) Harmer, for one, learned the virtues of playing a short-bowed three-string bass. “How did I learn? A villager just moved my hands holding the instrument and bow,” he explained. The shorter bow strokes become increasingly merciful, he noted, when you’ve been playing a wedding party that begins on Sunday afternoon and runs late into Monday morning.

Ms. Sebestyén also sought out instruction at its source. Vocal music, she explained, is considered more demanding, more nuanced, than its instrumental counterpart. “Early on, I visited ladies in the villages, who sang with great intimacy,” she recalled. “When I asked them, Would you sing for me?, they repeatedly turned me down. Once I asked this old guy, who responded: “Why the hell should I sing for you; I’m not in the mood. I don’t have anything to drink.” Ms. Sebestyén’s persistence and passion paid off. She absorbed the styles and spirit of the best singers of the day. And she met an elderly woman from Moldavia, whose singing twenty-five years earlier had moved Ms. Sebestyén so profoundly that she has honored that voice in her own singing ever since. “I had to wait twenty-five years to meet her. When I did, I confessed secretly that she was my master,” revealed Sebestyén. But this humblest of folk divas remains grateful to all the villagers who have helped shape her art. “Whenever I sing, they’re in my mind. They helped me to understand that folk music has an instant power and beauty that is beyond language.”

“At village wedding parties, the fiddler was crucial,” noted Harmar. “He knew every villager’s favorite melody and he made sure that everyone got his due. At the same time, the musicians always improvised. It was the tradition.” Improvisation was in deft hands during the two-hour demonstration, particularly in the nimble fingers of lead violinist, Mihály Sipos, who played with passion and inventiveness, at times leading the others into increasingly accelerated tempos.

In their repertoire, Muzsikás shadowed Bartók the ethnologist on some of his more intriguing stops. From the East Carpathians, Sipos and Harmar performed a slow, percussive dance melody propelled by Harmar’s regular bow-slaps on the gardon, a four- stringed (all tuned to d below middle c) medieval member of the cello family that resonated like a drum. And the Hungarians played a dance from Romania’s Marmaros region, once home to an indigenous Jewish culture, visited and honored by Bartók in one of his 44 violin duos. “When we tried to do our own collecting in the Marmaros region, we came up empty handed. Everyone had been murdered in the Holocaust,” Harmar lamented. “What music we learned of the Marmaros was all second-hand from Gypsies.” Earlier, Muzikas had played one of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, which the composer had distilled for piano and his collaborator, Zoltán Szckely, had arranged for violin and piano. Recalling Bartók’s own recordedMárta Sebestyén performance of some of the dances with violinist Joseph Szigetti, Harmer commented, “You could tell from his piano passage that Bartók was hearing the flute. We will play the dance as Bartók would have heard it in the field.”

Ms. Sebestyén’s final offering-a plaintive shepherd song-underscored Bartók’s spiritual attribution of the music. Singing a cappella, she conveyed a lilting melody that wore innocence and vulnerability on its sleeve. Woven into the song’s fabric was a wistful sadness that seemed to reflect the limitations of the human life cycle itself. Then, with her singing done, she reached for a two-hole Moldavian flute, and offered up a delicate coda that perfectly mirrored the vulnerability and restraint of its vocal predecessor. It was all transparency of ego and genuineness of soul-a memorable lesson at the New England Conservatory that afternoon.

* This article uses folk music, village music, and peasant music interchangeably.
** In his early teens, Bartók and his family moved to the Slovakian city of Pozony (then part of Hungary), which is today Bratislava in Slovakia.
Many thanks to Amherst College music professor David Schneider for his close reading and critique of this essay.


©2002 by Lou Wigdor.  

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