Saturday, July 19, 2008


Béla Bartók

Here’s a story I related in a comment on Bill Irwin’s blog, which I thought I’d repeat here.

Back in the mid‘80s, when I lived in the D.C. area, a friend and I used to have subscription tickets to the National Symphony Orchestra. One time, an old friend of his was visiting, and we were all going to see the NSO play Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a favourite of mine. The friend told of the first time he’d heard that piece:

He was a teen, and his family was listening to the radio. On came a piece of music that they didn’t know, but that they thought was just horrible. Noise, nonsense, cacophonic garbage! The radio station didn’t announce the name, but only said that it was Bartók. Thereafter, whenever they heard music they didn’t like, his family would say, “Oh, it must be Bartók,” and he pronounced it, in his Boston accent, as “BAH-tawk”.

He later grew to like the piece — clearly, since he was going with us on purpose to see it played — but “Bartók” remained a “family word” for modern music that they didn’t like.

My first exposure to Bartók was through the art-rock trio Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. I got ELP’s first, self-titled album on a discount rack in 1971, and fell in love with it immediately. It was only later that I knew how much “classical” music they included in their oeuvre. It was more obvious when they put out a whole record of their rendition of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and when they included Copland and a variation on Ravel on their Trilogy album.

But I only later learned that The Barbarian, on their first album, was a cover of Bartók’s Allegro Barbaro, and that Knife Edge gets its main theme from Janáček’s Sinfonietta (giving me my first exposure to Janáček, as well).


Laurie said...

That is the second time in two days that I've seen Emerson, Lake, and Palmer mentioned. The other was by the originator of the group Are you experienced? Ages 40 and over on the Atheist Nexus site.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Bartók is shorthand for modern-music-I-hate for me, too.

My mother once remarked of the musicians, "You can see they're working hard and playing it well; what I can't tell is why they're bothering."

Each to his own, though!