I know practically all of Bartók’s orchestral works, including his ballet and his opera. But I still don’t feel like an authority on his music and am not able to give you a profound analysis of his works. I will leave that to the musicologists. Instead, I will give you a few glimpses of his life and a few personal impressions, which might be even more interesting since you can’t find them in books.
Bartók lived in Budapest and I in Vienna, so we saw each other only when he came to Vienna, which was always a short visit. But when he was there, I was practically his only guide. He always notified me when he came. I waited at the station and we took a cab to his hotel. Bartók was simplicity itself. He didn’t like fancy hotels. On the contrary, he would stay at an old cheap hotel on the Wiedner Hauptstrasse; but he didn’t care. It was near the Musikvereinsaal (the concert hall) and to the Radio, where he performed.
The conductor of the Vienna Radio, Mr. Kabaska, wanted to meet him. I suggested seeing him either at the hotel or in my home; but Bartók refused and preferred to meet him at a Kaffeehaus, which is a kind of cafeteria where you can sit for hours. Bartók smoked; and I will never forget when he pulled out his old, beaten up metal cigarette container, refusing Mr. Kabaska’s cigarettes offered from a golden tabatière.
Two other memories come to mind. Bartók taught one summer at the Austrian- American summer school at Mondsee. This was a summer resort; and classes were held in a big castle of an Austrian count, who rented it to the school. A lady was much too anxious to meet Bartók, so he escaped to the other end of the hall, hiding behind a davenport until the lady left. Later, I accompanied Bartók to his quarters, and my admiration for him only grew when I saw the simple, poorly furnished room where he lived. In front of the window was a big table. Matter of factly, he pointed to the score on the table and said, “I am in the middle of my second violin concerto.”
I knew that in his early years, Richard Strauss’ music made a tremendous impression on Bartók, especially Zarathustra. You can imagine my surprise when I sat next to him at Maggio Musicale in Florence and they played Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. Through the whole piece, Bartók made loud remarks like: “I don’t like this music, not at all, not one bar interests me,” etc., but so loudly that I was afraid we would be kicked out at any moment. And by the way, Richard Strauss sat above us in a box about 30 feet away.
He liked simple Hungarian food, so my mother cooked him goulash, almost without spices. During the meal, I mentioned that I had sometimes digestive troubles. Very few people know that Bartók was an expert in this matter too. Anyway, he gave me valuable advice regarding food and especially how to conserve the acid we need for digestion.
I didn’t understand Bartók’s music at that time as well as I do today; but even more than his music, I admired his honesty, his unsophisticated human simplicity, and his uncompromising character. A man who dares to write to the aristocratic president of the Hungarian Royal Academy when elected as a member “I don’t want to be a member of your reactionary society, not in my life, not in my death” is for me a strong man who acts on his conscience.
They say his piano playing was cold. I would rather say it was classical, objective, and absolutely true to the score.
Bartók spoke several languages, but he spoke from the heart when he spoke or wrote in Hungarian. I quote from his last letter to me, written July 1, 1945, just about when the war ended and shortly before his untimely death. The letter is a sad one. It speaks about conditions in Hungary after the war. “From Hungary I get extremely depressing news about tremendous destruction, famine, and menacing chaos…. As I see it, we can’t even think of going home. No transportation, no Russian visa…. God knows how long it will take until the country can in some way pull itself together, and how much I would like to go home, but forever.”