Of all the great modernist composers who shattered the musical consensus in the years before the First World War, Béla Bartók is the most mysterious. He had the lean features of an ascetic, and his frame was as spare and angular as his music. Agatha Fassett, a Hungarian émigré who knew Bartók well in his final sad years in the United States, said that when Bartók made music he seemed absolutely alive; when he stopped playing he seemed to vanish into some silent, private space.
Unlike Stravinsky, who seemed to know absolutely everybody from Charlie Chaplin to Pablo Picasso, Bartók’s circle was narrow. He gravitated towards the Hungarian musicians who championed him, and the Hungarian poets and writers who, like him, were obsessed with finding a true national identity. He was an avowed atheist, insisting that the only immortal part of human beings was the atoms that made up their bodies, yet his passionate attachment to the soil bordered on the mystical. [Read More]