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Schooled in Bartók

This week our dear friends Dr. William Doyle (Bill) and his wife Wendy Stockstill have come to visit from Southern California. Bill is a music professor, and Wendy teaches art history at the college level, and we’re just having the best time perusing the museums with experts in the fields of music and art. The first museum we visited in Budapest was the Béla Bartók Memorial House. Bill did his dissertation on Bartók, so visiting the museum with him was like having a personal tour guide. Bill explained that Bartók (1881-1945) is considered one of the greatest geniuses of Hungarian music (the other being Franz Liszt). He composed music with more dissident sounds than traditional classical music, and in so doing introduced the world to the beginnings of contemporary music. Today, his piano music is one of the basics for any beginning piano student pursuing classical studies. His Mikrokosmos is a series of beginning piano pieces that are truly delightful for children, as the pieces progressively grow more difficult. (Listen to a sample below.)

Béla Bartók's desk at his namesake Memorial House in Budapest. Note the gramophone, which he used to record Hungarian folk music in the countryside.

Bartók was also very proud of his nationality, traveling to the Hungarian countryside with a gramophone to record the regional folk music. Back at home in Budapest—which is now the site of the memorial museum—Bartók took to rearranging the music in such a way that it became something new without losing its uniquely Hungarian flavor. Bill explained that the process was not unlike taking the words of a language and composing them in such a way that it becomes a new story, basically using familiar vocabulary but in a fresh arrangement.

The memorial museum is outfitted with the original furnishings from when Bartók and his family lived in the house during the 1930s. It also includes many of his personal effects, such as photographs, letters, and items from various collections, which include insects, sea shells, dried flowers, and gems and minerals.

The museum is located way off the beaten path in an upscale residential neighborhood on the Buda side of town. We all enjoy moving our legs, but we elected to take a taxi instead of walking an hour and 20 minutes from the Margaret Bridge on the Pest side. It’s well worth the visit for any music lover. When selecting a home, Bartók insisted on the greatest possible quietness situated within “healthy” neighborhood. His requirements are still present today. Steps to the home lead though a lush garden with trees that provide cool shade in the summer. Inside, guests are greeted by a docent who will walk you through the house, pointing out select items along the tour, say, a certain piece of furniture, like the desk in Bartók’s study where he composed some of his music, or the black and white photo of him sitting cross-legged on the floor and wearing a pair of sandals. My only complaint about the house is that there are none of Bartók’s compositions playing in the background. I imagine Bartók himself would be thrilled by the unadulterated silence of the memorial house. I, however, am thrilled that the memorial house hosts small 120-seat concerts during the spring and summer (check website for dates, times, and prices). Entrance is 1,000 HUF per person, 500 HUF for students. The Memorial House is open between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.; closed on Mondays. On concert days, the museum opens at 12 p.m. It will be closed from August 1-23, 2010. — Jessica Tudzin

Dr. Doyle taking a picture of Bartok's shell collection.

Statue of Bela Bartok on the tree-shaded grounds of the Memorial House.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945):
From Mikrokosmos, Progressive Piano Pieces vol. VI:
140. Free Variations (Variations libres/Freie Variationen). Allegro molto
142. From the Diary of a Fly (Ce que la mouche raconte/Aus dem Tagebuch einer Fliege). Allegro
149. From Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (Six dances bulgares/Sechs Tänze in bulgarischen Rhythmen): no. 2
Béla Bartók, piano
Recorded in 1940.
Courtesy of Erwin.

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