Interpreting Their Own Music – Béla Bartók

Over the 20th century musical identities split and departed, creating new separated species of artists: the composer and the interpreter. A process of specialisation divided music-making between different people: a composer writes and an instrumentalist plays. This series focuses on several exceptions in the 20th century: composers who played and performed their own music.

Part 1: Béla Bartók

Travelling through the provincial sites of Hungary and the Balkans, Béla Bartók intensively researched the ethnic music of the locals. He recorded people playing folk music while writing it down and collecting materials for his own pieces.

Bartók is known today as one of the most important composers of the 20th century. But surprisingly he was not a professor for composition, but rather for piano – at the Franz Liszt conservatory in Budapest. He believed composition cannot be taught and even avoided teaching his own pieces.

Géza Frid, one of his piano students wrote about his playing:
„What was the secret of Bartok´s piano playing? First of all, his powerful personality, his human greatness and the purity of his character. Those who knew him well can never forget the profound fire in his eyes. When Bartók sat at the piano, you could feel, right from the first note, that you were listening not to an instrumentalist but to a prophet who uses his instrument as a means to revelation.“

Listening to Bartók interpreting his own music, the rhythmical freedom of his phrases is very noticable.
Absolutly unique are the subtle attacks – articulated but never brutal.
Even in a piece such as Allegro Barbaro (1911), which is often played quite harsh as its title might suggest, he does not loose his nobility and transparent lightness, while still expressing the vitality of the music. Bringing out the complexity of the structure seems of greater importance to him, than a celebration of unrestrained virtuosity.