Cosmopolitans of the Hungarian music life: Annie Fischer
5 October 2014, Music Academy, Budapest
Dohnányi Orchestra Budafok
Very warm welcome to the first concert in this year’s series of Understanding Music. This year our entire Understanding Music will be devoted to the memory of great Hungarian musicians. Today actually to Annie Fischer who would be 100 years old this year. She was one of the most significant world-famous pianists of the ‘50s-‘60s. On these occasions I always rely on my personal memories when I have to choose a piece. The way she interpreted Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 left some fadeless memories in me, though her Mozart performance was also unforgettable. Still, in Bartók’s piano concerto she was really unbeatable.
Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is a feminine work, from several aspects. Bartók composed this piece for his wife Ditta Pásztory, which is an interesting combination of an evidently original and ad hoc intention. Bartók worked on assignment on several occasions. The mechanism of composing for something, for somebody or for some occasion was always inherent in his life, though this could never be felt in his works. Piano Concerto No. 3 is a light, feminine work, as he composed it for his wife, and not any moment lets us forget about this fact. In comparison with Piano Concerto No. 2, that is sensibly much more filled with strife for both the pianist and the orchestra. It’s quite difficult to play that really well. But in Concerto No. 3 we encounter with an airy and simplified composition.
This piece is the swan-song in Bartók’s life work. Swan-songs always state interesting questions. We love treating these topics: if for instance Bach really “died in” that very quadruple fugue in The Art of Fugue or if he couldn’t simply finish it. We’ve mentioned some time earlier (our frequent guests might remember) that that fugue couldn’t be finished. Bach must also have admitted that quadruple fugues are not to be composed. What’s more, no one apart from Bach could actually compose triple fugues in music history. As regards Mozart, we know why he didn’t finish Requiem. So all in all, the last completed or almost completed works always raise major questions as to what would’ve happened if their composer had lived longer, if he had also composed this or that as a swan-song. How much can it hold true that the artists’, in particular creative artists’ amazing sentiment helps them feel the boundary of their entire life and leave it behind or phrase it somehow in their works?
We’re strongly inclined to believing that Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 means such a legacy. He may have known he wouldn’t compose and complete any other works, so here in this piano concerto he relied on the wisdom and clarity of a man taking his leave and created a quasi testament to show what he’d been fighting for all his life, though never did he dare remain so much truly simple, clear and evident. We’d like to show you some examples to prove how much this is true and what’s actually hidden behind all this.
What is the perhaps most important characteristic in Bartók’s life work and how does it develop? The very first we always mention is that Bartók’s life work is founded on folk music. On the miraculous recognition that genuine Hungarian folk music, ancient Hungarian folk music is still here with us after a millenary (given that urbanization in Hungary took a slower pace), what’s more, it was still traceable in the beginning of the 20th century and might dispersedly still be traceable today. All these are our original, genuine roots.
Well, what happens to folk music in this piece? First off it seems to almost vanish. Still, there are some folk music-type gestures. Actually, it’s not the genuine folk music but, to be more correct, the essence of folk music-based thinking permeates Bartók’s art in his forms, melody forming and a thousand more components typical in folk music, although here this seems to be much less traceable.
But yes, it is apparently traceable, as immediately in the very first melody (played by the pianist) we can identify the Hungarian characteristics. This specific para-para parappa parara is a very typical Hungarian rhythm. But don’t forget: this is not the rhythm of our Hungarian folk music with centuries-old traditions but that of verbunk music. The same rhythm as Szózat was written in, the same as Liszt used to compose his rhapsodies, and the same as the 19th century believed to be Hungarian. The music that used to be played by Gypsy bands in those times. The expression Gypsy band meant something totally different then: these bands were orchestras of Gypsy musicians who were the depositaries of disseminating folk music. Verbunk became a central part in some great Hungarian composers’ life work. Nevertheless, this is not the Hungarian music that represents our thousand-year-old culture and that the world has come to know us for. Let’s play now the beginning of the piece.
(These sharp gestures, the rhythm, the ornamentation are all typical of verbunk music.)
I could even imagine this is composed for violin and a Roma band leader is playing this typically verbunk music. How interesting: Bartók returns to the musical element that was so important for him, too. The same applied to Kossuth Symphony. Bartók similarly illustrated Kossuth and the Hungarian nation with verbunk music in those times, given that he didn’t yet know Hungarian folk music.
Then in the third movement there’s also syncope rhythm, very strong influence from folk music; so we can hear for instance a syncope rhythm like papam-pipam-papampipam. Let’s play it right from the 141st beat, directly from the start of the theme.
This same theme is repeated, with a slightly relaxed melody in the climax of the third movement, and here we can distinctly recognize the memory of a Transylvanian folk song starting “Én Istenem add megérnem”, which is covered in Kodály’s The Spinning Room and Dohnányi’s Ruralia Hungarica and is originally a czardas.
All this is true, but here you can discover yet further realms. We’ll show you what the orchestra plays in the accompaniment. Here we hear a counterpoint that would seem a simple big tuplet without the Hungarian rhythm played on the piano. Nevertheless, the orchestral material with the big tuplet, played against the twice three eights beat of the movement has at least as much jazzy as folklore style. To be extremely frank, it’s closer to jazz.
Just to prove how true this is, we’ll show it slowly. And here we’ll try to conjure real jazz. Some help from the percussion, please. So a bit slower: one and a two…
This extract manifests the strong influence of jazz in Bartók’s works. If you attended the Concerto presentation in Understanding Music some time earlier, you might remember that we showed you a moment from the Game of Plays where Bartók hid a fancy swing in the oboe dialogue.
So this musical material of the third movement is a universal musical thought rather than being truly Hungarian. The roots from folk music don’t seem to be so much explicit in this work, as if they couldn’t be clearly grasped.
And what about Bartók’s development of forms? He reflected a peculiar world of forms, e.g. symmetry mechanism, the bridge form which can also be identified in this work. If the first movement is taken as the first member, the beginning of the second movement as the second member, the middle of the same movement as the third member, the reprise as the fourth member and the third movement as the fifth member, we get a bridge form, and symmetry is then also perceivable with this structure. This work embraces the simplest musical forms.
The first movement is a simple sonata form which was a key form determining the last two and a half centuries in European music history. Factually, it means the confrontation of two tonalities. In brief, my musical thought is sounded in the starting tonality. Then I meander into another tonality where I have (or do not have) new thoughts or I might think the same but in another tonality; then I move here and there among the tonalities just to excite the honourable audience, but without having the sensation of long-lasting or stable tonality; and as the closing of the form (only so that everyone could leave calmly) I return to the starting tonality. So this is the sonata form. And the same happens here: the leading theme (first played in the sonata form of the first movement) is composed in the main tonality, E major. There’s also another theme, in another tonality, in G major, but based on classical logic it’s not in the ordinary distance. Well then, let’s listen to this second theme. Let’s play from the 54th beat of the first movement.
(Plenty of games)
Just to note, the jazz-style syncopes can likewise be clearly distinguished in this extract. So then this is the second theme and, according to the logic of the sonata form, it’ll be simple to follow this. After the development phase (that we’ve recently apostrophized as some rambling among tonalities) we return to the starting tonality where each characteristic musical material is played again. The form of the third movement is similarly one of the most typical forms in music history, the so-called rondo form. We have a thought that returns recurrently and is interrupted by interacts. It’ll be quite easy to find our way in this rondo form, the timpani will help us. The timpani calms down the leading theme sections closing at the emotional climax and prepares the different characters of both interacts, this is how this movement similarly turns into a symmetric, five-part form of themes and interacts, a regular and symmetric form of theme – interact – theme – interact – theme.
Probably needless to say, the second movement also follows the most frequent form of classical slow movements, the trio A-B-A form. So, in summary, each of the three movements were composed in the strongest classical traditional form.
Bartók’s construction style is a key element in his life work. What does this mean? It means the mode he depicts the musical material in, the technique he uses to put the tones one beside the other, the manner whereby he creates harmony, the style as he establishes relationship among the parts. Well, this Concerto is also significantly simpler from this aspect. Let’s recall the beginning of the work once again: what’s happening there? Something that would never happen in Bartók’s works, or more accurately, has never happened since his folk song, early folk song covers. Just as in these folk song covers, he simply harmonizes the melody of the folk song played on the piano. Just listen: the orchestra plays a simple accompaniment, a harmonic buzzing, so the piano and the orchestra don’t even feel equal.
Rarely does it happen in Bartók’s life work that such a simple accompaniment and such a markedly solistic theme confront each other.
We should also mention polyphony which plays an essential role in Bartók’s life work. Polyphony means several equal parts, regardless of whether played by the soloist, the orchestra or some instrument within the orchestra. This Concerto gives a very specific example of this: a typical Bartókian fugue. Bartók’s fugues are always of essential significance. Here we could mention the Music (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta) and its first movement which is one of the most complex and clearest summaries of Bartók’s ideology – regarding the ratios, the relationship of tones to one another and the dashing mechanism of building. But we could also mention the Concerto. Though grotesque, the fugue in the last movement can nevertheless be considered a summing gesture, just as in Bartók’s other works. Bartók seems to return to the basic meaning of fugue in Piano Concerto No. 3: frisking about, playing. He pretends to be playing fugue, then gets bored and goes on. This fugue is not inordinately elaborated but it’s incredibly playful, joyful and this whole thing has some compelling momentum.
Let’s show this part, 228th beat in the third movement.
(Second entry… third entry… fourth entry…)
And as if he were already bored. He still shows some curiosities, but he doesn’t actually make a big deal of the fugue. However, he composes a fantastic, true, dynamic frisk, which is the actual meaning of the word.
Bartók’s life work can always be understood in conjunction with certain intonations, basic musical characters. Some musical characters (aesthetically called ‘intonation’) reflecting the recurrent associations of some of Bartók’s thoughts are typically repeated in his life work. This is mainly linked with the heroes of the first three operas or the first three theatrical works. In Bluebeard’s the symbol is the night which accompanies his life work as the sounds of nature at night and the distress of the soul; in Mandarin the demonic and barbarian tone becomes a recurring musical character; in The Wooden Prince the originally grotesque figure of the wooden puppet takes on a sometimes playful and sometimes dreadful character. Neither the demonic, nor the grotesque face of the above-mentioned characters is identified in Piano Concerto No. 3. Bartók doesn’t need to do anything with these two almost dreadfully detaining moods or emotions in this piece. But he needs to manage nature. The nature that has so far appeared in the guise of night in almost each of his slow movements. The first exception is the slow movement of the not long ago composed Concerto because (though this might be Bartók’s most soul-stirring night music and a specific reference to the Bluebeard’s Castle) the end of the movement clears up suddenly and unexpectedly and Bartók closes the movement with the sounds of dawn. So the third movement of the Concerto is the only nature music in Bartók’s works that doesn’t end with the sombreness of the night, the fears of the night, the distresses of our soul, but with a twilight picture where we can hear the birds chirp and see the sunlight glitter. Let’s show how the third movement of the Concerto ends.
(Here this is the sound of fear… But something’s singing… What’s singing? It’s a bird!… Minor chord… Major chord… And now getting brighter and brighter… It’s still a bit the sound of distant gloom… But the birdsong stays here on its own…)
This is a wholly incredible dramaturgical moment in his life work. Something changes in Bartók’s soul. He finds a solution, some release to the thought of night and fear which has kept his life and musical attitude in an absolutely central frame. Well, in Piano Concerto No. 3 nature is no more depicted as the night, neither do we hear the dawn but clearly the sounds of morning. Morning, the birds’ charming concert. And this plays a very important role because in Bartók’s bridge form the centric third element is the central carrier of thought. There’s a Hungarian funeral lament in the middle of the Concerto, and here we have a birds’ concert, which is a priori a wondrous surprise in its naturality, playfulness and quasi film-like representation. Second movement, let’s go from the 58th beat.
Phenomenal music, the music of blossoming nature. We hear some insensate birds’ songs and our pianist has also turned into a bird, he also participates in this fantastic concert. Well… this Bartókian picture, this nature imagery shows up as the wonderful, joyful and ebullient morning.
The fourth Bartókian intonation which cannot be linked with his theatre works, which is in fact the most inmost confession of his soul, the credo of his Hungarian roots and humanity, his ars poetica is the thought of nations turning into brotherhood. This thought is the strongest reflected in his closing movements that take on the character of dance, which is simply called the folk dance finale. The key question in Bartók’s life work (and in the entire Romantic mindset) is how the piece can be finished. The works that end with a folk dance finale radiate Bartók’s optimism, the faith. The slow works or those with a dramatic ending logically radiate just the opposite. This Concerto also ends with a genuine folk dance finale, with powerful and immensely zestful dance.
Now comes the big question: what is the message of Piano Concerto No. 3? In the last year of his life, in summer 1945 does he really compose it for his wife? His letters reveal they certainly had very serious financial problems, and he wanted to compose a work that the audience would welcome. He may also have had in mind that Ditta Pásztory would be frequently invited to play the piano concerto and then they would make a better living. But this work is so much organically embedded in Bartók’s life work that I believe this is indeed about a composer’s attitude, a specific situation. I’m sure not even in this piano concerto did Bartók give up the rigorous thinking that binds and holds his music together. His music follows a devastatingly accurate logic. Even we musicians find it tiresome to read Ernő Lendvai’s book Bartók’s poetic world. Whichever tone you have in mind, Lendvai can tell you why that is and why not this one is there. But of course we cannot know if Bartók himself knew all this. And even so, this is not the question, this doesn’t qualify Ernő Lendvai, it qualifies the nature of things. Composers don’t have to know everything. They compose as they do because that’s what they have in themselves, their system makes a system because it’s made up of the elements that is theirs only. We, the posterity are responsible for puzzling it all out. But this is so very much complicated that with this conscience you couldn’t even play music freely, as then you wouldn’t be doing anything else but analyzing the relationship of chords and the delight of music would be replaced by an intellectual action. Bartók’s music is indeed fantastic because you don’t have to understand anything of this whole intellectual background when the music is being played, but of course you need to be aware of it during preparation. Still, when playing, the performer may concentrate on working out the emotional content of the work.
Please let us show you an example of how strictly and consequently Bartók composes. As a reminder, let’s start the nowadays specifically popular leading theme of the first movement once again.
(Listen to the melody…)
And then listen to the perfect contrast of this all. Bartók forms an expressive and immeasurably flowing melody in the place of the slightly verbunk and dance style musical thought. This time the soloist is the accompaniment and the melody is played in the orchestra. The tones are essentially identical, still, what you hear is interpreted as the contradiction of the others. This is how something becomes its own opposition, relying on Bartók’s rigorism as a composer. So now let’s show the development: the 75th beat in the first movement.
The birdsong we’ve just heard is like some perfect improvisation.
It has an effect if it’s heard as a random and irrational phenomenon, just as the birds’ chirrup in general. But Bartók’s consequentiality as a composer is also manifested here. An essential interval and musical building block in Bartók’s life work is the fourth interval. It means four tones’ distance from each other. The fourth is one of the key intervals in European classical music history, the overtone on the root, the so-do offers a feeling of tension release. But Bartók develops the fourth (just as so many other classical traditions) in plenty of his works, and in certain cases he builds two, three or four fourths onto one another. The two birds “calling the tune” in our concert, the clarinet and the piano itself play in two different tonalities, just as normally expected of two different birds. But here our birds build fourths up onto fourths in the most various directions and, there you see, you can even hear the missing folk music character in the birds’ song if you like, and the fourths moving in various directions also present us with the adventure of pentatony, the tone system of ancient Hungarian folk music.
As I tried to refer to the organic relationship of this work with Bartók’s life work and the musical coherence of Bartók’s composing workshop, I must not withhold that there’s a certain element in this piece which is rather unusual and uninterpretable in the frames of Bartók’s usual thinking as a composer. Those who are familiar with Beethoven’s late string quartets will have some suspicion when they listen to the second movement of the piano concerto, that beautiful dialogue between the orchestra and the piano.
The structure and content of the dialogue and the entire musical thought essentially refer to Beethoven. We’ll now play you the Adagio movement from String Quartet Op. 132 in A minor. Beethoven writes a motto above the movement in order to try and phrase his emotions, which he did several times in his last string quartets. According to the wording the movement is the “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity”. What’s more, it’s in Lydian mode, which is rather unusual of Beethoven. This is a kind of piety and thanksgiving for life, where the frail man turns to God and expresses the gratitude he feels in himself and the hope that it would remain so. Let’s show two chorale lines.
(And the chorale begins… We play together, here’s the melody… polyphonic… And the chorale melody once again…) And this is how it continues in five chorale lines.
The same happens in Bartók, similarly in an unrecognizable manner – as the parts enter, and even similar in some melody parts. The difference is that the chorale is not played by the orchestra, we only play the intrada of the chorale and the pianist plays the chorale itself. Let’s play the second movement.
Here again the chorale has five lines, it’s interrupted by the birds’ concert and it returns in the second half of the movement. Be sure, this quotation wasn’t accidentally put in the piece; we know that in his sick-bed Bartók was studying Beethoven’s late string quartets. We can believe that in Bartók’s case this quotation is similarly a man’s belief in life. It can be a kind of sacralisation gesture that great artists and scholars use so often by the end of their lives. But it’s in any case man’s natural belief in everything that represents value and means the sense of human existence. A fantastic moment in Bartók’s life work. The message of this work could simply be summarized with this very moment. But there’s yet another surprising parallelism in this piece.
We’ll now perform you one of Bartók’s choral works, Bread baking. Some of you must’ve sung this in school. This choral piece (just as so many lyrics for children) is also filled with serious philosophical content. Bread baking explains who does what to make bread. The crow harvests, the cricket collects, the mosquito bundles, the cat drives the cart, the goose kneads and bakes the bread etc. The bear as an appropriate symbol of the social division of labour waits for the bread to bake and to eat it. In the end the hens peck the remains and the ants pick the crumbs. Let’s listen to the piece as performed by Cantemus choir from Nyíregyháza. (Well, well, these are fourths again…)
What’s there in the end of the piece: picks-eats, eats-picks, picks-eats…? This is the eternal circulation of life. And what’s it about? Is it worth baking bread? Well, it doesn’t seem so. We almost kill ourselves with work and someone else will eat our bread? And all this becomes the ants’ plunder at the end? So do we do it, do we live for that? Well… this is the way life goes. Each of our actions has its own logic, and if we’re wise, we acknowledge it. The end of the choral piece is a game. It ends like Hungarian fairy tales, “here’s the end run”. We have the same picks-eats game at the end of the first movement in the Piano Concerto, but coupled with the slight gesture of relinquishment. Let’ show the end of the first movement – from the 180th beat.
(What’s then?… Let is pass… That’s how it is…)
Let me tell you something really personal here. I think man tends to see the world simpler after a certain age. We fight for some time in our life. We hope to succeed, but no one ever manages to achieve “that something”. Those who succeeded only think they’ve managed it or they persuade themselves or they’re happy for something silly in life (e.g. money). But we don’t necessarily feel success in the form of real values. Following the natural order of life, we sometimes break into a smile and say (what else could we do) “it’s all right”. I think this immeasurable wisdom, the simplification when you’re fortunate and keep on speaking to yourself does come along for us all.
Bartók shows a miraculous example of this clarification in Piano Concerto No. 3. Perhaps this piece became more feminine because of his wife, perhaps he tried to compose an understandable piece for the American audience, but in the end he remained loyal to the essence and message of his life work in all the elements, and additionally he phrases his thoughts with a kind smile and some self-irony. Because that’s also an inseparable part of our life and that’s how he creates miracle which he translates into the piano concerto. Especially with the fantastically composed ending of the piece.
Well, the ending of the Concerto is quite similar, which proves that Bartók seriously had all this in mind: here we lapse back to obscure nothing for a moment. The theme developed from an absurdly long and twirling world and it’s spiritualized by the end. Here in the piece we similarly get back to the tempo, the throb from such a twirl, and the Piano Concerto ends with an incredible and amazingly powerful dance scene, which is thus, in this form one of the nicest composed examples of the affirmation of life, the love of life.
I hope everything will be clear now, and this Piano Concerto will encourage those with relatively little knowledge about Bartók’s life to learn about his entire life work. Let’s listen to the end of the Piano Concerto. Thank you for coming here and wish you have a good time. Let’s play from the 644th beat.
 Annie Fischer (1914 – 1995)
 Edith Pásztory (1903 – 1982) Béla Bartók’s second wife; pianist. After Bartók’s death she played almost exclusively her husband’s pieces. Her performance is audible in Bartók’s complete works published by Hungaroton and in great many sound recordings together with Béla Bartók.
 The Piano Concerto was composed in 1945. The premiere was held on 8 February 1946, in the performance of György Sándor and Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by György Ormándy. The orchestration in the last 17 beats of the Concerto was completed by Tibor Serly (1901 – 1978, American-Hungarian composer).
 A poem by Mihály Vörösmarty (1800 – 1855), one of the greatest Hungarian romantic poets. It was melodised by the Hungarian composer Béni Egressy (1814 – 1851), in verbunk style. Szózat is the Hungarians’ national song, their second hymn; a credo of patriotism.
 Lajos Kossuth (1802 – 1894) Hungarian statesman, finance minister of the independent Batthyány Government during the 1848 bourgeois revolution and war for independence, President of the Committee for National Defence (1848-49), governing president of Hungary (1849), a leading figure of the war for independence. In folk traditions his person was also interconnected with the idea of Hungarian freedom.
 Bartók composed Kossuth Symphony in 1903. He first met Hungarian peasants’ music in 1904 during his holiday in Gerlicepuszta, Slovakia.
 Bridge-form: consists of five movements. Typically, the dramaturgical process, the musical story, the essence of the composer’s message is embraced in the first, third and fifth movements, whereas the interim movements (the second and fourth) offer counterpoints, relaxation, and sometimes even stop the process and are inserted among the serious messages-based elements with some playful ideas, as an interact. The centre of Bartók’s bridge forms can, from the aspect of dramaturgy, be both the emotional nadir or climax of the process. Moreover, the extreme movements can rhyme to each other, which materializes an identical state of mind and musical thought, or the closing movement can depict the spiritualized culmination of the cumbersome start.
 Bartók’s characters, intonations:
1) Barbarian: This character can most typically be linked with The Miraculous Mandarin, though the Barbarian approach appears in Bartók’s several other works, so for instance in one of his best known and most popular works, Allegro barbaro where Bartók even names this character.
2) Night music: The nightly images of nature are always about solitude and are also the gloomy, dreadful manifestations of our existence alienating from the world. The key to this all can be read from Bluebeard’s Castle: that’s where this peculiar expression of solitude, fear and anguish is first heard (in the movement Pool of Tears). Yet another work which actually names the character can be linked to this: the piano piece Music of the Night.
3) Grotesque: Present in Bartók’s life work from the playful to the demonic. This can be coupled with Bartók’s third (theatre) play, the pantomime ballet The Wooden Prince where the existence and figure of the wooden puppet itself depicts the extreme faces of this character. All this has a still applicable philosophical message: man’s toys made for his own entertainment might as well turn against him. Yet another work where Bartók uses the grotesque is his piano piece A Bit Drunk which he actually instrumentalized in Hungarian Sketches. Here we meet the kind and sweet figure of a man muddled with drink.
4) Folk dance finale: Bartók’s credo for the brotherhood of nations, on the one hand, and a dramaturgical question connected to the final outcome of the specific piece, on the other. Practically speaking, a basic question with almost each of Bartók’s works starting from the Dance Suite is whether it includes a folk dance finale. If so, we return home with relative joy and optimism; if it’s left out, joy and optimism, i.e. the real catharsis will be missing.
 The premiére of the Concerto was held on 1 December 1944.
 Ernő Lendvai (1925 – 1993): one of the most outstanding Hungarian musicologists. Primarily his researches on Bartók made his name well-known all over the world. He began to make a systematic analysis of Bartók’s tone system a few years after Bartók’s death. Recognizing Bartók’s function system (“axis system”), harmony forming (“alpha”-type chords), the golden section phenomena manifested in typical scales (“model” scales) and the ratios of the entire structure (Fibonacci sequence) Lendvai developed a uniform theoretical system and clear analytical method to get closer to Bartók’s music. (Bartók’s style, 1955; Bartók’s dramaturgy 1964; Bartók’s poetic world, 1971.)