The Collector

May, 1905. The run-down end
of a village in Hungary, where
the peasants are marrying
& giving in marriage, the same
as ever. A slight young man
with a silk bow fastened to his neck
is taking a strange-looking machine
from its case & assembling it
on a stool. The hurdy-gurdy player
watches as he inserts a cylinder
& attaches a brass horn.
What kind of music does it make,
he asks. All kinds & none,
says Bartók, his voice
crackling with wonder. It’s an ear
with a perfect memory
He points to the stylus.
They finally invented a pen
that knows how to speak!

August. In Paris to compete
for the Prix Rubenstein, Bartók visits
the Moulin Rouge — so many butterflies
of the night with painted faces
he writes in a letter to his mother —
& a cabaret called Le néant.
Here instead of tables
there are wooden coffins,
the walls are black & decorated
with human skeletons or parts
of skeletons, & the waiters
are dressed as if for a funeral.
The lighting is such that our lips
take on the color of blackberries,
our cheeks a waxen yellow,
nails violet — in other words,
we look like cadavers —
& for entertainment, one
of our party lets himself
be wrapped in a winding sheet
& changed into a skeleton
before our eyes.

1915. The Great War
restricts travel to a few counties
in the interior. Bartók writes,
I often leave the road & cut
through the woods, where I find
a great many insects.
That’s my other collection now —
it too will keep me occupied
long after my return.
The peasants here are poor
but very hospitable. I am bound
always by gratitude, never
quite free. But on Sundays
we go to collect songs
in the neighboring villages,
taking the long way around
& hiking through the mountains
whenever we can. I’ve started
taking photographs, too,
a difficult thing.

January 1943. New York.
At what will turn out to be
his last public performance,
Bartók is soloing with his wife Ditta
in the Concerto for Two Pianos
and Orchestra
: the New York
Philharmonic, conducted by Fritz
Reiner. Suddenly Bartók veers
off-score, leaving his wife
& the others to grope along
after him as best they can
on this new path through
the same, steep terrain.
Afterwards, Reiner is furious.
How could you risk everything
on a whim?
They are riding
in a New York taxi cab.
After a long silence, Bartók turns
to his wife beside him & says,
The tympanist! It was
the tympanist who started it.
He hit a wrong note — & suddenly
there was a new idea
that I had to try out right then
& follow wherever it led.
I couldn’t help it. That moment
will never come again.

10 Replies to “The Collector”

  1. Guess now I need to read Bond…


    Dave, this kicks a**. I need to reread it again a few times, and will do so in between bouts of baking holiday fruitcakes.

    Oh, and thanks tons for the Smorgasblog shout-out! That tiny story is what came from watching ESPN a bit last weekend.

  2. What a fascinating story. You can really appreciate his complete emersion in his art – and not just his genre… his own kind of cross over appreciation of folk music.

    When I read this, (though it’s not precisely related) I thought about the days in America of the dustbowl and the depression and the way folk music was collected then – I can’t remember exactly where I read about that. I think it must have been the Smithsonian – they went out and collected recordings of songs that those displaced farmers knew – some of them dating back to the Revolution.

  3. Lori – Glad you liked.

    Fruitcakes?! Hmm, I guess you have an appetite for all kinds of extreme sports.

    Bobby – Yeah, Bartok was one of the pioneering ethnomusicologists. He traveled all over Eastern Europe, Turkey and into North Africa collecting traditional music, and much of it made its way into his own music. In a way, he was one of the original missionaries for crossover music: he always contended that the richest traditions were those that remained open to all kinds of outside influences. I don’t know whether Bartok’s collecting and transcription techniques had a direct influence on the American folksong collectors, but it’s certainly possible. John and Alan Lomax were the most famous collectors for the Smithsonian, including during the Dust Bowl area, but there were others. The Smithsonian also owns the immense Folkways Records catalog now.

  4. I should also have mentioned how thrilling a read that was – the way you wrote it. Your posting here is what caused me to go off and read all about the guy.

  5. Bobby – Cool. That’s the kind of comment that really makes me feel like I’m doing my job. If you’re unfamiliar with Bartok’s music, I recommend starting with The Miraculous Mandarin Suite and the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste a listen. Or the Concerto for Orchestra – that might be the most accessible. Depends on how much of a tolerance for dissonance you have.

    Patry – Thanks. I’m flattered.

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