Monday 20 April 2015

Bartok - Piano Concerto no.3

Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninov, Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith - some of the early twentieth century's most important European composers, and they all left Europe to live in America after their home continent decided to have a good go at wiping everyone out in the 1930s and 40s.

Some of them, like Stravinksy, were treated like superheroes and did pretty well for themselves. Others, like Schoenberg, were not quite as well received and so they passed the time playing tennis.

Schoenberg on the left

Bela Bartok (1881-1945) left Hungary to live in New York, where nobody seemed to understand, or care, that he was probably the greatest composer alive at that time. I'd say one of the greatest composers alive at any time. According to his obituary in the New York Times, he was about to return to Budapest as a government minister, but he died in New York in September 1945.

Bartok wrote a few pieces containing birdsong, but the most explicit references are found in the second movement of his 3rd Piano Concerto. The story goes that in 1942 he was seriously ill and recovering at a hospital in North Carolina, and as he was lying in bed, he listened to Eastern Towhees, Hermit Thrushes and Wood Thrushes singing in the garden outside. It's transcriptions of those three singing birds which make up the middle section of the second movement from the concerto, his final piece which he very nearly completed but died leaving the last seventeen bars blank.

Here's an Eastern Towhee

Americans say that the way to remember the song of an Eastern Towhee is by the mnemonic "drink your tea". Have a listen again and try and work out in what universe that sounds like "drink your tea". We have something similar in Britain, the mnemonic "little bit of bread and no cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeese" for a Yellowhammer, and that's just as terrible as well. Actually, the best way to remember the songs of Eastern Towhee and Yellowhammer is to hear the songs with your ears, retain the sound of the songs in your memory in your brain, and then recall those songs the next time you hear the birds singing. You know, like you do with everything else you ever hear.

So listen to the three birds (using your ears), remember the sound of the birds' songs (in the memory in your brain, which is in your head [the thing on top of your shoulders]) and then try and hear them in the concerto played on the piano, oboe, clarinet, flute and piccolo.


So here's all of the second movement, and the birds start singing at 4'30. The other two movements are linked below.

1st movement -

3rd movement -


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