Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Art and Nature – curious arts

UAlberta pianist Roger Admiral explores how the natural elements of folk music’s oral tradition were transformed 100 years ago by one of the 20th century’s most important composers.

In 2015, Convocation Hall, the treasured chamber music concert venue nestled inside the University of Alberta’s Arts Building, turns 100 years old. To mark the occasion, the first concert of this year’s mainstage concert season appropriately transports audiences back 100 years to enjoy the music of Béla Bartók — one of the most important composers of the 20th century.

“The piano works of Bartók that we play a lot tend to be from 1908 through 1926, so the works definitely come from the same period as the time of the creation of the concert hall,” says UAlberta pianist Roger Admiral, who will performing a selection of Bartók’s solo piano works Saturday, September 19 at 3 p.m. in Convocation Hall.

Roger Admiral

Roger Admiral

Admiral says while the early decades of the 20th century were a rich period of creation for all art mediums, it was a particularly vibrant time for music in Hungary, where Bartók was born and raised.

“Right around 1896, at the fin de siècle there was a great millennium celebration. At that time, the city of Budapest was akin to Paris or London in terms of being a major city culturally. The two world wars downsized that idea for Hungary, as the country was on the losing side of each war, but at the end of the 19th century, it was very much recognized as a key cultural city.”

Bartók flourished at that time, not only as a pianist and composer, but also as a musicologist.

“He began to collect folk music with the latest technology of the day, which was wax cylinder recordings. He would go into Hungarian, Transylvanian and Romanian villages with this bulky recording device and ask the local peasants and farmers to sing the songs that they knew, to play them on the violin or flute or Hungarian bagpipes.”

Bela Bartok using a gramaphone to record folk songs sung by Czech peasants. 1908. Griffiths, Paul (1978) A Concise History of Modern Music, Thames and Hudson. Public domain.

Bela Bartok using a gramaphone to record folk songs sung by Czech peasants.
1908. Griffiths, Paul (1978) A Concise History of Modern Music, Thames and Hudson. Public domain.

Bartók recorded folk songs in order to preserve them, notating and transcribing what before had only been passed down orally. Once transcribed, he studied them more scientifically in terms of their compositional structures, analyzing their scales and elements. He noticed over time, when he came back to those same villages 20 years later, that the songs would be slightly changed from when he first recorded them.

“He noted that natural evolution of song, art and music to mimic that of nature, hence the concert’s title: Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Art and Nature. We hear in Bartók’s music many elements of folk music but his works don’t necessarily sound like a folk song — they are not quite what I would call a progression, but a new artistic creation of a folk music tradition.”

Admiral says Bartók’s compositions were revolutionary in the early part of the 20th century.

“It was a time when classical music was evolving away from the music of Beethoven, Brahms or Wagner. In the same way that Picasso was looking for different modes of expressions, so was Bartók. He was a real mix of nationalism and modernism.”

For those curious to learn more about Béla Bartók, Admiral is hosting a pre-concert talk at 2:15 p.m. on Saturday, September 19 in Convocation Hall, where he will present some century-old projected photos of Bartók working as a musicologist, making recordings in the Hungarian villages.

“I will also play some of his recordings from 1906. You’ll be able to hear Bartók’s recorded voice from more than 100 years ago. I will play the captured audio of the folk music and introduce how those elements were incorporated into Bartók’s music.”

About Roger Admiral

Roger Admiral

Canadian pianist Roger Admiral performs solo and chamber music repertoire spanning the 18th through the 21st century. Known for his dedication to contemporary music, Roger has commissioned and premiered many new compositions. He studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto), University of Western Ontario, and the University of Alberta. His main teachers were Virginia Blaha, Peter Smith, Arthur Rowe, and Helmut Brauss.

Recent performances include recitals with baritone Nathan Berg at Lincoln Center (New York City), contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux at Symphony Under the Sky (Edmonton), violinist Ilya Kaler at Convocation Hall (Edmonton), violinist Guillaume Tardif at Carnegie Hall (New York City), saxophonist William Street in San Jose and Los Angeles, percussionist Philip Hornsey for New Music Edmonton, saxophonist Allison Balcetis in Poços de Caldas, São Paulo, Tatuí and Sorocaba as part of Curto-Circuito de Música Contemporânea (Brazil), solo recitals in Budapest, Debrecen, Kecskemét, and Bratislava, the complete piano works of Iannis Xenakis for Vancouver New Music, and György Ligeti’s Piano Concerto with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tania Miller. Roger also coaches contemporary chamber music at the University of Alberta. His CD recording of Howard Bashaw, 15 for Piano was recently released on the Centrediscs label.

Presenters: University of Alberta Department of Music and the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies
Event Title:Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Art and Nature
Performed by: University of Alberta pianist Roger Admiral
Date: Saturday, September 19. Pre-show talk at 2:15 p.m. Performance at 3 p.m.
Venue: Convocation Hall, University of Alberta
Tickets: $10 student, $20 adult, $15 senior. Available at the door or in advance from Yeglive

For full program details, see show page: https://uofa.ualberta.ca/events/bela-bartok-art-and-nature

For more about the Arts Building’s 100th anniversary, see “Old Arts” Building turns 100 on the Work of Arts blog.

Previous articleWhat is Suppressed Music?Next articleMake Good: Justin Pritchard on Mindfulness