I was first introduced to the music of Béla Bartók by my father, in a sort of roundabout way. Back in the ’70s, PBS ran several of Ernie Kovacs’ television shows, and my dad was (and is) a big fan, so he corralled all of us around the set to watch them. If you’re not familiar with Ernie Kovacs, he was truly one of TV’s early performing pioneers. Working without a studio audience or a laugh track — or a net — he created some memorable bits (e.g., The Nairobi Trio, Percy Dovetonsils) and a lot of what the kids today would call WTF without LOL. One that stuck with me was a piece he set to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra entitled, “Street Scene.” Go ahead, take a look. We’ll resume our conversation when you get back.
I remember as I watched it, I kept waiting for something to happen. There’s a whole ‘nother series of posts about the pace of our lives and the time we don’t allow ourselves to just be, but whatever you think of the visuals and the time expenditure, the Bartók piece is sublime. So we decided to pay a visit to Bartók Béla Emlékház, a museum dedicated to Bartók’s life set in the house he lived in from 1932 to 1940 in Buda. The statue above is a fine piece of work by Imre Varga, another post I need to get around to completing.
The house is lovely and chock full of interesting bits and pieces from Bartók’s life, and admission included a live guided tour, for which I expressed my thanks by setting off an ear-piercing alarm in one of the rooms. Sigh. Probably the most interesting nugget was his deep affection for the folk traditions of Hungary. He and his compatriot Zoltan Kodály each went around the countryside — Bartók to the mountains, Kodály to the plains — and collected sound recordings of local folksongs as well as an impressive array of clothing, furniture, and other artifacts. In those pre-digital days, collecting sound meant recording them directly onto a phonograph, and the villagers hearing the playback called it a “varázsdoboz.” (“Magic box.”)
Which was what television was supposed to be back when Ernie Kovacs was trying to make it so.