ORCHESTRA - A Shout, A Whisper, and a Trace ( 2009 ) Program Notes
ii. az ejszaka zeneje
During the last five years of his life, the composer Béla Bartók lived and worked in New York City. As he approached the age of 60, in ill health and preoccupied with the destruction of his beloved native Hungary by the Nazis, he slowly began adapting to the unfamiliar surroundings. He kept in touch with his musical roots, joyfully transcribing a collection of Serbo-Croatian women's songs at the Columbia University library. Yet he struggled with the new language, the cultural barriers, and the speed and complexity of New York. He painstakingly attempted to navigate the crisscrossing streets in Queens, and he once spent three hours in the subway with his wife, "traveling hither and thither in the earth; finally, our time waning and our mission incomplete, we shamefacedly slunk home- of course, entirely underground."
Bartók wrote home about his mixed feelings of hope, alienation, and despair to colleagues like the violinist Josef Szigeti and the composer Zoltán Kodály, to his two sons, who remained in Budapest, and to his small array of American piano students and supporters, from Boston to Seattle. The translated letters, published by St. Martin's press, document the humbling struggle of a master composer, trying to make sense of life in America, a place where he was virtually invisible.
Years ago, while studying the Thracian folk style in Bulgaria, I read Bartók's letters. At the time I had been mostly engaged with the correspondence concerning his early travels around Hungary. But as I began composing the final piece for my ACO residency I felt drawn to reexamine the later letters. The fresh perspective enabled me to reflect anew on my own experiences living in unfamiliar countries and cultures. I began to muse on the curiously ironic - yet utterly typical - manner in which Bartók's last years unfolded; so many immigrants have arrived in my hometown - New York - brimming with the hopes, fears, and yearnings associated with exile. These revenants exist today; the ghosts are everywhere, present and enduring, as much a part of the city as the buildings and rivers around us.
- Derek Bermel