Folio — From the October 2013 issue

Bartók’s Monster

Stalking the dead composer through Transylvania

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More than anything he looked like a man grimly in need of a transfusion. Béla Bartók had the pallor of a garlic clove. A wan, sometimes acrid personality to match. As obsessed as he was with tempo, you could have spent half an afternoon frisking his skinny little frame before you found a pulse. One of his closest friends would describe his voice as “gray and monotonous,” though he didn’t really have friends. His colleagues at the Academy of Music, in Budapest, found him bland: one of those almost offensively mild persons. He was sullen, puritanical, anemic, timid, like some mute and slippered monk shuffling the catacombs.

Béla Bartók, circa 1930 © Popperfoto/Getty Images

Béla Bartók, circa 1930 © Popperfoto/Getty Images

Sometimes the sweetish faint odor of chloroform could be detected when he passed by. He carried a vial of the stuff in his pocket to euthanize butterflies and other six-legged beasties that caught his eye while he wandered the countryside on one of his peasant-hunting expeditions. It was this hobby — chasing peasants, not bug collecting — that took him to Transylvania, skipping out on his teaching obligations for months at a time.

How the people there received him without snorting in his face one can only imagine: a klatch of bemused grandmothers, pausing from their work to regard this strange dink from the city, with his thin white hair and odd manners, come all this way just to meekly ask if they would sing for his pleasure? It must have seemed hilarious. But he was not as weak as he appeared. Surely, a few of the bábas noticed the powerful wrists beneath his threadbare cuffs. Wrists as strong as a butcher’s from hours of chopping at the piano.

Of course, they marveled at the machine he had brought to suck the songs from their bodies. A szörnyeteg, they called it. “The monster.” He dragged it over the rutted roads of Maramureş and Székely Land, lashed to a horse cart. When he had them gathered round he would load one of the Edison wax cylinders, set the stylus on the groove, and demonstrate the device for them like a colonial officer showing the natives how the machine gun took the belt before mowing them down in their huts. Once he’d gained the trust of the hill folk, he would wait until the end of the workday, until the village maidens returned from picking apples, or haycocking, or whatever it was peasants did when they weren’t singing and getting drunk. Rapt, he would sit across from them in the lamplight. When they opened their mouths to sing, he lowered the arm, and the needle bit into the turning cylinder.

Bartók playing the piano © De Agostini/Getty Images

Bartók playing the piano © De Agostini/Getty Images

Like Rumpelstiltskin, he hurried back to Budapest to spin the bales of itchy straw into chaotic threads of Lydian gold. When audiences suckled on the usual Viennese milk heard his compositions, they fled in horror. If anyone still needed convincing that Hungarians were, indeed, a breed of Satan, as the Chanson de Roland put it, here was the barbaric proof. The gaunt sickly weakling — Herr Bartók — was transformed into a terrifying soul onstage. However meek he was in real life, here in the theater, behind his piano, he came to life. He leaped about the keys like a panther, like Menelaus crouching through the dark, spear in hand, creeping up to the wall. And then, between movements, during that excruciating pause, when some old fuck might be permitted his long withheld cough, you realized that, in fact, the blazing stare of the master was turned upon you. The audience had fallen away into darkness, and it was only you and the master. During this brief unreal moment, it felt as though you had become the subject of a new arrangement stirring in the composer’s mind. As though the whole time he had been playing, he had been hunting, stalking, and only now, when it was too late, did you realize he had smelled your blood.

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is the author, most recently, of Kingdom Under Glass (Picador). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Shining Path,” appeared in the June 2013 issue.

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