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Birds in concert: North American birdsong in Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3

  • Maria Anna Harley

On 22 April 1944 Béla Bartók wrote to his son, Peter:

Spring has now indisputably arrived. A kind of ‘kutyafa’ (dogwood) is in bloom, like acacias flowering at home. The birds have become completely drunk with the spring and are putting on concerts the like of which I've never heard. They start with puty-puty-puty ./../../. and end up with various new bird sounds (clearly from later arrivals). The keeps on creating more and more variants.

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1 This letter, previously unpublished, was written during Bartók's stay at the sanatorium in Asheville, North Carolina. I thank Prof. Malcolm Gillies for information about this letter and for its English translation (the original is in Hungarian).

2 Bartok, Béla, Piano Concerto No. 3 (composed in 1945; London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1947).

3 For instance, Halsey Stevens, in The Life and Music of Béla Barlók (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964: 252), writes that ‘the Trio is based upon actual bird-calls which Bartók had notated in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1944.’

4 Antokoletz's, Elliott The Music of Bela Bartok (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984 ) is an example of the first approach, Ujfalussy's, József Béla Bartók, translated into English by Pataki, R. (Boston: Crescendo Publishing Co, 1971 ) epitomizes the second interpretative extreme.

5 In Ex.1 the string, piano and horn parts (‘stylized noise’) are omitted. Delayed repetitions of the second motive of the flute/oboe phrase by the trumpet and xylophone seem to represent distinct echoes.

6 Saunders, Aretas, Bird Song (Albany: The University of the State of New York, 1929). The Towhee's song was also represented with an onomatopoeic catch-phrase, quoted by Bondesen, Poul in North American Bird Songs – A World of Music (Klampenbord, Denmark: Scandinavian Science Press Ltd., 1977: 165). The catch-phrase: ‘Drink your tea-e-e-e-e…’ reflects the birdsong pitch contour with vowel brightness (both ‘i’ and ‘ea’ sound much higher than ‘ou’) and imitates the call's distinctive rhythmic contour by the rhythm of the words.

7 Ansley, Hudson and Ansley, Sandra, The Birds' World: Listening through a Sound Microscope to Birds around a Maryland Farmhouse (Notes from Folkways Records Album No.FX 6115, New York, 1961).

8 Cf. Example 2a. The word ‘musical’ is used here as meaning ‘with a harmonic spectrum, with clear pitch and pleasant timbre.’

9 Bondescn, P., op.cit., 42–43, 231.

10 Ansley (op.cit.) transcribed birdsong from slowed-down tape recordings; Saunders (op.cit.) notated birdsong from nature.

11 As Bartók writes: ‘The close position of three or more adjacent tones have the effect of a “stylized” noise sounding more or less resonant according to pitch position.’ Bartók, Béla, ‘The problem of the new music’ (1920), in Bela Bartok Essays, ed. Suchoff, Benjamin (London: Faber and Faber, 1976: 456).

12 For instance, compare Saunders's phrases Nos. 7–9 in Ex.4 with mm. 60–62 of the clarinet part in Ex.3.


13 E.g. by Wing (1951), quoted in Hartshorne, Charles, Bom to Sing. An Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973: 95).

14 The description of the Wood Thrush's song by Mathews, F. Schuyler (Wild Birds and their Music, 1904) in Ex.5a is quoted from Hartshorne, (op.cit., 97). Example 5b; presents a notation by Saunders (op.cit.): here, the opening motive is immediately repeated in retrograde, not in inversion.

15 Saunders quoted by Bondesen, (op.cit., 227).

16 Cf. Edgar, M Jr, Reilly, , The Audubon Illustrated Handbook of American Birds (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968).

17 Somfai, László, ‘Analytical notes on Bartok's piano year of 1926’, Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, vol.26 (1984): 6 .

18 For discussions of Bartok's references to Beethoven see Kovacs, Janos, ‘Heiliger Dankgesang in der Lydischen Tonart und Adagio religioso’ (Ujfalussy, J., Breuer, J. ed., International Musicological Conference in Commemoration of Be'la Bartok 1971. Melville, New York: Belwin Mills, 1972); or Radice, Mark, ‘Bartók's parodies of Beethoven: the relationship between opp.131, 132 and 133 and Bartók's Sixth String Quartet and Third Piano Concerto’, Music Review 42 no.3–4, (0811 1981): 252–60.

19 Fassett, Agatha, Beta Bartok – The American Years (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2nd ed., 1970 ; 1st ed. The Naked Face of Genius, 1958). The characterization of her work is given by Gillies, Malcolm in Bartok Remembered, (London, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991): 170 .

20 Fassett, , op.cit., 327 .

21 Bartók's youthful atheism and his belief in Nature, Art and Science are expressed in a letter written on 6 September 1907 to Geyer, Stefi (Cf. Béla Bartók's Letters, ed. Demeny, J., London: Faber and Faber, 1971: 82). According to Bence Szabolcsi, ‘this classical trinity determined not only his [Bartók's] work as a creative artist, but also his scientific activity, his entire human and moral attitude’. Quoted from Szabolcsi, B., ‘Man and nature in Bartók's world’, (in Bartók Studies, ed. Crow, and Todd, . Detroit: Information Coordinators, 1976): 104 .

22 One of the definitions s.v. ‘nature’ in The Oxford English Dictionary, ed. by Simpson, J. A. and Weinter, E. S. C. (Oxford Clarendon Press, 2nd ed., 1989, vol. 10).

23 S.v. ‘natura naturans’ in The Oxford English Dictionary, op.cit.

24 The expression is quoted from Bartók's essay of 1928, ‘The folk songs of Hungary’ published in Beta Bartok Essays, ed. Suchọff, Benjamin (London: Faber and Faber, 1976: 331339). Cf. the composer's essay of 1920, “The influence of folk music on the art music of today’ (ibidem, 316–319).

25 Bartók, Béla, ‘The relation of folk song to the development of the art music of our time’ (1921) included in Béla Bartók Essays (op.cit., 320–330). Quoted from p.321.

26 Ditta was told by Peter Bartok that her husband was writing the concerto for her, as a birthday present ( Gillies, , op.cit., 197 ).

27 One indication is given in Agatha Fassett's book (op. cit.), which contains a summary of a letter about these matters received by the author from Ditta Pásztory Bartók.

28 In response to a question about the most important tasks for contemporary composition Bartók stated: ‘All efforts ought to be directed at the present time to the search for that which we will call “inspired simplicity”. Quoted from an interview with Dille, Denis, ‘Béla Bartók's opinion on the technical, aesthetic, and spiritual orientation of contemporary music’ (1938) published in Béla Bartók Essays, op.cit., 516–17.

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