As we follow the terrible current events in Eastern Europe, we learn a bit more each day about the history, the geography, and the people of Ukraine. Recently, a package arrived at the museum that brought the news closer to home. Inside were the personal effects of one of the greatest musical composers in human history. The box contained bow ties, a vest, glasses, and a pair of concert shoes stuffed with newspaper dating to 1942. These are the clothes Béla Bartók wore to performances in Europe back before WWII.
Bartók came to Saranac Lake 80 years ago. He spent the last three summers of his life in the village, seeking respite from leukemia. Here, working in humble surroundings with little money and no piano, he found the tranquility to compose some of his greatest works, including the Concerto for Orchestra and the Third Piano Concerto.
A tiny, eccentric, brilliant man, Bartók was not interested in fame or fortune. His music can feel inaccessible to people who aren’t trained musicians or familiar with folk songs of Eastern Europe. His story can seem as distant and as foreign as his music. But lifting his little shoes out of the box, it’s like he walked right into the present day.
Back in the 1940s, Saranac Lakers didn’t pay the great composer much notice. Not only were international visitors commonplace during the tuberculosis years, but the events of WWII were grabbing all the headlines. As more and more young men went off to war, families followed the news overseas, charting the advance of troops on maps, learning the names of far away places they had never known before.
The War felt intensely personal to Bartók. From here in Saranac Lake, he worried for the safety of his eldest son who had remained in Budapest. He feared for his second son, who was serving in the Pacific in the U.S. Navy. Having lived during WWI and the Russian Revolution, the composer was acutely aware of the horror of war and its tendency to transcend borders.
Bartók’s personal history moved between many present-day European countries. He was born in 1881 in the town of Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Romania). After his father’s sudden death, the family lived for a time in Nagyszőlős (present-day Vynohradiv, Ukraine) and then to Pozsony (present-day Bratislava, Slovakia).
Young Béla studied piano in Budapest, and he developed his interest in folk music. He traveled the countryside, collecting and researching folk melodies of the Roma people.* He recorded songs in peasant villages with his wax cylinder Edison machine, notating Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian folk music. He also collected melodies in Moldavia, Transylvania, Algeria, and Turkey. He incorporated elements of traditional songs into new compositions.
Beloved in Hungary, Bartók performed throughout Europe. Perhaps wearing these same concert shoes, he performed in the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Odessa in 1929 and 1936.
Then came WWII. Hungary joined the Axis Powers. Béla’s anti-fascist views were well known, and his wife Ditta was Jewish. They fled the Nazis to New York City. Bartók left his life’s work in Budapest, including hundreds of recordings of ancient folk music. Miraculously, most of the cylinder recordings survived the war, as did his sheet music transcriptions of 13,000 songs. But Bartók died in New York City in the fall of 1945 thinking his recordings were destroyed. Millions of people, entire communities, and countless melodies had been erased by antisemitism, fascism, and war.
The great composer who once walked the streets of Saranac Lake devoted his life to preserving diverse cultures of Eastern Europe. Now, the museum is honored to preserve his last few belongings. With this pair of shoes that fled the Holocaust, we remember Bartók, and we contemplate the incredible beauty and enormous tragedy of Ukraine and its neighbors.
*Roma people were once widely referred to in the English language as “Gypsies,” a term considered pejorative due to its past use as a racial slur.
-Bartók, Peter, My Father, 2002.
-Soroker, Yakov, Ukranian Musical Elements in Classical Music,1995.
-Béla Bartók's shoes. Historic Saranac Lake Collection, courtesy of the Estate of Peter Bartók.
-Béla Bartók's ties and eye glasses. Historic Saranac Lake Collection, courtesy of the Estate of Peter Bartók.
-Béla, Ditta, and Peter Bartók in Saranac Lake, 1944. Courtesy of My Father by Peter Bartók.
-Bartok using a phonograph to record folk songs in Zobordarázs, Slovakia. Courtesy of My Father by Peter Bartók.
-The Bartók Cabin. Illustration by James Hotaling.
THE BARTÓK FUND
Historic Saranac Lake has established a fund to support the preservation and display of the Béla Bartók Collection, the maintenance of the Bartók cabin, and our work to interpret the story of Bartók in Saranac Lake. We welcome your support. Please donate to the Bartók Fund or contact us to find out more.
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