Bartók, Béla (1881 – 1945)

‘I collected many songs from the washerwomen’ — Bartók, on a 1918 trip seeking Romanian folk music

A fine four-page autograph letter signed (‘Bartók Béla’) to his friend János Busitia, Rákoskeresztúr, 14 September 1918. In Hungarian. Together with the original envelope, hand-addressed by the composer.

Bartók opens, ‘I have been most remiss at not giving any signs of life until now. I wanted to wait for the Romanian Dances [of which Busitia was the dedicatee], so that I could send them to you, but in vain, because they have still not arrived.’ He adds that he has been ebusy but also ‘inordinately lazy in writing letters (a fault confessed is half redressed)’. He then recounts his journey back from a visit in company with a Frenchwoman, which was pleasant ‘inasmuch as I could converse in French, until it tired me out. To hear French spoken well is a pleasure in itself, whatever the subject of conversation. As for the woman herself, she was a treacherous snake: she knew my wife and family well and had even seen my son on several occasions, but – for who knows what reason – kept all this a secret until the end of our journey. Don’t trust women!’

The composer then recounts a stay with his patron, Baron Kohner, where everything was organised in the highest style, which he describes as ‘aristocratic pomp’: ‘The way these people enjoy their affluence almost makes you forget to be enraged by the inequity of wealth. Guests came and went as if it was a hotel… We talked about all kinds of things: music, literature, the Jewish question, religion, the Bolshevik movement, agriculture, trade, etc etc… The Baron went hunting every afternoon, and came home with a bag of 25-30 partridges every day… I of course spent most of the time in the laundry: I collected many songs from the washerwomen and in the meantime observed the ironing of various lace petticoats, shirts and trousers. I established that even their underwear is of the first quality. One evening, barefoot harvester girls came to the front of the house, by ancient custom, to say farewell and dance.’

Bartók’s Romanian friend János Busitia (1876-1953) helped him in collecting Romanian folk songs, and was the dedicatee of the Romanian Folkdances (1915). Baron Adolf Kohner Szaszberek (1866-1937) was a wealthy Hungarian Jewish businessman, landowner and collector: he offered Bartók significant financial support, including an annual stipend. Published in Letters ed. J. Demeny, no. 139.