Classical masterpiece's surprising parentage

Most commentaries on Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra identify its folk themes as originating from Hungary or other Slavic nations. But I recently came across this little known account of the masterpiece's parentage in Christopher Sawyer-Laucannno's biography of Paul Bowles.
[Paul Bowles] also got involved through Henry Cowell, who was now in New York teaching at the New School for Social Research, in having some of the North African Chleuh records mechanically reproduced as recordings for Béla Bartók, long a pioneer in re-working folk tunes, mainly Slavic melodies, into his compositions. Although the reproductions were not very good, they were apparently sufficient, as they would appear, considerably transformed, in Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra.
The Chleuh are a Berber ethnic group living in Morocco's Atlas Mountains and Souss Valley and are predominantly Muslim. Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1944 under the Russian born Jewish conductor Sergei Koussevitzky. If Bowles' biographer is correct, the Concerto for Orchestra, which is a staple of the orchestral repertoire , turns out to have Islam in its genes. Truly music beyond borders.

* Christopher Sawyer-Laucann dates the transfer of Paul Bowles' Cheleuh recordings to 1935. More on Bowles' later Moroccan field recordings here.

** Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the New York Philharmonic in the Concerto for Orchestra in Avery Fisher Hall on March 11, 2011.

*** Soundtrack - Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra playing Bela Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra. Truly virtuoso playing and wonderfully vivid pre-digital sound from the 1963 Columbia recording in the Town Hall, Philadelphia. Seems to be deleted as a CD but available on demand from ArchivMusic. Reflections on the Philadelphia Orchestra here.

This post is available via Twitter @overgrownpath Header image is from the the out of print Bartók by Hamish Milne in the Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers series, Omnibus Press ISBN 0711902607. Quote is from Paul Bowles - An Invisible Spectator by Christopher Sawyer-Laucannno. My 1990 Paladin edition (ISBN 0586089608) was bought online. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Halldor said…
Lovely idea, and perfectly possible - didn't Bartok collect folk music in Algeria before WW1 (and used it as the basis of certain themes in his Second Quartet)?

But I'd be a little cautious about leaning on the absolute reliability of any source that describes Bartok's use of "mainly Slavic" folk material. Hungary, Transylvania, Rumania...not exactly Slavic.
Pliable said…
Halldor, thanks for that.

Yes, Bartók visited Algeria, and also Turkey where he worked with the composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun who was a Kemalist.

You are also quite right to point out that the tension between making posts punchy and achieving academic rigour is not always satisfactorily resolved in posts like this.

But, as you say, lovely idea, and perfectly possible.
Pliable said…
Email received:

Regarding your post about Bartok. I remember hearing that he had also visited Glasgow to give a recital - and had bought a set of bagpipes ?!. Anyway, searching about this I came across this piece of writing by Erik Chisholm ( who I'd never heard of up to know) about Bartok's stay here.Around p 21 it suggests that he 'd become acquainted with Scottish folk music too....


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