Bartok, Janacek and Schiff: Men in Search of a Country:

Composers Bartok and Janacek and the pianist Sir Andras Schiff could not escape the politics that surrounded their lives.  Schiff, known for his virtuoustic performances at the keyboard, is Hungarian like Bartok. Janacek, from Czechoslovakia, and Bartok were heavily influenced by the folk music of their respective countries.

Bartok played the piano before he could complete sentences and according to Wikipedia he could play 40 pieces by age 4.  He became one of Hungary’s most celebrated composers, but the treatment of the Jews by the occupying Nazis compelled him to leave for the U.S. in the fall of 1940.  He did not return to homeland. In 1988 his remains were returned to Budapest to be buried beside his wife Ditta, who died in 1982.

Janacek, whose career overlapped Bartok’s, began choral studies although he had exemplary pianistic ability.  He went to Prague to study organ and piano and then left again to study composition in Leipzig. His subsequent efforts to win a studentship with Saint-Saëns in France failed. Again looking away from Czechoslovakia he found inspiration in Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata for his first string quartet. Despite a defined admiration for other nations his music was rooted in Moravian folk songs. His  personal tragedy of his daughter Olga’s death at 12 in 1903 led to his 1904 opera Jenûfa that he dedicated to Olga.  The following year he composed the piano sonata – 1.X 1905 after seeing a young man killed by local police.

On Wednesday, February 20, Friends of Chamber Music audiences were treated to Schiff’s performance of Janacek’s 1.X 1905 on a Bosendorfer piano, Schiff’s preference over a Steinway.  Those who did not know the tragic roots of the piece heard the pianist declare his personal connection to the piece written after Janacek saw a “peaceful demonstration” turn bloody. The two movement sonata was written purposefully in Eb minor to elicit the feeling of loss and disillusionment.  The first movement is titled Foreboding and the second is Death. Schiff’s program that included Schumann was something that Schiff admitted to labor over. He stated that the two European composers were linked by their ‘diversity’ and ‘rich language.’  While the Janacek Sonata of the second half was a very public revolution by the composer, Schumann’s Piano Sonata No.1 in F# Minor, Op. 11, according to Schiff, was a “personal revolution” against Clara’s father, “a dictator” that sent Clara away from Schumann.   Sir Andras Schiff posed his own rebellion in 1987 when repelled by Hungarian politics he embraced Austrian citizenship which he abandoned in 2001 for British citizenship.  He has reported that he will not return to perform in Hungary.

Tim Franks of BBC World Service remarked in a 2013 interview with Sir Andras Schiff, “Art and politics cannot be disentangled.”  The careers of the virtuosic Bartok, Janacek and Schiff prove this point. They were not just performers but musicians that continue to create a dialogue with their audiences. – Bartok’s 10 Easy Pieces/15 Hungarian Peasant Songs – Janacek’s Piano Sonata 1.X 1905 – Schiff’s 2017 performance of Beethoven’s Sonata 32 in C Minor


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