Visiting the World View of a Great Composer (Lower Mental Plane)AC 250: January 7, 2006 (Haydenville, MA)
In this dream, I visited the world view of the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945). I seemed to be inside his head as he worked on his masterpiece, the Concerto for Orchestra, which he wrote not long before he died.
In the fourth movement of this piece, which Bartók called "Interrupted Intermezzo," the composer quoted a passage from the Seventh Symphony of Dimitri Shostakovitch. Bartók was working on this movement during the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis. Shostakovitch's symphony was being broadcast constantly on the radio during the siege.
Much of the first movement of Shostakovitch's symphony is taken up with variations on a simple tune that Bartók apparently found irritating. When he quoted this tune in the Concerto for Orchestra, he made it sound silly and shrill, mocking it with trombone smears and tittering laughter in the woodwinds.
In my visit to Bartok's world view, I realized that this tune had become for him what we would now call an ear worm. It was repeating itself over and over in his head. He could not get rid of it. It threatened to push the music he was creating out of his head, in particular the lovely melody at the heart of the Concerto's fourth movement. He had to exorcize it by absorbing it into the fabric of the music he was writing and banishing it with derisive laughter.
The result was that the lovely melody became more poignant, a sad but forgiving commentary on the state of humanity that would produce such music and make it popular, while Bartók himself was neglected, suffering from the illness that would eventually bring about his death, in exile, in New York.
In the dream, I saw Bartók moving through his daily life as in a film done in tones of sepia. I saw the wingback chair he would sit in with a blanket over his legs, the large old radio, the wallpaper and lamps of a room in 1940s America, the European touches in the decoration of the room--coverlets for the chair, for example.
I also saw Bartók at work on his score, serious, intent, quietly drawn into one-pointed awareness. I saw how annoyed he was over the continual playing of the Shostakovitch piece on the radio, the glee he felt over exorcizing the ear worm it had become. I saw his flashing eyes when he told his wife about the joke.
I saw his fear of not having the strength to complete the piece, the tremendous effort necessary to keep his spirits high, which he put into the music (especially the last movement), and which eventually lifted him out of his own dark mood about the war and his health.
I saw how very small he was, not only in stature, but also in weight, because of his as yet undiagnosed leukemia. He weighed less than a hundred pounds.
I saw his beautiful but ravaged profile, which showed a grim determination to finish what he had begun, no matter what. Sheer will was keeping him alive and preventing him from giving in to despair.
His will and intensity brought out the soul in him, a deep spirituality without religion, based on the high moral and ethical principles of his particular brand of humanism. This is what allowed him to create his masterpiece, what raised his consciousness suddenly so high, possibly to the level of illumined mind. It was also what allowed him to produce the only eighth center (cosmic consciousness) music of his life, that beautiful melody of the fourth movement of his Concerto for Orchestra.
[For more information about the spiritual dimension of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, see my book Music and the Soul: A Listener's Guide to Transcendent Musical Experiences.]