Béla Bartók’s Manuscripts

Béla Bartók Manuscripts

Without the manuscripts, preparing corrected printed editions of Béla Bartók’s compositions would not have been possible. Only as a result of the composer’s foresight were these corrected editions conceivable at all.

Béla Bartók decided to leave his homeland, Hungary, as a consequence of the Second World War and the spread of Nazism, in 1940. Before making the final journey to the United States of America in October, 1940, he selected the most important manuscripts of every one of his compositions and, with the help of friends in Switzerland, sent them to New York. There they were in the safekeeping of two friends as trustees until, in 1943, the trust was terminated and the manuscripts were kept, as a favor, in the apartment of another friend who lived in the relative safety of a “fireproof” apartment building in Manhattan. They were there when the composer died, in September, 1945.

The collection of these manuscripts grew. At first, some manuscripts were found in Béla Bartók’s last residence, including his unfinished work, Viola Concerto. Then, letters were collected by the  executor/trustee of Béla Bartók’s Estate; letters written by the composer to friends and business contacts. In 1954 a large group of  manuscripts, from the archives of the publishers Universal Edition and Boosey & Hawkes, were acquired for the Bartók Estate. Although these usually duplicated works of which there were other manuscripts in the collection, they were not mechanical duplicates and thus of interest in analyzing discrepancies among different sources. Absent from the collection were manuscripts that the composer gave away to others, either as a friendly gesture, or as an obligation when the work was written on commission, such as the Concerto for Orchestra. In some instances copies were obtained of these manuscripts also.

Despite the relative safety and care, losses occurred. An early piano piece disappeared from Béla Bartók’s apartment about a year after his death, without any clue. Discussion of every one of these losses would be beyond the scope of this report. That of the Viola Concerto, in 1953, was a more notorious instance. It was first claimed lost. In 1957 it was reported to be in the hands of an unidentified autograph dealer in Basel; it could not be purchased on account of the “excessive” asking price. The manuscript was allegedly seen somewhere in New York some years later. It eventually resurfaced in 1972.

There are many instances of less favorable endings. Shortly before Béla Bartók was taken to the hospital for the last time, he had corrected an engraver’s proof of the Concerto for Orchestra. He had no time to give it back to the publisher, but asked a friend and former pupil to take it, look it over for any obvious errors, and give it back to the publisher. The work was printed, presumably with all the corrections. The corrected proof, however, disappeared and has not been found since; in the preparation of the corrected edition of the work it could not be considered.

The most significant loss concerned not the physical objects themselves, but the title to virtually all manuscripts held in the New York manuscript collection. In 1958 a claim was made to the effect that Béla Bartók did not own the manuscripts he created throughout his life, so they were not the property of his estate. Just who else allegedly owned them was not made clear; it was held to be such a difficult legal question that “only a court of law”, no ordinary mortal, could determine it. The consequence of this claim was a litigation, commenced with an accounting that showed the deceased composer to have owned the complete manuscripts of only one of his compositions, the Third Piano Concerto, and part of the Five Songs, Opus 15 (No. 1, 2, 3, and a duplicate of No. 3). The litigation lasted 27 years, partly as a result of many unrelated questions raised, mostly aimed at diminishing Peter Bartók’s interest in his father’s estate, and included the proposal to auction the manuscripts once their ownership by Béla Bartók was established. In the course of this proceeding ownership of the manuscripts in general was conceded in Béla Bartók’s favor in one decade, a relatively short time in the astronomical time scale of litigations, but the identity of each and every piece of paper that was covered by the concession posed difficulty, inasmuch as there was never a systematic, detailed inventory taken of the Estate’s possessions. Some kind of proof had to be produced to the effect that a piece of paper actually existed some time before it could be claimed for the Bartók Estate.

Among other items were the entire bundle of letters written by Béla Bartók to his son Peter, to me, in the last few years of his life. These were placed with the manuscripts a few years after my father passed away but, in 1965, when the collection was inspected, they were not there. After no proof of disposition could be found, eventually these letters were located in New York. Another group of documents with questioned title was a collection of photographs taken by Béla Bartók during a folk song collecting tour in Slovakia early in the 20th century. Similar photographs were in the collection, allegedly purchased in Hungary and claimed not to be the property of Béla Bartók’s Estate. They matched exactly, however, copies of the photographs Béla Bartók brought from Hungary and, on this basis, could be claimed for the Estate.

Despite losses, the bulk of the manuscripts enabled the preparation of revised editions. In the twenty years, 1985 – 2005 the published editions of nearly half of the compositions could be corrected. It is unfortunate that the work of producing them could not be commenced sooner, and that it could make little progress since 2005. The 27 years wasted by the dispute about who owned Béla Bartók’s manuscripts could have been devoted to meaningful use and could have included preparation of some corrected editions already. After 2005 interference with this work resumed by unidentified elements, so little progress could be made. Each day is a gift of nature and, if not utilized, will not be offered again. Such a waste did not have to be imposed on people in a civilized world that, however, may well be less civilized than some of us may have liked to believe.


Homosassa, 1 September 2010