Béla Bartók’s clothes show history in Saranac Lake, Ukraine
SARANAC LAKE — Historic Saranac Lake recently received a package in the mail with a pair of shoes that seemed to walk right out of history, at a time when that history has a renewed relevance.
The shoes belonged to Béla Bartók, “one of the greatest musical composers in human history” and a pioneer in the field of ethnomusicology, according to HSL Executive Director Amy Catania. He lived most of his life in Eastern Europe, in countries whose borders have changed or been turned into completely new countries because of war and invasions.
The Hungarian town he was born is now in Romania. Other Hungarian towns he lived in are now in Ukraine and Slovakia.
Bartók spent the last three summers of his life in Saranac Lake, before his death in 1945, residing in the mountains as his body battled leukemia. He hoped the natural air would help him “cure,” as it was believed to do for tuberculosis patients.
When this box of Bartók’s personal effects came in, Catania’s mind immediately went to Ukraine, where civilians are currently either fleeing a Russian invasion as refugees or picking up arms to fight. This package “brought the news closer to home,” she said.
Bartók spent his life documenting the music of these people’s ancestors and living through the conflicts that shaped the current generation’s geographical landscape.
He traveled rural regions, recording Ukrainian, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Bulgarian, Moldavian, Transylvanian, Algerian and Turkish folk music on a wax cylinder Edison machine.
This “peasant music” was not often recorded, Catania said, but Bartók sought to preserve it.
Then came WWII. His country, Hungary, joined the Axis Powers.
“Béla’s anti-fascist views were well known, and his wife Ditta was Jewish,” Catania wrote. “They fled the Nazis to New York City.”
He left behind his life’s work in Budapest — hundreds of recordings of ancient folk music and sheet music for over 13,000 songs. Bartók died thinking this trove of art and culture was lost to the war.
But the recordings and notations survived, and are in some cases all that remain of the people who made that music.
“A lot of those people and those places were destroyed in World War II, and so now, to see war coming up again in that part of the world, it really brings back how much those people have been through and how devastating war is,” Catania said.
World War II was “intensely personal” to Bartók, Catania said. Reading the news in Saranac Lake, he worried for the safety of his eldest son, also named Béla, who remained in Budapest, Hungary, and son Peter, who was serving in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.
“He had one son in the war and one son IN the war,” Monks-Kelly said.
“Having lived during WWI and the Russian Revolution, the composer was acutely aware of the horror of war and its tendency to transcend borders,” Catania wrote.
Peter Bartók, a friend of HSL’s, had saved a trunk of his father’s personal items — bow ties, a vest, glasses, a photo framed alongside a snippet of music written in Bartók’s hand and the pair of concert shoes stuffed with newspaper. When he died in 2020, he left this collection to HSL as a gift.
Bartók did not have many possessions. He moved and fled so much in his life, and he wasn’t a wealthy man. But HSL Archivist and Curator Chessie Monks-Kelly said there’s a lot to glean from the artifacts.
“His music can feel inaccessible to people who aren’t trained musicians or familiar with folk songs of Eastern Europe,” Catania wrote. “His story can seem as distant and as foreign as his music. But lifting his little shoes out of the box, it’s like he walked right into the present day.”
The significance of shoes
Even though these are simple bits of everyday ephemera, Monks-Kelly said they can “humanize history.”
“Having a piece of flotsam that makes up our daily lives helps anchor us in the present to those past stories,” she said.
Instead of Bartók being a story, myth or concept in someone’s mind, he can be presented as a physical person who lived and walked.
“Everyone wears shoes, theoretically,” she said.
His shoes look a little older.
Monks-Kelly said even shoes can tell a lot about the man who wore them. She posits that Bartók dragged his heels as he walked. She pointed to the heel of his shoe, which was worn down to the pegs while the toe remained less beat.
The shoes arrived stuffed with newspapers dated from 1942 to keep their form. Some of the articles were written in an Eastern European language — identifiable by the umlauts and letters used.
There’s a word in the museum and archiving community — “Provenance.” It basically means, “the ownership history of an item,” Monks-Kelly said.
Without Bartók’s ownership, the shoes are not significant.
“Without that, if you sent me a box of shoes, I’d be like, ‘These don’t fit me,'” Monks-Kelly said.
But the fact that they were Bartók’s shoes combined with the fact that his son Peter saved them for 80 years, makes them noteworthy. They must have been significant to Peter, Monks-Kelly said, either as a memory of his father or as a piece of history he knew he wanted to pass on.
Peter wrote a book on his father’s life titled “My Father.”
Saranac Lake connection
Bartók had little money and no piano when he lived in Saranac Lake, yet he composed works considered to be his masterpieces here, including “Concerto for Orchestra” and the “Third Piano Concerto.”
On Tuesday, as Monks-Kelly moved Bartók’s vest to a safer box, a ticket stub tumbled out. The stub, dated Dec. 2, 1944, was from the Boston Symphony Hall. Catania quickly searched the place and date and discovered that on that evening, the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered “Concerto for Orchestra,” one of the pieces Bartók wrote in Saranac Lake. It is a dramatic and bombastic piece, driven with speed but mournful at the same time. Catania said it is one of his more accessible works for uninitiated audiences.
Handwriting on the stub says either “Mr. Bartók” or “Mrs. Bartók.”
“After the performance, they probably just stuck it back in the pocket and maybe it’s been there ever since,” Catania said.
Bartók died in New York City nine months after the concert.
The Bartók world is buzzing over the discovery. Catania spread the word to musicians, historians and Bartók experts around the world.
“They are just totally floored,” she said.
HSL maintains the cabin where Bartók stayed the year of his death and shows it to the public by appointment.
“Peter visited the cabin many years ago, when it had fallen to ruin and was slated for demolition,” Catania wrote. “Thanks to his support, and the efforts of numerous volunteers, the cabin was restored.”
Monks-Kelly said they plan to display Bartók’s items at the former home of Edward Livingston Trudeau next door to the Saranac Laboratory Museum, once that expansion and renovation is complete.
HSL is conducting a capital campaign to support the museum expansion and has a special naming opportunity for the care and exhibition of the Bartók collection, which can be found at https://bit.ly/3qdaDlU.
Catania said HSL is planning online events about Bartók later this year.