From Avoid the Day:
Inside another case we regard Bartók’s cufflinks, stamps, a well-worn pocket metronome. If you read accounts by his students, you quickly learn how he put tempo, almost cruelly, above all else. He demanded a precision impossible to duplicate and would shame those who could not master it. Whereas some composers leave tempo at least somewhat up to later generations for interpretation, Bartók’s scores strictly dictate exactly how each note should register in time. On the autograph manuscript of his Third Quartet, he designated that each quarter note must be equal to 88 beats per minute, then changes it twenty short bars later to 76 BPM. A very subtle shift.
We wander over to a roped-off room. It is the master’s studio. There is his coffin, black and shellacked. Did I say coffin? I meant piano. The track-lighting sends streams, like rivulets of thawing ice, dribbling across the lid. The room is otherwise sparse. The window is like any window. But the only thing of interest to me is the machine on the desk in the far corner.
“Is that the actual phonograph he collected with?” I say, sticking my head into the room past the velvet rope.
“NO NO NO.”
“Don’t lean over it,” Bob says. “They’ve got a sensitized alarm system.”
I am drawn to it like a winter moth. The thing is, it was this machine, more than anything else, that allowed Bartók to become Bartók. His whole method relied on this advantage: to go out into the world, collect bits of direct experience, make faithful transcriptions, then feed it to his inner gargoyle.
But it wasn’t until the summer of 1904, while Bartók was at a resort in Gerliceputsza, that he would overhear a nanny cooing a lullaby and discover his true master. One day, while composing, he was interrupted by this voice from the next room over. At first it must have perturbed him immensely. He was always fanatical about working in absolute silence. In his studio, he muted out his noisy family with a thick leather blanket. In exile in New York, many years later, he would leave the shower running as a kind of white noise machine. But now, he set down his pen and sought out the girl. Surely, she was flustered, faced by this fanatical wraith of a man, demanding to know what it was she was singing. Somehow Bartók found the courtesy and charm to persuade her to sing it again so he might copy it down in his journal. The song was about an apple that had fallen in the mud. It really could not have been simpler. Bartók looked at it there, this apple in the dark mud, like a shining clot of blood, and he picked it up, and turned it this way and that, and he scribbled down the melody to better understand the shape of this thing which he could not yet grasp.