any questions? Don’t you ever try to find out?
Do you just take everything for granted?”
A pause again, but no answer.
“Well, I’ll give you another chance,” he began all over again. “If I should pull out those
little plants, which of course I’m not going to
do, you could see that they are growing out of
perfectly round holes, very much the same as
those you yourself would dig in the ground to
put a young plant into, and each of them is the
same size and depth, and just about the same
distance from one another. One more hint, although I don’t know why I bother with you at
all. When I look at those evenly placed holes,
I hear a sound—ta-ta-ta—ta-ta-ta—ta—
ta-ta-ta—ta-ta-ta—ta.” He repeated the rhythm
over and over again, monotonous as a dry
wooden instrument hitting its single note with
Ditta began to shake with repressed laughter, and as our eyes met, we set each other off.
“I don’t see anything to laugh about,”
Bartók said, “in the fact that you are unable to
reason anything out. Don’t tell me that you still
“I really haven’t got the slightest idea.
Please tell me, Béla. Please,” Ditta said. She was
certainly more amused than curious, but we
“I said, I hear a sound sharply echoing
through the woods: ta-ta-ta—ta-ta-ta—ta.”
There it was, the same sound again. Only its ac-
curate, sharp rhythmical pattern was exaggerated
by his impatience—otherwise without a hair-
breadth of change, and with intense seriousness.
We didn’t dare look at each other this time.
“We heard you, Béla,” Ditta said. “But we
still don’t know. Tell us, please.” She looked up
at him, childlike, waiting for his answer.
“Woodpecker!” Bartók threw the word at
her. “Woodpecker! What else could it be! A
woodpecker drilled those holes.” And then,
abruptly calm, he was telling a story.
“While this tree was standing tall and upright and to all appearances sound, it was already
eaten by deathly little bugs buzzing under each
of its layers. No great conquest for a hurricane
that could fell the healthiest giants of the forest.
But healthy or sick, they all come down, and the
bugs take over completely. In these holes here,
earth and rain and food and soil have gathered,
and now this dead trunk is decorated with life
again. Life invades these dead bodies, claiming
them entirely for its own, and will cover every
inch of them with glittering fresh green as the
dead bodies sink away under the living weight,
their existence fulfilled and completed.”
Agatha Fassett, from The Naked Face of Genius:
Belá Bartók’s American Years. Hungarian pianist
Fassett was close with the composer and his wife,
the pianist Ditta Pásztory, from the time of their
arrival in the U.S. in 1940 until Bartók’s death in
New York in 1945. During the war Bartók worked
as a research assistant at Columbia University, tran-
scribing recordings of Serbian and Croatian folk
songs. Only ten people attended his funeral.
Over-the-shoulder soprano horn, by John F. Stratton, c. 1880. The bell of this military horn points
backward to face the soldiers marching behind it.