Gaining Composure

Gaining Composure: Asheville lifted the spirits of one of the 20th century’s greatest composers
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By the time Béla Bartók reached Asheville in 1943, the Hungarian composer had already made his mark on classical music. He analyzed thousands of folk songs from remote Romanian villages, and in his music, produced a highly individualistic, modernist style. But at the age of 62, the musician faced financial difficulties, waning public interest in his work, and a battle with leukemia.

Bartók’s doctors misdiagnosed his ailment as tuberculosis and sequestered the composer to Appalachia, hoping the fresh air would improve his health. While he wintered at the Albemarle Inn, Bartók translated the lyrics of nearly 2,000 Romanian folk songs, completed his Solo Sonata, rewrote a portion of his Concerto for Orchestra—what would become his most popular work—and read Shakespeare at leisure.

In a series of letters to his son, Péter, Bartók complained about the region’s unpredictable weather and aired his distaste for Americans’ habit of spitting tobacco. But by April, he had found inspiration here. “The birds become entirely intoxicated by spring and organize concerts such as I have never heard,” Bartók wrote. It was the inspiration for the last compositions he worked on before he died in New York a year later. His WNC legacy lives on in his Piano Concerto No. 3, sometimes called the “Asheville Concerto.”