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Classical 101

An Interview with David Cooper on His New Book about The Life of Béla Bartók

Yale University Press, book cover
The cover of Professor Cooper's newest book on Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók (1881–1945) provides a snapshot of a man whose personality is studied nearly as much as his music.";s:

Many reviewers of Leeds University Professor, David Cooper's new book on Béla Bartók have remarked that Cooper leads readers to believe that the famous Hungarian composer was on the Autistic spectrum. 

In the newly-published biographical study, Cooper cites clinical psychologist Michael Fitzgerald, the Henry Marsh Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin,  on the possibility of Bartók displaying characteristics of Aspergher's Syndrome. 

Professor Cooper stated clearly that he: "remained somewhat skeptical..." as is noted in the postlude of the book. (pg 376)

This is not a new situation; Glenn Gould has been studied; Beethoven has been studied; Einstein; Carlo Gesualdo;  the list goes on... It seems that every few years, some great mind from the past is analyzed posthumously and something is diagnosed or suggested, and then Musicologists and Historians go back and forth on the topic endlessly.

Cooper has already published eight other books, but this one has caught the public's eye because of the nature of posthumous psychological analysis. It is interesting to debate. 

In fact, the level of public interest piqued my own, so I emailed Professor Cooper to ask a few questions, and he had fantastic responses at the ready-- as good authors and researchers do. 

Q: "How long have you been researching Bartók?"

Cooper: "I first became aware of Bartók more than forty years ago...In my early training as a composer and musicologist, Bartók was one of my greatest loves and I became familiar with many of his works. I later went on to write a book about the Concerto for Orchestra for Cambridge University Press, which was published in 1996 and have written several other book chapters and journal articles about him. 

... I admired Bartók for his ability to write in an advanced international muscal language while drawing on the music of the Hungarian countryside in an entirely original way."

Q: "What are the focal points of your newest book on Bartók? Is this a work that is intended for musicologists and professional musicians or for the average reader and music enthusiast?"

Cooper: "The book tries to describe his work as a composer, ethnomusicologist, teacher and pianist on three 'dimensions': firstly, against the political developments over his lifetime in Hungary and beyond; secondly, through his folk collecting and cataloguing activities; and thirdly, via his many important and deep friendships, particularly with other musicians with whom he performed. There is discussion of almost all the mature pieces , and this can be quite musicological in nature, but it is hoped that the rest of the book will be readily accessible to readers who are not musically trained or interested in the technical detail."

Q: "What sort of conclusions have you drawn, in the book or otherwise, as to the nature of Bartók's personality and the possibility of him having Asperger syndrome?" 

Cooper: "In fact, I don't make any original claim in relation to Asperger's. I cite the clinical psychologist Michael Fitzgerald, Henry Marsh Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, who has argued that Bartók displayed many of the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome identified in (the) Diagnostic Satistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), published by the American Psuchiatric ASsociation. I remain personally somewhat skeptical and note in the postlude of the book that:

In general, it appears that Bartóksimply treated people as he found them and wasted little effort in unnecessary niceties with those to whom he did not feel drawn. Some might regard this as being indicative of a degree of social dysfunction-- even as an autistic trait. I am not competent to make a clinical judgement but would suggest that, to employ a somewhat fashionable term, he was demonstrating an authenticity to his personality moulded through )among other environmental factors) the vicissitudes and stresses of his childhood and upbringing; a dominant maternal influence; and the challenges of an intense musical education." (pg 376)

If you are interested in reading the book and deciding how you think the research depicts one of the 20th Century's most beloved composers, you can purchase it from Yale Press HERE, and please let me know what you think.