Coming out top

Paul Driver

  • The Bartók Companion edited by Malcolm Gillies
    Faber, 586 pp, £35.00, February 1994, ISBN 0 571 15330 5

There was something unnerving about Bartók, as Agatha Fassett indicates in The Naked Face of Genius, her 1958 ‘novel’ about his American last years. ‘That’s one bit of information that might have been left unremembered,’ Bartók curtly informed her when, on their first meeting, she had given the wrong answer to the absurd question: ‘Would you call this a coconut?’ The object he was holding reminded her, she confessed, of a ‘weird-looking Indian head’, but he had tender sympathies with the downtrodden, and the dinner party was ruined. Bartók seems to have had a comparably unnerving effect on the critics and historians of 20th-century music. They always manage to leave him out of the reckoning. Summarising Bartók’s position from the vantage-point of the Nineties in the first chapter of The Bartók Companion, Malcolm Gillies notes that since the late Forties and Fifties ‘the authors of books on 20th-century music have generally placed him about fourth in their line-up of leading innovators – if number of pages can be taken as a guide – after Debussy (as father of impressionism in music), Schoenberg (pioneer of atonality and serialism) and Stravinsky (rhythmic innovator and Neoclassicist). Bartók is, almost invariably, given as the chief representative of folk influence in art music.’ One question that a hefty and scholarly Companion such as this might therefore resolve is whether or not that end-of-term grade is accurate, and if not, whether Bartók might climb to number one.

The overriding impression one takes from his music is not that it is folkish – that is the impression to be had from swathes of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Kodály – nor that it is ‘art music’, but that it has a ‘natural’ and unideological fluency and force. Though Bartók had strong nationalist feelings, and expressed them in his music, his works rarely seem limited thereby. The ‘art music’ withstands the politics: one thinks of studies in rhythm when listening to the Dance Suite, not of the union of Buda and Pest. And to term Bartók’s music ‘natural’ need not be to employ a more or less rightist ideology of one’s own: clearly his work is not an unmediated bubbling out of the Heideggerian soil. In truth, art can never be natural, but it can refrain from consciously exemplifying theories about art; it can shun art’s own ideologies. The very fact that Bartók bequeathed no ‘ism’, did not invent a ‘12-tone technique’ (though, as in the Second Violin Concerto, could wittily glance in that direction), had no explicit allegiance to Neo-classicism – this very lack of handles for the critic ought to be seen as exemplary rather than as reason for Bartók’s relegation, always given that his music is self-evidently imaginative, beautiful, modern. By dint of extraordinary tact and inspiration, by means to be ascertained, indeed, by the Companion, Bartók created masterpieces in a troublesome century that are masterpieces of music alone. And the critics didn’t want to know.

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