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.
Those masterpieces should not be assumed to be harmonious in character – though the later works sometimes are, the mid-career ones are notorious for rebarbativeness (the pungently dissonant, reiterative manner defined by the short piano piece Allegro barbaro). But Bartók’s works preserve a logic of proportion and syntax that stems from the musical material itself and never from imposed ideas. East European folksong provided much of the material and much of the syntax – above all the non-diatonic modal harmony and the rhythmic irregularity – and the efflorescent growth of his ‘art music’ out of such peasant fundamentals supports the view of it as ‘natural’. In fixing the proportions of a piece, Bartók can seem a rigorous constructivist, obsessed with symmetry and palindrome, yet it is nature’s own geometry – the balanced asymmetry of the Golden Section – that he often achieves. He invariably adjusted his template to serve his formal intuition, just as he could rarely bring himself to repeat themes exactly, but sought nature’s incessant variegation of detail. Musical instinct was what governed him. Malcolm Gillies, repeating his caveat against the doubtful, dogmatic Golden Sectioning and Fibonacci numbering employed by the influential Bartók analyst Ernö Lendvai, observes that ‘there is no evidence that Bartók was aware of these principles or designed any of his works according to them. The sketches to his later works make it clear that the music just grew this way in his hands. Some innate sense of proportion would alert him to an over-compression or elongation in the phrasing or sectioning of his music and cause him to make appropriate adjustments to fit in with the piece’s dynamic.’
‘Sense of proportion’ in an accomplished artist is a fascinating subject, touching the numinous, not architectonic pure and simple, implying a moral responsibility to the material that echoes the platitudinous meaning of the phrase. Speaking of his addiction to seven-part novelistic structures in The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera insists that they don’t ‘represent some superstitious flirtation with magical numbers, or any rational calculation, but a deep, unconscious, incomprehensible drive, an archetype of form that I cannot escape.’ Something of the sort was true for Bartók and the palindromic five-part, ‘bridge’ structure (A-B-C-B-A), used in the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets, Second Piano Concerto, Second Violin Concerto, the third movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and elsewhere. György Króo’s interesting discussion of the pivotal Cantata profana points to an ethnological basis for this in ‘the arch of transitional rites with its five sections (breaking away from customs, initiation into the sacral, transition, breaking away from the sacral, return on a higher plane to customs)’, a pattern which the Cantata with its story of sons turned into stags and unsuccessfully hunted and cajoled by their father vividly but disturbingly dramatises.
But the listener to Bartók’s, geometric structures (as distinct from those, say, of Webern) is unlikely to complain of ‘dryness’. He or she is not much more likely to be conscious of the formal artifice than of the precise modal goings-on in the folksong-influenced harmony, which sounds rustically quaint only in the composer’s weaker, more anecdotal, directly transcriptive works (the plethora of Romanian Dance arrangements, the violin Rhapsodies, the late clarinet trio Contrasts written for Benny Goodman). Should, however, she or he wish to be informed, the Companion is there as a guide through every manipulation of pitch. The book’s forte is harmonic analysis, but this also makes it intermittently unreadable: Elliott Antokoletz’s doubtless accurate chapters are virtually unusable. I don’t too much mind having thus to pass on the Fourteen Bagatelles for piano or the middle-period string quartets, but I rather resent being saddled with ‘while the perfect-fourth cyclic segments in the antecedent phrase are interconnected by two whole-tone dyads ... the semitonal cyclic-interval content of the expanding and contracting phases of the consequent phrase is partitioned into mutually exclusive segments of two whole-tone cycles’ as comment on that most thrilling of incipits, the late, luminous Concerto for Orchestra. The startling inventiveness of this score, its audacious compositional clarity (which has luckily made it Bartók’s most popular work), its wit, concision and tight narrative grip, its sheer emotional energy – none of these attributes is deemed worthy of mention by the mantra-muttering Antokoletz.
He does end, though, with a clear statement, that the Concerto ‘represents one of Bartók’s most extensive fusions of diverse Eastern European folk-music sources and contemporary art-music principles’, and the folk-derived modal harmony which the Companion spends so much time decrypting is an important topic. The Balkan, Turkish, Arabic peasants of whose songs Bartók was such an assiduous and pioneering transcriber (Sándor Kovács provides a portrait of Bartók the ethnomusicologist) released him from obligation to Austro-German traditional harmony, the sort in which folk music had been swaddled by earlier exponents such as Dvorák. They indicated an alternative path to that revealed as classical tonality developed into romantic chromaticism, which developed into atonality and was officially supplanted by Schoenberg’s 12-tone serialism, precursor of Boulez’s and Stockhausen’s mathematical stringencies. This academic road has proved to be a cul-de-sac: the inheritors of the Schoenbergian method have nearly always covertly resorted to modal-tonal practices to make their pieces sound ‘right’. An empirical modal understanding of harmonic coherence may possibly be the only true common language of 20th-century music, as vital to Britten as (appearances notwithstanding) to Boulez, shared by Messiaen and Maxwell Davies. This is not perhaps to say much; but it is clear that the French school, going back at least to Fauré’s teacher Louis Niedermeyer with his flexible, modal approach to modulation, was on the more ‘progressive’ track all along, not destined, like the German School, to come to the dead end of mathematics. Bartók didn’t need a teacher of the modal procedures – he had living contact with the modes on his field trips; and his great works sound so forceful and natural because their harmony, like their melody and rhythm, seem to have been freshly invented every time. The great works of a composer in the Germanic ‘mainstream’ like Alban Berg seem weighed down with historical irony even when – most of all when – they draw in such things as the Carinthian folk melody of the Violin Concerto.
Though Bartók always refused to teach composition, having, like Britten, a superstitious fear of explaining away the sources of his power – and in his American years enduring penury in consequence – he was a toughly disciplined if reluctant and evidently unnerving piano teacher (‘unforgiving for the tiniest deviation or sloppiness in rhythm’, according to a pupil quoted by János Démeny), a fanatically diligent musicologist and as steeped in Western musical tradition as a composer could be. The new-mintedness and ‘natural’ coherence of his best work are all the more exemplary in that they seem neither to record a struggle with, nor to exclude, tradition. It is a long way from the accomplished neo-Straussianism of the symphonic poem Kossuth (1903) to the utterly original Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), which appears like a pure constellation; and yet behind that diffident title (the itemisation of forces is queerly selective, for xylophone, harp and piano are equally important) lie the four movements of something like a traditional symphony. And as Luciano Berio pointed out in his recent Charles Eliot Notion Lectures, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is richly (if with a wonderful non-chalance) involved with traditions of one kind or another from the outset:
the first five notes crop up, by mere coincidence, in Webern’s Variations Op. 30, four of these same notes make up the famous melodic cell on the name B-A-C-H, and the first three are the incipit of a Hungarian folksong. So we have four cultural seeds, so to speak, all contained in the same five notes, seeds which germinate and multiply in the four sections of Bartók’s remarkable work, in which latent and manifest meaning, the parts and the whole, all interact in a wholly novel and transparent way. It may be that Bartók’s explicit nature, his apparent innocence and his complex relationship with history and with the cultural realities around him, prevented Adorno and [Carl] Dalhaus from accepting him into their solemn intellectual architectures. Adorno’s silence on Bartók is significant.
This salute to Bartók only makes verbally explicit what Berio’s musical oeuvre, with its profound rootedness in Sicilian and other folk musics, its emancipation of ethnomusicological transcription as an art-form in itself, and its ability to preserve a keen instinctive musicality in a climate of rarefied (Boulezian) theoretical prescriptions, already eloquently attests. For numerous other significant composers – Lutoslawksi, Panufnik, Ligeti, Kurtág, perhaps Copland and Tippett – Bartók has been at least as formative an influence as Schoenberg and/or Stravinsky. The young Stockhausen succumbed, writing his thesis on the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, before decisively moving like Boulez in a direction signposted by Webern. Boulez seems to have been influenced by boldnesses such as the deployment of spatially separated orchestral groups in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (as witness Domaines and Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna). In his earlier (1958) pithy and often critical encyclopedia article on Bartók, he maintains that Bartók’s name will survive ‘through a limited and select group of chamber works: the [six] string quartets, the [two] sonatas for violin and piano, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta [hardly a chamber work]. Whether in that brutal violence which animates a “molten sound material”, or in that general calm suffused in a shimmering, rustling halo, Bartók is incomparable at those moments where his poetic genius grants him a truly effective realisation.’ The later, comparatively light-toned works – the Second Violin Concerto. Divertimento for string orchestra, Concerto for Orchestra, Third Piano Concerto, but excepting the Sixth Quartet – mark an ineffective realisation for Boulez, who sniffs in them such Neoclassical tendencies as he everywhere condemns. But Bartók is never Neoclassical in the Stravinskyan, ironic and ideological sense. László Somfai concludes in his chapter on Bartók’s 1926 cluster of piano works that he was distinguished from the ‘Stravinsky trend’ by ‘his flat rejection of any unilateral acceptance of “old” music. He did not use the technique of quotation, nor did he resort to the artistic game of distorting classical chordal passages with dissonances or fitting baroque melodic models to modern settings. More profoundly than ever, the roots of his melon lay in folk music’
I find the Divertimento’s strained but achieved serenity and the Concerto for Orchestra’s brilliant impulsive clarity of statement to be among Bartók’s most compelling, original and instructive achievements. Along with the Sixth Quartet – whose spirit of wry, elegiac burlesque is a world away from the hectic extroversion of the Fifth Quartet, the delicious treacly dissonance of the Fourth – they stage a final, supremely poised demonstration of the logic, economy, boldness and independent-mindedness exemplified by Bartók’s compositional career as a whole and one which affords as sturdily musical a paradigm for the music of the 21st century as I can imagine. The Bartók Companion doesn’t deal much in value judgments – with its dogged analytical agendas it hardly has time for epithets – but it solidly lays the ground for a reassessment of Bartók as the 20th-century composer who comes out top after all.