Introduction to the Music of Bartok

The Clever Fusion of the First Modernisms — By Jacques Amblard

Presented in a diptych with La Voix humaine by Francis Poulenc, this revival of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Bluebeard’s Castle is an opportunity to rediscover the only opera written by Béla Bartók. Misunderstood by many of his contemporaries, delving into both folk music and modernism, the Hungarian composer is the author of some of the most remarkable music of the first half of the 20th century.   

“Bartók? He’s not a musician. He’s a chemist”. That jibe from the pen of Stravinsky conjures up visions of the Hungarian composer concocting his potions as a chemist prepares aqueous solutions, with his colleagues’ ingredients. Now, “style” is something Bartók certainly has. Indeed, it is his use of Hungarian folk music, emblematic because of his political agenda, that characterises him. However, it is true that this “scenic” Bartók, whose music is redolent of “local colour”, veils a less (although only slightly so) well-known avant-gardist capable of exploiting whatever material was at hand and who took, in effect, ten to twenty years after the event, the best of each of the great European avant-gardists of the first half of the 20th century. Such syntheses were to be repeated, in the post-war period, by Boulez from his Notations opus 1 (1945) onwards, and by Messiaen in his birdsong period of the fifties. From this point of view, Bartók may well be a chemist, but a pioneering chemist for all that.

From the Viennese, this musician, born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and therefore logically more subject to Germanic than to Latin influences, periodically drew on atonal music, total Chromatismus. This is the language of that incontestable masterpiece, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), a favourite of Boulez’s and of the future radical avant-gardists. This astute Hungarian filtered, purified and popularised Schönberg’s difficult atonalism. He ornamented it with the romantic texture of a string orchestra, providentially imposed in a commission from the Swiss, Paul Sacher. And he made it more linear, therefore more vocal and thus literally more human. Now, why did the critic and radio journalist Julius Bistron criticise Berg, Webern and their master, Schönberg? For precisely the disjointed nature of their language. Indeed so. They stand corrected.

From Stravinsky, the second herald of the modern period after Schönberg, according to Adorno in his Philosophy of the New Music (around 1941), Bartók borrowed pulsation, primal dance and the Dionysian spirit, at least in the Allegro Barbaro for piano (1911) and thereafter. In particular, he reproduces obsessive repetition: the ostinato from Rite of Spring (1913). In his own ballet, The Marvellous Mandarin (1924), the overture boasts a clear ostinato. But the Hungarian, a skilful teacher, presents his own ostinato layer by layer, like the future dance floor music of the eighties (techno in Detroit and House in Chicago). The story is scandalous, licentious and bloody. Ever modern and filled with melodic relentlessness, sex and violence, it was to be transposed to film by Bertrand Tavernier in L’Appât (1995). As Bartók wrote to his wife: “If I succeed, this music will be infernal”.

And yet, if Bartók is a Viennese-style “expressionist” and a Russian-style “primitivist”, he is also the opposite, an “impressionist” in the style of the French: Debussy and his diaphanous, acute delicateness, interest him just as much. This is the Bartók who is in love with the celesta, those little bells that symbolise magic in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (1891-92) and then in later scores written for Walt Disney. This is the chemist of subtle, crystalline orchestral effects, revealed behind each door – except the fifth? – of Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), his only opera, and often in The Wooden Prince (1914-17), his other ballet.

Now, like Prokofiev from his Classical Symphony (1916) onwards, and Stravinsky post Pulcinella (1919), like the young French composers of the "Les Six" group a few years later, Bartók was also to have a neoclassical period. Thus, whilst the first piano concerto (1926) plays the abrasive card of Viennese atonalism, the second (1930-31) would evoke the music of Bach and the third (1945), more genial still, that of Mozart. Like Prokofiev, Schönberg and Stravinsky, from 1919 to about 1950, the Hungarian composer seems little by little to have become wiser, seeking modernity that is both more effective and more discreet and minimalist. His final decade in particular was to show this, in the Concerto for viola (1945) and the Concerto for Orchestra (1943). Bartók’s individuality is to be heard rather in his use of percussive noise. Like Varèse, who in 1928 wrote a piece specifically and exclusively for percussion, Ionisations, Bartók loved percussion. He inverted the usual hierarchies and roles of the instruments: in his Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1973), the xylophone often has the main theme – the tune- whilst the pianos accompany it in a way that is … percussive! Aesthetic provocation! Bartók’s strings also sometimes behave like drums: his aggressive pizzicato (plucked strings) have become “Bartok pizzicato”. The fourth movement of the fourth quartet with its clicking sound is entirely pizzicato. This interest in noise even leads Bartók to use clusters (highly dissonant bunches of semi-tones), in order to annihilate the notes in favour of timbre, at the same period as Varèse and well before contemporary music would amplify this procedure to the point at which it became the audible caricature of modernism. Then again, like Varèse, he developed his use of the glissando, thus favouring continuity over the discrete semi-tones of the equal temperament system: in the second violin concerto (1937-38), the brass blare out slithering fanfares. More than human, this elephantine music echoes Stravinsky again, of the period from The Soldier’s Tale (1917) to Circus Polka (1942), which is a ballet for … a young elephant. In the third movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the timpani, sometimes on their own, slide from one note to the other, uttering curious diphthongs: “baoo…” These sounds were to represent unheimlich (eeriness) when quoted by Stanley Kubrick in his 1980 film The Shining.

However, Bartók, as is exemplified in his 1923 Dance Suite, is also the most emblematic user of folk music in history, an ethnomusicologist indeed, who was sometimes sent on missions by his government. Encouraged by his fellow composer, Kodály, he set off to record Hungarian peasants with a phonograph, as early as 1905. Our chemist then produced an “imaginary folk music”: a concentrated compound of that non-Indo-European culture, closer to the Far East with its pentatonic scales than to Europe. He invented Hungarian music for Hungary before 1918 when the Hungarian Nation State came into being. The six volumes of studies, the Mikrokosmos (1926-39- Bartók was a piano teacher- draw extensively on national folk music. What other modern composer of such importance would go to those lengths for so humble a project? Composing for children? Béla, another ogre, shared with his librettist, Béla Balázs, the terrible initials B.B. as in Bluebeard, Blau-bart, Barbe-Bleue, although Kékszakállú in Hungarian. What it loses in murderous symbolism, however, the language makes up for as early as 1911 with its first Hungarian language opera. Characteristic of a Budapest which, in 2000, was to inaugurate its Terror Háza (House of Terror) museum, and characteristic of the 20th century generally, violence underpins this sombre work in which the semi-tone symbolises … blood.

The modest product of a small country; discreet, tormented, unhappily in love with his own wife, a humanist and international socialist, Bartók dreamed of the simple, peasant life, in which he saw a benign philosophy shared from country to country, whose folk-music he studied (pillaged?). He left the prestigious Viennese publishing house, Universal Editions, in 1938 in response to their new racial policies in the wake of Anschluss. Stravinsky’s “chemist”, may well have been a compound, aesthetically speaking, but would remain “pure” in terms of his political allegiances, whilst his Russian counterpart, a fervent admirer of Mussolini, would complain, during a lecture at Harvard in 1939, of being classed as a degenerate by Nazi Germany.

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