Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Case of Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók is one of the best-known composers of the 20th century, part of a small circle of well-accepted composers that includes Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen, Paul Hindemith, the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern and others. According to the usual litany, the Second Viennese School is so-called as a reference to the first circle of three composers associated with Vienna: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Alas, things did not quite work out as expected, as the Second School has not had nearly the impact and lasting importance that the first did. Indeed, in retrospect we can see the very use of the term “Second Viennese School” as a bit of propaganda. The trio of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were intended to be the new ‘normal’, the center of musical thought, while people like Stravinsky, Messiaen and Bartók were arms extending from this center, each with their own flavor: Stravinsky was the Russian and brought the exotic colors of that frontier of European civilization; Messiaen was French and brought another whole palette of sound while Bartok was Hungarian and brought the textures and rhythms of Central European folk music to the table. But this model has some flaws. For one thing, the Second Viennese School has ceased to be the dominant influence as the atonal methods pioneered by Schoenberg have almost entirely disappeared from contemporary composition.

Instead, it is ideas found in those 'peripheral' composers that have proved more lasting. Stravinsky, for example, set out in a number of different directions after his initial Russian period. He is known for a style called ‘neo-classicism’ which uses structures from earlier musical periods. Messiaen developed his own set of influences including birdsong, religious references and theories of rhythm and modality owing little to the Viennese composers. And Bartók, apart from a host of influences from many kinds of folk music, used some interesting concepts from mathematics including the Fibonacci series. But as we move further into the 21st century some of these composers, like Stravinsky, continue to be very important, while others, like Hindemith, seem less and less so. I think that the music of Bartók is starting to diminish in influence and importance. This is a personal view, of course, so let me lay out what it is based on. More and more, as I hear Bartók these days, I am less and less satisfied with his music. His string quartets, for example, were supposed to be the big revival of the genre in the 20th century (his were composed between 1908 And 1939) after it became more and more shapeless and flabby during the 19th century.

The Romantic Era, while succeeding magnificently in the areas of opera, piano and symphony, is notoriously weak in chamber music. You wouldn’t know it from string quartet programs these days which tend to feature large 19th century quartets in the second half, but the truth is that Brahms, Mendelssohn and Dvorak cannot compare with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in the area of string quartets. Bartók brought a whole new energy to the string quartet with new rhythms, new harmonies and new effects like the so-called ‘Bartok’ pizzicato (which was anticipated by blues players like Robert Johnson, by the way). But his quartets, like the rest of his music, tend to the ugly. I’m sorry, but there is just no other way to say it: the melodies are grim, the harmonies are unpleasantly dissonant and the rhythms unrelenting. The music is dark-hued and glum—all the time!

Contrast Bartók’s quartets with those of a 20th century composer I have not—intentionally—mentioned: Dmitri Shostakovich. Bartók famously satirized Shostakovich in his Concerto for Orchestra. All the members of the inner circle of the avant-garde looked down on Shostakovich for the unforgivable sin of writing music that was passé, that used obsolete forms like the symphony, that was written in keys, that was not fashionable according to their lights. But it was really Shostakovich that revived the string quartet, not Bartok. He wrote fifteen as opposed to Bartók’s six and they are performed more and more to great audience acclaim. Neither Bartok nor anyone else in the 20th century wrote a quartet as powerful as Shostakovich’s eighth. Indeed, I heard a concert last summer where the quartet played the 8th sandwiched between two particularly good quartets by Haydn and Beethoven and the audience’s most enthusiastic applause was for the Shostakovich. The Emerson Quartet made their name partly by giving concerts in which they played all the Bartok quartets in one evening and did a spectacular job. That is a good way to listen to them because it makes you really focus on them—but at the same time it avoids comparison with other composers like Shostakovich. It would be very interesting to program Bartok and Shostakovich side by side. Luckily, on the internet, we can do almost anything. First, the beginning movement of Bartók's 5th Quartet (1934) played by the Julliard Quartet:

 Now, the first two movements of Shostakovich's 8th Quartet (1960):

Theorists love analyzing Bartók, but have mostly avoided Shostakovich. There are a number of reasons for this, the first being, as I mentioned above, that Shostakovich was beyond the pale according to the Deuteronomy of 20th century composition: Schoenberg begat Berg and Webern who begat Boulez and Stockhausen and also in their tribe were Bartók and Ligeti, etc. Also, Bartók is beloved of theorists because of his methods. They have found beautiful symmetries and asymmetries, mathematical proportions, axes of pitches and so on--all stuff theorists love to get their teeth into. Just how Shostakovich wrote his music is a little less easy to uncover and most of the basic research has yet to be done.

My critique is not based on theoretical loveliness, but more on things like mood and beauty. Absurd, I know! Why, with the right theoretical toolbox you can prove that Bartók wrote great music, but beauty? That reminds me of a theorist of many years ago, whose name I forget, who spent a great deal of time pointing out all the contrapuntal options Bach did not choose and how unfortunate it was. Theory has its limitations and stops just at the point where aesthetics begins. In my rather non-progressive view, the end of art is beauty. This may be achieved in many, many ways, but art that ignores beauty completely is not of interest to me (nor most audiences). Both the Bartók and the Shostakovich quartets are highly-regarded. But I find the Bartók one to be not beautiful but grim, grey, gleamless, nearly unrelenting. I find the Shostakovich to be, while deeply emotional, also beautiful. This is achieved by sensitive nuances of harmony. We could do some analysis, mentioning the unification of the whole quartet with the D E flat, C, B motif that is a translation of Shostakovich's name into notes: DSCH, but theory doesn't prove aesthetic quality with either composer. You just have to listen. So listen a few times and tell me what you think...

UPDATE: Evaluations in my mind are never final. I always like to go back and have another look. So I listened to the Bartók Third Quartet again.

The last part, from 3:30 on is very cool. I love the glissandi. What do you think?


ggaspar said...

To the writer of the article The Case of Bela Bartok:

I couldn't agree with you more. I weep with tears in my eyes when I listen to any quartet by Shostakovich, but when I listen to Bartok, I am impressed with the writing, but I feel empty afterwards, and have no emotional involvement in it. I usually do not write on the internet, but I came across your article from 2011, and finally I found someone who agrees exactely with me. I felt alone because I could not understand why everyone would constantly state that Bartok wrote the greatest quartets since Beethoven, but I couldn't agree. History will prove us correct. Every time I hear Shostakovich in live performance, the audience goes wild, but Bartok is hardly ever performed. Thank you for your wonderful and insightful article.

Bryan Townsend said...

M. Gaspar, welcome to the Music Salon! My deepest thanks for your heartfelt comment on my post. Deep emotional involvement was somewhat anathema to the modernist composers. Viz. Stravinsky's famous comment that music is powerless to express anything at all. But Shostakovich never got that memo and so his music has a great deal to express.

Our summer chamber music festival has two quartets by Bartók programmed and the E minor trio of Shostakovich, so I will be listening with interest to the audience reaction.

George Gaspar said...

Mr. Townsend, thank you for response. I was reminded recently about an incident that reflects what we were talking about, concernign two different composers. Recently I pulled out my CD collection of symphonies by Arnold Bax. I listen to them maybe once every or every other year. I appreciate them, but am not crazy about them. In the CD box, which is the Chandos collection of the 7 symphonies conducted by Vernon Handley, there is a disc of Handley discussing the Bax symphonies. I had not listened to it before, but decided to hear it to better understand the pieces. Suffice it to say, Handley thinks these are the greatest symphonies ever, and the basic reason for this is because he states that all of the motives and melodies Bax uses in any particular symphony are included in the first 4 pages of the score to the symphony. Now if that is true, that is a remarkable feat, and very impressive. But remebering those motives and "molodies" are very difficult for me, and so end up being an intellectual excercise. By way of contrast, Handley goes so far as to denegrate the syphonies of Mahler as being nothing but extended suites, and therfore are inferior, and not really symphonies at all. Presumably this is because there may not be any thematic material from one movement to another in a Mahler symphony. But I can tell you, if the Mahler symphonies are not really symphonies, is Stravinsky's Symphony for Winds really a symphony?

Anyway, thematic relationships between movements is done frequently by Beethoven; just think of the 5th Symphony being completely based on 3 short, quick notes, followed by a long one, but I would infinitely prefer to listen to a Beethoven syphony to a Bax. And if given a choice to attend a concert featuring a Bax symphony versus a Mahler symphony, there is no contest. Why would I and just about everyone else rather go to the Mahler concert over the Bax is because of the emotional involvement, not the intellectual physics. I feel the same way about Shostakovich. You may not feel the same about these composers, and that is fine, but I just wanted to refine the point a bit with this recent realization.

Good talking with you.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hello Mr. Gaspar,

Thanks for your follow-up comment. I am sorry to say that I am not very familiar with the music of Arnold Bax. I will have to correct that!

But I take your point very clearly and I'm delighted that it seems to support my views. I'm thankful for some early philosophical training as it enables me to recognize an argument when I hear it and, even more important, to realize that I need to interrogate the assumptions. You have laid them out quite clearly. Maestro Handley is of the opinion that what creates aesthetic quality in a symphony is uniting the form by means of a small set of themes that are stated at the beginning. This is the 'organic' view of musical form. As you point out, it originates with Beethoven in the 5th Symphony. The French were very fond of uniting multi-movement pieces in this way.

But of course, it is no guarantee of aesthetic quality! You might have a terrible collection of themes that no-one would want to hear return! The work could be flawed in lots of other ways. It might be rhythmically flabby, or harmonically awkward. Aesthetic quality is not won so easily!

I am not a big fan of Mahler, but it is not because of his sloppy treatment of themes. Mahler is immensely expressive and moving and some of his music I like very much. But at times I find him a bit neurotic.

Stravinsky poses interesting challenges to my, or anyone's aesthetic theory. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments is a fascinating piece. It is beautiful and coolly engaging. But very different from just about any other music. I have heard it compared to the kinds of montages that Eisenstein was creating in film. But Stravinsky came up with it himself, Eisenstein comes later.

Anonymous said...

Mr Townsend, your observations on Bartok's string quartets are poignant, with your words, unpleasant, dissonant, unrelenting, dark hued and glum...yes indeed, but make no mistake, that is precisely what he intended them to be!
To be fair, with all due respect, if you wanted beautiful and more pleasant music, then you couldn't have gone further off the mark picking some of the most difficult pieces of the 20th century, Bartok's string quartets...Let me contextualize a bit, as you might know, Bartok was one of the most censored composers of the 20th century...Just after Bartok's death newly communist Hungary came under the shadow of socialist realist doctrines...Bartok's compositional legacy was dismembered, identified and separated. To quote Malcolm Gillies; 'In 1948 musical modernism was condemned by the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow, because of it's 'bourgeois influence', 'formalism' and 'abstraction', in short, for it's 'decadence'. Bartok's output had effectively been divided into three categories. As Danielle Fosler-Lussier has recently elaborated in her book Music Divided (University of California Press, 2007)there were banned works, works to be performed only rarely and fully approved works.

-Banned: The Miraculous Mandarin, Piano Concerto no 1-2, and his string quartets...
-Rarely to be performed: Duke Bluebeards Castle, The Wooden Prince, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Cantata Profana, Contrasts
-Fully approved: Violin Concerto no2, Concerto for Orchestra, Piano Concerto no3, Dance Suite [end of quote]

(ironically this categorization could be a pretty useful guide for the beginner finding their way through Bartok's music..!)

I personally find the quiet parts of the Adagio molto in quartet no.5 heartbreakingly beautiful! Otherworldly soundscapes such as sections of the Andante, also quartet no.5. The magnificent Lento of quartet no.2! The violent parts of the Allegro vivace in quartet no1 which mutates and transforms into triumphantly into heart rendering beauty..to name a few!..Bartok's world is incredibly complex, it can be terse and dry, yet at the same time incredibly emotional!
Apparently Bartok had no prospects of having his quartets performed during his lifetime. I also think due to their highly personal and uncompromising nature, to fully understand this particular group of work, they have to be put into a historical context. Bartok had personally gone through some of the most brutal and destructive periods of his home country. WW1 which ended with Hungary literally 'hung, drawn and quartered' in a treaty, loosing 3/4 of it's historical territory inc it's most ethnic region Transylvania where Bartok was born, annexed to Romania. (The Szekely Hungarians are by the way still to this day treated brutally, as 2nd class citizens by the Romanian authorities) Then WW2 where Budapest was turned into the final battleground between the German and Russian forces, bombing the grand old capital into smithereenes. Bartok left his country traumatized and disillusioned..and was famously one of the few composers of that stature to stand up and voice his dissent against fascist and communist totalitarianism. All the parts of the 6th quartet are titled: Mesto.. meaning sad! So in a sense his quartets can be considered an emotional, musical diary of these times, a testament of the terrors of war and loss. This uncompromising, visceral nature makes them in my opinion some of the most emotionally complex music ever written..

Anonymous said...

to continue..

Shostakovich's quartets were written with a completely different mindset or approach, also during the rule of Stalin... Bartok's influence is very strongly felt both harmonically and melodically.
Don't forget that Bartok was of a different generation, Shostakovich was a mere toddler when Bartok wrote his first quartet. I find Shostakovich's quartetes a fantastic body of work and as you say, his 8th is no doubt an outstanding achievement! I also find it quite hard to compare Bartok's with Shostakovich's quartets..To me Bartok's 6, compared to Shostakovich's 15 are a much edgier and intense experience, with more vibrancy and energy, with entirely new shades and nuances, utterly innovative and fresh, whereas Shostakovich's has a much more laid back and traditionalist approach. Not to mention that Bartok's quartets spans a huge part of his career whereas Shostakovich's are written under a shorter time span and are late career works! Bartok expanded the possibilities and pushed the envelope, you can see two completely different approaches here!

I wouldn't say Bartok is diminishing in popularity and influence either...(not to mention the hugely popular Bartok season curated by E.P. Salonen at the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago!) Polymodal Chromaticism (as Bartok himself coined it) is certainly much more in use today compared to, as you said the 12 Tone Technique. In popular culture, in movies for instance..I think I can recall hearing his music in the surrealist comedy 'Being John Malkovich' also in the spooky parts of John William's score to Stephen Spielberg's 'War Of the Worlds'. Very 'Bartok-esque'...
Come to think of it, there's hardly been anything written about Bartok's influence on the Jazz scene.. There were indications he would have ventured into Jazz hadn't he died so early. (Bartok's collaboration with Benny Goodman)
If you read about it, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Mingus, Cecil Taylor and Eric Dolphy were all into his music, later on McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett, not to mention the Scandinavian jazz scene such as the Lars Jansson Trio, the list could go on..
Have a Listen to Andras Schiff's 1980 recording of Hungarian Peasant Songs by Bartok to hear what I'm talking about.

So yes..when it comes to his string quartets, they can be hard work, but do give them another chance, no doubt you'll find something new next time you hear them!! (It took me quite a while to get into them myself!)

And, as they say.. 'Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder!'

Keep up the good work!

Best regards,
Robert Darbyshire

Bryan Townsend said...

Welcome to the Music Salon, Robert. This must be the only blog on the Internet where the commentators do as much work as the blogger! Thanks for your comment. Bear in mind that the original post dates from the very early days of the Music Salon. In June 2011, I had just started the blog. In that I was writing about my personal response to the Bartok quartets, I stand by it. Also, bear in mind that I was not a newcomer to them. I have owned the Julliard Quartet recording since the early 70s. I also took a doctoral seminar on Bartok that was pretty thorough so it is not as if I am ignorant or underexposed to his music.. What I was doing in this post, I suppose, was reacting to a bias I had encountered at university where the Bartok quartets were taken very seriously, while the Shostakovich ones were completely ignored.

I was just thinking the other day that it was time to listen to all the Bartok quartets again to check my responses!

One quibble about your historical outline, Robert. Your comments about Bartok's historical legacy in the period immediately after WWII are quite correct, but they apply only to the Eastern Bloc countries, not to the West. I also wonder a bit at your claim as to the influence of Bartok's quartets on Shostakovich. This may be the case, but I have not heard it claimed before. Your source?

Anonymous said...

I completely disagree with the author of this article. Whoever you are, you should go back to school and try to learn a little bit more about music. Bartok is probably the greatest composer of the 20th century. His music is powerful, original and revolutionary (and yes, it is also beautiful!). He is one of the few who managed to combine tradition with modernity. His contributions are countless. But this question is not about historians or critics, but about taste and sensitivity ... and you lack them. Sorry!

Bryan Townsend said...

I am the author of the article, of course and my name is quite prominent. You, however, are commenting as the ubiquitous Mr. Anonymous. Let me take the gratuitous smear first: the mere fact that you make a personal attack tends to diminish the value of everything else you write, of course. But, as so often, the smear misses its mark. I have been a professional musician for fifty years with academic studies to the doctoral level in musicology. As a matter of fact, I have taken a doctoral level seminar on the music of Bartók.

Bartók may indeed be the greatest composer of the 20th century, but your simple statement of that opinion is of little interest. Why don't you tell us why you think so? That's how we work around here.