Musical Times

Under the microscope

Under the microscope

Drakeford, Richard

RICHARD DRAKEFORD pays close attention to two new anthologies of Bartok studies

The Cambridge companion to Bartok Edited by Amanda Bayley Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2001); xv, 271pp; L45 / L15.95 pbk. ISBN 0 521 66010 6 / 0 521 66958 8.

Bartok perspectives: man, composer and ethnomusicologist Edited by Elliott Antokoletz, Victoria Fischer & Benjamin Suchoff Oxford UP (New York dt Oford); xvi, 316pp; L46.50. ISBN 0 19 512562 2.

I feel forced to declare that all my music […] is a question of instinct and of sensibility. One should not ask me why I wrote this or that, in this fashion rather than another. I have only one explanation: This is how I felt it, this is how I have written it down. Let the music tell it to you; it is clear enough to do that and strong enough to defend itself.

(Bela Bartok, 1937)

AT ABOUT THE SAME TIME as the editor sent me these volumes for review I was lucky enough to hear, in the Wigmore Hall, a truly magnificent performance of Bartok’s ‘difficult’ Second Sonata for Violin and Piano given by Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes. Tetzlaff’s playing was immaculate in both intonation and phrasing, while Andsnes found marvellous ways to illuminate Bartok’s textures without drawing undue attention to himself. Such a performance, presented wholly at the service of the music, must, I thought, provide one with a far better understanding of Bartok and his work than any verbal explanations can hope to do. And yet verbal explanations, amounting to a positive academic industry, seem to be on the increase in these early years of this twenty-first century. Might it not be better for seekers after musical wisdom to employ their time listening attentively to performances and recordings? Bartok, I believe, would have thought so, and it is good that some of the contributors to these two anthologies have the grace to admit as much. As a quid pro quo the reviewer can concede a degree of value to volumes such as these, always provided that the music itself remains paramount – performances first, explanations later.

Of the two books, the Cambridge companion is the more conventionally ordered. There is an introductory section labelled `Contexts: political, social and cultural’, while the central part of the book is a series of chapters by different writers on the various genres explored by the composer (piano music, string quartets, concertos, etc.): these are entitled `Profiles of the music’. By way of coda, part three, ‘Reception’, deals with how Bart6k’s works were received first in his lifetime and then in the years that followed. Finally Vera Lampert adds a useful account of the composer’s various recordings, assessing their impact and function today as historical documents, providing useful extra guidelines beyond the printed notes for such pianists as Stephen Bishop– Kovacevich and Zoltan Kocsis.

Given my particular viewpoint it is, I suppose, unsurprising that the chapter of this book I found really enthralling was the first, in which Lynn Hooker gives a brilliantly lucid account of the historical and cultural background to life in Hungary at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. Though a latter-day convert to the novels of Joseph Roth, I found this whole area of knowledge new. It was instructive to learn that some of the ethnic complexities of the region were reflected in Bartok’s own family his mother was German, his father, though considering himself Hungarian, was actually Serbian. In the light of this it is interesting to observe the composer’s attitudes. An almost rabid Hungarian nationalism at the time of his symphonic poem Kossuth (perhaps the most striking of the works composed in his twenties) turned, after he had explored a whole variety of different ethnic folk musics, to an attitude much more liberal, tolerant and inclusive. Stephen Erdely writes less engagingly than Ms Hooker, but his chapter on `Bartok and folk music’ is extremely thorough, a characteristic of Bartok’s own labours in this sphere. (Dislike of the analysis of his own compositions did not prevent him from pioneering a ‘scientific’ approach here.) Readers with an interest in the tittle-tattle of biography however, will have to turn to the Oxford University Press for details of some extra-marital activities that apparently spiced the folk-song collecting (mentioned in an interesting essay by Dorothy Lamb Crawford entitled `Love and anguish: Bartok’s expressionism’). The difficulties of Bartok’s first marriage have no place in the Cambridge volume, unless by indirect association with Bluebeard and his castle.

In his chapter on the stage works Carl Leafstedt is at pains to relate what he takes to be their central theme – loneliness – to salient personality traits of the composer’s, for instance an unsociable shyness and consciousness of essential solitude. In so doing he seems at one point to regard these characteristics as uniquely Bartokian, while yet discovering very similar traits in other artistic luminaries of the period. How ‘similar’ do these have to be before Bartok’s uniqueness melts away, I wonder? The word is a treacherous one but with a precise and singular meaning. Leafstedt treads on thin ice here. Otherwise the chapter is interesting, especially about Bluebeard, whose librettist Bela Balazs used `the language of old Szeckely folk ballads’, and in so doing supplied the composer with an ideal text, apt both for his folkloric inflections and for a parlando inspired by Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. Leafstedt evidently admires the ballet The wooden prince more than I do, though we agree in finding The miraculous mandarin ‘a work that, by all measures, represents one of his finest compositions’.

Bartok’s ‘pantomime’ (he was adamant that The miraculous mandarin, having few formal dances, was not a ballet), with its lurid sex-and-violence scenario married (if that is the word) to some extraordinarily apt and terrifying music, would seem to be a gift for any descriptive writer (Mr Leafstedt is rather restrained here). By contrast, those contributors expected to write about wholly abstract music have a harder task. In a short review it is not possible to mention all the essays, but I was interested in David Cooper’s linking of the late Concerto for Orchestra with a very early piece, the five-movement Suite no.1 of 1905. Can there have been for Bartok some kind of mental homecoming while physically he was still in exile? Victoria Fischer on the teaching pieces for piano usefully quotes Bartok’s symbols designed to give a more sophisticated indication of articulation and phrasing than was customary. The editor of the volume gives herself the plum job of dealing not only with the great string quartets but also the marvellous Music for strings, percussion and celesta. All these chapters are efficient and effective, as are others I have not mentioned.

The reception of Bartok’s works in his lifetime was often hostile, though not uniformly so. After his death there seem to have been two principal schools of thought. Hungarian communists admired the Dance suite, Concerto for Orchestra, Third Piano Concerto – all those pieces where invented folk idioms and recognisable tonality created something readily acceptable to `the people’. Modernist pieces such like Third Quartet were out. European Schoenbergians, on the other hand, viewed the more popular pieces as a betrayal. They would only accept the most dissonant chromatic works. Bartok’s later, more lyrical music was fatally `compromise&. These conflicts of opinion are lucidly set out by Danielle Fosler– Lussier, though the Bartokian of 2001 may well say with Mercutio: ‘A plague on both your houses!’. Bartok was a paradoxical composer, and it is perfectly possible to find a modernist classic like the Fourth Quartet more immediately comprehensible than, say, the Second Violin Concerto or even the Concerto for Orchestra, where, despite the audience-friendly idiom, abrupt contrasts and a disconcertingly rich variety of material can make the music difficult, at least on first hearing, to grasp.

There is one chapter, very different from the rest that ought to be mentioned. This is Ivan E Waldbauer’s `Analytical responses to Bartok’s music: pitch organisation’. This survey of contrasting analytical approaches as they have developed from 1930 on is written with evident intelligence and sophistication. Yet once the Fibonacci Sequences, and the Schenkerian or other diagrams appear I fear Mr Waldbauer loses me. Nor am I convinced that Bartok’s works are very much the gainer from such approaches. I can, however, endorse Waldbauer’s peroration: `True style interpretation remains the domain not of music analysis but of the inspired musician, whether analyst, historian, composer or performer’.

WHEREAS the Cambridge companion aims at a comprehensive if sometimes cursory survey of virtually all Barok’s compositions, Bartok perspectives is more haphazard seeming, based as it is upon papers read at a couple of Bartok conferences held in 1995. Readers who are sufficiently motivated may find it an interesting supplement to the Cambridge volume, or (if their existing expertise already makes Cambridge seem too elementary) a sophisticated alternative for the knowledgable enthusiast.

Cambridge/England and Oxford/New York share some scholarly contributors. Thus Carl Leafstedt has space to go into detail over the numerous revisions the composer made to his original 1911 Bluebeard’s castle. (The opera did not take its final form until 1918; by which time The wooden prince had been successfully staged. It is particularly fascinating to have, in short score, Bartok’s original `anti-dramatic’ ending. Perhaps someone in this original-version friendly age will put on a performance. In further pursuit of the music for piano Victoria Fischer (in a section of the book rather ineptly titled `Orientation toward pedagogy’ – was it for this Oxford University Press’s music books division travelled to New York?) writes a detailed account of the Fourteen bagatelles of 1908, which she regards as sowing `the seeds of practically all that was to follow in his compositional style’. Meanwhile Malcolm Gillies, who in the Cambridge volume dealt with the composer’s American years, here makes two contrasted contributions, the first analysing some aspects of Bartok’s notational practices in works written between 1918 and 1922. He is also entrusted with the task of rounding of this whole sequence of Bartok perspectives. Once more we are involved with `Reception history’, and his essay’s title involves a pun; the `Canonization of Bela Bartok’ referring both to the ‘canon’ of his oeuvre, in addition to any perceived musical sainthood.

Of the authors unique to this OUP anthology, Elliott Antokoletz waxes expansively in his account of the Cantata profana, whereas Rachel Beccles Willson (in a general chapter on vocal music for CUP) seems a touch `cribbed, cabinned and confined’. The composer’s son Peter Bartok tackles the question of mistakes in printed editions, not to mention the whole vexed matter of the Viola Concerto, of which Peter Bart6k and Nelson Dellamaggiore have produced a fresh score, presumably hoping to replace the well-known Tibor Serly version. This is the kind of work which justifies musical scholarship. A new edition of an important work brings obvious practical benefits. The final chapter I would single out is unexpected and imaginative, justifying itself not for any practical reason but simply because it is interesting. Taking a cue, perhaps, from the presence in Prague in 1925 of both Bartok and Janacek, James Porter goes on to argue for the `Correspondances’ between two brilliant late works, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Janacek’s Sinfonietta. His arguments are persuasive, not only because the two men knew some at least of each other’s works. They also shared a passion for folk music. Perhaps, then, the ‘correspondances’ Porter finds should not surprise the reader. His bold final sentence is worth quoting in full. `Above all, both works demonstrate the potential of folk music elements, in imaginative transformations of narrative style, to rejuvenate a Western fine art tradition and transcend the crisis of modernism.’ The book which contains that splendid essay is rather uneven in quality, and the subjects pursued will not be of interest to all readers. But enthusiastic Bartokians will want, at the very least, to get hold of a library copy Cambridge meanwhile, by producing a paperback, seem to have a clearer grasp of practical economics.

Richard Drakeford is an Oxfordshire– based composer and writer.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Autumn 2001

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