„My own idea, however—of which I have been fully conscious since I found myself as a composer—is the brotherhood of peoples, brotherhood in spite of all wars and conflicts. I try—to the best of my ability— to serve this idea in my music; therefore I don’t reject any influence, be it Slovakian, Rumanian, Arabic or from any other source. The source must only be clean, fresh and healthy!” Bartók to Octavian Beu, January 10, 1931, in Béla Bartók Letters, ed. János Demény (Budapest, 1971)
Rightly famous sentences, credo of a cosmopolitan legend, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves: The story begins in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, now Romania, on March 25, 1881. Bartók began his musical training with piano studies at the age of five, foreshadowing his lifelong affinity for the instrument. Following his graduation from the Royal Academy of Music in 1901 and the composition of his first mature works – most notably, the symphonic poem Kossuth (1903) – Bartók embarked on one of the classic field studies in the history of ethnomusicology. With fellow countryman and composer Zoltán Kodály, he travelled throughout Hungary and eighbouring countries, collecting thousands of authentic folk songs. Several early orchestral works bear the stamp of the newly incorporated stylistic traits: powerful, almost primitive sounding rhythms, unusual tonal inflections, revealing ethnic scale patterns and colorful orchestration, such as Allegro Barbaro, An Evening in the Village or Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Then the harmonies begin to turn harsher, and bitter, the best examples being Sonata for two Pianos and Percussion, 2nd Violin Concerto, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and finally these culminate in violence, with many unusual, dissonant musical effects and extremes of expressions, including The Wooden Prince, Dance Suite and The Miraculous Mandarin.
Before his last period of composing, Bartók returned to power of folksongs and summarized Kodály’s and his efforts, which was nothing else, than to combine Western art music and Eastern art music, accurately Hungarian folk musics. In those terms, he was saying:
„Kodály and I wanted to make synthesis of East and West. Because of our race, and because of the geographical position of our country, which is at once the extreme point of the East and the defensive bastion of the West, we felt this was a task we were well fitted to undertake.”
Microcosmos, Divertimento and Cantata Profana demonstrates this ars poetic very well. With this beautiful allegory he equalized all the contraries and dissimilarities. Now, in reference to the quoted sentences above, Bartók wrote these words in a letter to the Rumanian diplomat and music historian Octavian Beu. We already know that Bartók was an internationally renowned Hungarian composer, pianist, and ethnomusicologist. However, that’s not exactly true, he was so much more: he was a man with a vision. He had an idea of what society should look like and thought this could be created via cultural expression like music. In his eyes, culture lay at the heart of society. Bartók recalled how his vision was born in a bar in 1904 when he heard a Transylvanian-born barmaid singing. He immediately committed the song to paper.
„Now I have a new plan: to collect the finest Hungarian folksongs and raise them, adding the best possible piano accompaniments, to the level of art-song.” In his letter to Beu, Bartók explicitly promoted the integration of original, and therefore „clean, fresh, and healthy”
influences of ethnic groups, be they „Slovak, Romanian, Arabic, or from any other source” into musical compositions. In his view, ethno-music and folk music in particular, should be part and parcel of the national canon, the national music heritage. With such modernist views on music, Bartók distanced himself from the majority of composers in small countries who had created a single style national musical canon. He had a huge, extended idea about a vision influenced music for the whole world, at a time when borders were being drawn and redrawn, peoples created and destroyed, across Europe. With the Hungarian political regime forced into exile, then he immigrated with his wife to America for his last few years. He wrote Concerto, as a fusion of pain and reconciliation, a fine memento of homesickness and as a ray of hope for the world. He tirelessly worked to express humanity in music that informs the spirit of all humankind, even in his grave financial crisis in the United States or cultural crisis over the war in Hungary. In our difficult times Bartók’s character should be an example for all of us to follow.