Bartok, Hungary, and the Renewal of Tradition: Case Studies in the Intersection of Modernity and Nationality

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Bartok, Hungary, and the Renewal of Tradition: Case Studies in the Intersection of Modernity and Nationality. By David E. Schneider. (California Studies in 20th-Century Music, 5.) Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. [xi, 308 p. ISBN-10: 0520245032; ISBN-13: 978-0-520-24503-7. $49.95.] Illustrations, music examples, bibliographical references, index.

Hungarian music historiography is organized around the following assertion: that Bela Bartok, with the encouragement and cooperation of his colleague and friend Zoltan Kodaly, discovered genuine folk music in the isolated recesses of rural Hungary, where the previous generation had allowed itself to be deceived by "misconceptions" and the "pseudo-folksong product of dilettante composers" (Stephen Erdely, "Bartok and Folk Music," The Cambridge Companion to Bartok, ed. Amanda J. Bayley [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001]: 24); and that by rejecting those misconceptions and instead basing his compositions on the newly discovered, more genuine repertoire, Bartok was able to create an "authentic national music" that also captured the spirit of the modern age. As is the case with many historiographical commonplaces, this one misses much of the nuance of the history it purports to summarize. Although publications both scholarly and polemical by Bartok, Kodaly, and other members of their circle sought repeatedly to distance them from what they saw as the pseudo-national Hungarian style of the past, the trained ear detects the unmistakable imprint of that style in many of their works, despite their innovations.

Where Bartok himself, along with his supporters, scoffed at their predecessors' version of Hungarian national music, David Schneider's book, the revision of his dissertation, uses a series of analytical and historical case studies to "highlight and more accurately characterize the stylistic change that emerged from Bartok's engagement with his national inheritance" (p. 7). Each chapter emphasizes different aspects of relationships Bartok had with that inheritance in spite of his protests to the contrary. Two particular sources of inspiration for Bartok act as threads connecting several of the chapters: the verbunkos, or recruiting dance, as the foundation of nineteenth-century Hungarian national style; and art music compositions that drew on that style in various ways that Bartok was likely to know (with particular attention paid to Ferenc Erkel's opera Bank ban [1861]).

The first three chapters especially deal with these common themes. Chapter 1, "Tradition Rejected," provides background on the verbunkos and its place in Hungarian style of the nineteenth century, and then analyzes the way Bartok, in keeping with his modernist and elitist ideals, rejected this style in his polemical writings, as he elevated in its place the "newly discovered, greatly valuable ... truly Hungarian folk music" ("A magyar zenerol" [On Hungarian Music], Aurora 1, no. 3 [March 1911]: 127) with which he had become so enraptured. In particular Schneider uses Bartok's essay to draw out some of the binary categories that hold sway in much of Bartok's more polemical statements: "Gypsies versus Hungarians (read: peasants); nineteenth- versus twentieth-century music (i.e., Bartok's and Kodaly's compositions); amateur versus professional musicians; and original composers versus epigones," but also emphasizes rightly that "as soon as one confronts the messy world of actual musical practice, Bartok's categories begin to unravel" (p. 13). In the following two chapters Schneider proceeds to unravel those categories. Chapter 2, "Tradition Maintained," discusses the political and cultural background of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Hungarian nationalism, and then illustrates how Bartok adapted and extended the musical characteristics of verbunkos and magyar nota--the music of Magyarism and Magyarization--in two works written before he discovered folk music: the symphonic poem Kossuth (1903) and the Rhapsody no. …