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

By Schuster-Craig, John | Fontes Artis Musicae, January-March 2009 | Go to article overview
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Bartok, Hungary, and the Renewal of Tradition: Case Studies in the Intersection of Modernity and Nationality


Schuster-Craig, John, Fontes Artis Musicae


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 13: 978-0-520-24503-7 (cloth); ISBN 10: 0-52024503-2 (cloth) $49.95]

David Schneider's new study, incorporating materials from his dissertation, is a valuable addition to a growing body of Bartok literature. This volume does not strive to be a "life and works" study, but rather consists of six focused essays, each of which deals in some way with musical traditions that Bartok encountered, absorbed, and then either transformed or rejected. Five of the chapters deal with Bartok's interaction with Hungarian traditions: not only the popular gypsy musics of verbunkos and magyar nota, and the rural peasant traditions that Bartok spent so much of his life studying, but also the Hungarian symphonic and operatic traditions of the nineteenth century. Interspersed with the fascinating wealth of historical background which situates Bartok's work in these various Hungarian contexts are analyses of several of Bartok's major works. The remaining chapter is entitled "Confronting Stravinsky," and, as the only chapter not dealing with Hungarian influences on Bartok, seems a bit out of place. It is a revised and considerably expanded version of a previous article of Schneider's ("Bartok and Stravin sky: Respect, Competition, Influence, and the Hungarian Reaction to Modernism in the 1920s"), published in a volume of essays edited by Peter Laki, Bartok and His World (Prince ton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

Schneider does an admirable job in his opening chapters of untangling the various strands of Hungarian musical culture that influenced Bartok in his formative years. He begins by referring to a 1911 essay of Bartok's entitled "On Hungarian Music." Bartok wrote, "The music of Bihari, Lavotta, and a few foreigners ... that is to say, nothing but more or less dilettante musicians all under the influence of Gypsy music and unworthy of the admiration of people of good taste ... Only dilettante musicologists can discuss these dilettante works in a serious tone of voice ... it is surely not Hungarian but Gypsy. That is, its characteristics are the melodic distortions of a foreign people, of the Gypsies" (p. 12).

Bartok's polemical essay was reprinted thirteen times in a variety of languages, but, as Schneider carefully explains, verbunkos and magyar nota, the instrumental and vocal styles, respectively, of Hungarian popular music, both "grew out of a combination of elements from both art and folk music" (p. 25). And the "Gypsy music" for which Bartok had such a strong distaste is not easily defined. Generally, it referred to the style of music performed in cafes by Gypsy musicians, and which would include verbunkos as well as other popular European idioms. Bartok's essay grew out of the fact that he " ... was frustrated with the privileged position of Gypsy music in Hungarian society, seeing it as ... a hindrance to the acceptance of his own scholarly and creative work (p. 27)."

Schneider returns to folk music in his fifth chapter, "Tradition Transcribed," an account of the political difficulties created by Bartok's researches into Romanian folk music. As relations between Hungary and Romania deteriorated in the 1920s and 1930s, the composer's research drew criticism from both sides of the border. Bartok's "Romanian Folk Songs from the Bihar District (Hungary)" was described in the Romanian journal Sezetoarea as of "no value whatsoever," as the author accused Bartok of having "Hungarianized" the melodies.

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