The inexorable process of birth and death, of renewal and decay, that underlies the whole of life, whether of Man or Nature, is reflected in the worlds of science and the arts by the recurrent controversies that mark the struggle between the old and the new, between progressive and reactionary ideas. This struggle is continuous. But it is at the turning-point between two ages, when the exponents of the new ideas are not merely impatient rebels but men of genuine talent, that the struggle reaches its height. And in the field of European music the beginning of the twentieth century was such a turning-point.
In the field of European music the officially accepted giants, Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini, were regarded as living proof of the continued vitality of Romanticism. Yet in point of fact the romantic movement had already outlived itself and it was the counter-movement, led by their contemporaries, Janàček, Debussy and Vaughan Williams, that was to prove victorious. Of the outstanding members of this movement, four--Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Malipiero and Kodàly--were born in the year 1882. They had been preceded by Schoenberg, Respighi, Pizzetti and Bartόk; and Casella, Webern, Berg, Shaporin, Prokofiev, Honegger, Milhaud and Hindemith were to follow. These men constituted the main body of the army of composers that was taking up its positions at the beginning of the new century, and though most of them bore different watchwords on their banners there was one aim that united them: the rejection of the musical ideals of their immediate predecessors. How far each of them succeeded in practice in breaking the navel-string that bound them to the musical era they sprang from is another matter. The fact remains that, in their quest for inspiration, all of them turned to the distant past, in the same way that they all looked for the realization of their aims to the distant future.
But Romanticism was not yet defeated. It still refused to admit that its rich armoury of form and content was exhausted; and nowhere, apart from Germany, was the rear-guard action more stubbornly fought, perhaps, than in Hungary. At that time the centre of the Carpathian basin was a real stronghold of German music. Local experiment was completely overshadowed by the giant figures of Brahms and Wagner; the professors of the Budapest Academy of Music were German; and German was virtually the official musical language. This accounts for the fact that, at the beginning of the twentieth century . . .