Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Bartók and Scarlatti: A Study of Motives and Influence*

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Bartók and Scarlatti: A Study of Motives and Influence*

Article excerpt

1. Influences and syntheses

The study of influences traceable in Bartók's musical language has long been a hot topic for scholars. The composer himself was concerned with this problem: in a 1939 interview with Serge Moreux he suggested that "Kodály and I wanted to create a synthesis of East and West,"1 and also mused about the possibility of a synthesis of Bach's counterpoint, Beethoven's "progressive form" and Debussy's harmony.2 But the notion of a "Bartókian synthesis" had in fact become a well-known topos in the musicological literature as early as the 1920s. The famous article that Zoltán Kodály wrote (in cooperation with Bartók himself) for the Revue musicale in 1921 proposes that Bartók

has inhaled the values of all great schools and reached the universality so seldom realised since the great Viennese masters, the wonderful unity springing from the marvellous balance between Germanic and Latin peoples' cultures.3

An essay by János Seprodi, first published in 1924, goes even further by describing Bartók as a great innovator who, nevertheless, builds upon all the achievements of earlier generations of innovators:

If we survey the chapters of music history from the 9th-century Huckbald through the art of Bach, Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Liszt and Richard Strauss we see an uninterrupted series of development and progress. Everybody brings something new, and adds something original to the existing [tradition]. The exterior measure of Béla Bartók's significance is that he stands at the top of this developmental process, and he brings more new and original [ideas] than all his predecessors.4

By 1930 even Emil Haraszti, whose musical expertise was by no means appreciated highly by the composer, suggested that "Béla Bartók's music presents a whole microcosm of 20th-century art."5

The new wave of Bartók research that started to burgeon in the 1950s seems to have already considered the "Bartókian synthesis" as a kind of axiom. Halsey Stevens suggested that it was arguably Bartók "who brought the practices of [his] own time into a homogenous and consistent flowering - the highest musical synthesis of the era,"6 Erno Lendvai strove to demonstrate how Bartók's "axis system" summed up all previous developments in the field of Western harmony,7 and Bence Szabolcsi described the composer's double effort "to melt into his own musical language the elements of different folk musics, and to appropriate the innovations of new European music."8 The most systematic advocate of the Bartókian synthesis, however, has been János Kárpáti, who went as far as to suggest that "[a] striving towards synthesis [...] is the most important and most firmly fixed feature of Bartók's creative activity."9 Elaborating on the ideas of his numerous predecessors, Kárpáti in fact identified three different kinds of syntheses in Bartók's music: the first brings together the heritage of his great European precursors, the second sums up the major trends of his own age, while the third achieves reconciliation between folk music and the "learned" art-music tradition.10

Nevertheless, the notion of Bartókian synthesis (or syntheses) has not been accepted in all corners. The most famous counterargument has been put forward by René Leibowitz, who found that the composer's quest for synthesis resulted in an artistic compromise, since it did not allow him to leave behind the dead remnants of older styles, and especially of tonality.11 Such an "avant-gardist" conclusion may of course sound less compelling today than it might have been in 1947, but the recent English-speaking literature has in fact also questioned the existence of the much-hyped Bartókian synthesis. The most eloquent critic, David Cooper, has suggested that "there is still a tension between the folk-modelled material and the rest of the musical context which is never fully resolved, and in a sense, it is the fracture which results from these competing styles rather than their synthesis which helps to propel the music. …

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