Inside 20th-century music
If there is a category somewhere called Learned Condemnation, one of the most humorous examples of that, in my memory, comes from a musical reference book, circa 1916, in which an article contained the phrase ''. . . from the gentle clarity of Elgar's sonata . . . to the desperate deeds of Bela Bartok.''
Apart from the amusing inability of that stuffy, Edwardian musicologist to hide his worries about music's future, the expression ''desperate deeds'' has stuck with me over the years as very much the impression the public has kept of the music of Bela Bartok. I believe his image as ogre in this respect exceeds even that of this century's musical Picasso, Igor Stravinsky. Although there are certainly some hair-raising moments in Bartok's music, I think that reputation stands in need of some qualifying and focusing.
Although there is much in his style that sounds austere and forbidding, this was hardly the result of any conscious plan on his part. In point of fact, Bartok's star rose around the First World War, at an important time for Modernism. To his original, oily, chromatic, dissonant Modern style, he brought a rhythmic vitality and a folk idiom that made even his severest pieces a breath of fresh air. The ''sinister'' sound that many passages have for many listeners is simply the result of Bartok's working with very pure musical goals - his sincere, unbiased exploring of how elements of music (timbres, harmonies, etc.) can be varied and combined.
But Bartok, in all his works, is never uncommitted to reaching and exciting the listener, and is rarely less than 100 percent rooted in elements of tonality , no matter how complicated and spiky some of the more dissonant passages may get. This fact stands, by the way, as proof that tonality, contrary to the claims of many early atonalists, was by no means wrung dry by Mahler and Strauss. Much remained, and still remains, to be done with music that builds up solidly from a stable tonal base, rather than on the aurally shifting sands of constant abstraction.
Bartok's tonal approach to atonality, using blocks of tonal sound in combinations of tart, sometimes acrid dissonance, made for a very structured sound. His music has a definite inner tensile strength: he can stretch our tolerance for dissonant sonority, like so much elastic rubber, without its snapping, because he never makes us drift too far away from our sense of a tonal home base.
But Bartok's accessibility goes far beyond just those things. His musical outlook was one of overall health and untroubled vitality, finding great pleasure in the robust enjoyment of music - especially that which had its roots firmly in human soil. Bartok invites the listener to have fun - as much fun as he had with exploring the flexibility of sounds - and to set aside prejudgments as to what sounds are ''spooky'' or ''sinister.''
Bartok also brought a thematic tightness and a new cool, classical approach to Modernism, as well as contributing much to the development of ''dissonant counterpoint.'' The latter was crucial to 20th-century music, which had to find a new paradigm with which to continue the traditions of counterpoint, while consciously breaking the centuries-old codex of rules governing polyphonic (linear) writing.
Bartok was a first-class pianist also, and he made a strongly identifiable contribution to modern styles of writing for and playing the piano, such as greater clarity of sound, a drier, leaner, more muscular treatment. However, what cannot be too often repeated for young pianists' sakes is that his piano style was not percussive to the extent believed by many who have gained false impressions of his musical intentions. Tone quality, in fact, was always important, and Bartok, incidentally, while on the faculty at the Royal Academy in Budapest, taught, not composition (Kodaly did that), but piano.
Undoubtedly, though, Bartok's greatest single achievement was his immense effort at collecting, recording, cataloging, and publishing the authentic folk songs of Hungary, a mammoth, several-decade enterprise, culminating in a row of bound volumes. Although only hinted at before, Bartok's incorporation of the Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Romanian folk elements in his works played an immense role in his output. Yet his music is far from being ''nationalistic.'' His was a fairly thorough distilling of the folk idiom into his very personal way of hearing and writing art music.
Many features of Bartok's style, elements in his musical vocabulary, have been copied by composers the world over since his time. Such, of course, was his great influence. But few have actually succeeded in continuing to reproduce a style very closely related to his. That, I am sure, is due largely to his inimitable blend of a musicality having all the uniqueness of a fingerprint, and a deep, deep commitment to his native folk idiom. However dear to one part of him, though, folk music was ultimately his distinctive means of lending an overall character or flavor to the musical platform from which he was to deliver his more universal ideas to the world.