Twentieth-century textbooks use various terms to describe the distinctive cultural traits that shaped Bartok’s art. They call him a ‘folklorist’ or an ‘almost serialist’ composer and place him under the rubric ‘East European School,’ ‘Nationalist Composition,’ or ‘Independent Trends.’ Most such characterizations are appropriate in one context or another. Bartok’s artistic decisions were obviously the result of a common historical and cultural tradition, and the stylistic traits of his art naturally show similarities to other modernist developments. Yet none suggests the essential feature of Bartok’s aesthetics: a highly individual choice of elements from the common stylistic-aesthetic tradition and their articulation in a coherent personal style. The particular blend of modernist tendencies and his unique manner of interpreting them for his own purposes created an aesthetics that in its totality was without parallel even in Hungary.
Bartok’s commitment to expressing ‘the spirit’ of folk music is much more familiar to us than his individualistic approach toward art because he described the latter in letters mostly unavailable in English. In a letter to his wife during a field trip to Darázs (Slovakia) in 1909, he wrote:
I strongly believe and profess that every true art is manifested and created under the influence of ‘experiences,’ those impressions that we absorb into ourselves from the surrounding world. He who paints only in order to paint a landscape or writes a symphony only in order to write one is no more than a good craftsman at best. I cannot imagine that an artwork could be anything but the manifestation of the infinite enthusiasm, despair, sorrow, vengeful anger, distorting and sarcastic irony of its creator. Before I experienced it in myself, I did not believe that one’s works could signal—more precisely than one’s autobiography—the important events, the governing passions of his life. Of course, I am talking here only of a real and true artist. It is strange that in music the basis of motivation has so far been only enthusiasm, love, sorrow, or, at most, despair—that is, only the so-called lofty feelings. It is only in our times that there is place for the painting of the feeling of vengeance, the grotesque, and the sarcastic. For this reason the music of today could be called realist because, unlike the idealism of the previous eras, it extends with honesty to all real human emotions without excluding any. In the last century, there were only sporadic examples for this, for instance, in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Liszt’s Faust, Wagner’s Meistersinger, and Strauss’s Heldenleben. There is another factor that makes today’s music real: that its impressions come, partly subconsciously and partly intentionally, from folk music, that is, a music that saturates everything in the great reality.
Bartok insisted on this synthesis throughout his career. The original plan of the Harvard lectures from 1943, the last attempt to summarize his style and artistic belief, restates the aesthetics that he explained in the letter from 1909. In summarizing the structure and character of his music, Bartok planned to discuss nine topics (in order): 1. revolution, evolution; 2. modes, polymodality (polytonality, atonality/twelve-tone music); 3 chromaticism (very rare in folk music); 4. rhythm, percussion effects; 5. form (every piece creates its own form); 6. scoring (new effects on instruments), piano, violin as percussive; 7. trend toward simplicity; 8. educational works; 9. general spirit (connected with folk music).
But how could the spirit of folk music manifest itself in a composition that is no longer folk music? Only at the beginning of his career did Bartok view folk song as a self-contained entity and a representative type that could evoke, at least symbolically, folk music. Later he came to the realization that spirit cannot be connected in any direct manner to technical aspects of the music. This realization came gradually, and the process of distancing the thematic material of the original compositions from the actual appearance of their folk-music models was by no means absolute. While the sources of Bartok’s compositions became gradually more abstract than an actual piece or type, some works reiterated obvious surface features of the folk song. Yet typically, at least in the mature compositions, his point of departure was not an actual piece or type but a complex web of dissociated musical elements, variational procedures, and other structural ideas. He treated the dissociated elements of folk music, together with elements of art music, as a collection of rough material that he could draw on as he wished, to create his style.
Bartok’s mature compositions have great variety of structural designs and yet share a certain orientation. All the mature pieces achieve maximum integrity in the thematic material and create, at the same time, the maximum polarization of thematic characters. During the process of thematic-motivic transformations, themes of similar-sounding materials diverge while ones that began by sounding different merge. No parts of the music, not even those themes that sound somewhat like folk songs, have direct connections to any particular piece or type of the actual folk-song repertoire.
So this is Bartók’s distillation of village ritual, this is ‘Fast Steps’: I delight in your rhythmic élan and the sight of your body swaying; as your legs push up from the floor, I imagine you on your back in a barn. Matteo drives the dance forward; a final flourish, then it’s done. As the applause erupts I realize that in barely five minutes you’ve drawn from your violin centuries of tradition: Nourished by a millennial culture, Bartók’s roots run deep.
Helvetians, Gauls and Romans,
Vandals and Franks,
Conspired to create you, Marietta.
Your roots run deep,
Very deep: Have I any chance
Of sweeping you off your feet?
I have no roots,
I am a nomad; my genealogy
Is a mystery to me.
But watch out, woman!
Home is where the heart is,
And my heart is set on you!