Muzsikás and Bela Bartok

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat May 6 08:44:39 MDT 2000

Last night (May 5, 2000) I heard one of my favorite groups in concert.
Muzsikás consists of 3 fiddlers, a bass player and vocalist Márta
Sebestyén, all from Hungary. Augmented by classical violinist and
mimimalist composer David Balenescu and two terrific dancers, they
performed a program based on Muzsikás's latest CD "Bartok", which consists
of highly authentic renditions of the Hungarian folk tunes that inspired
Bartok and found reflection in nearly everything he wrote.

Throughout the concert, the audience heard field recordings by Bartok, one
dating back to 1900, side-by-side with the group's interpretation. To
emphasize the importance of Bartok's work, a large tapestry based on a
photograph of the young Bartok in a rural village was placed center-stage.

Muzsikás emerged from the "Táncház" (dance house) movement in Hungary
during the 1970s, when young musicians sought an alternative to the
regimented folklore of official state ensembles. Following in the footsteps
of Bartók and Kodály, the Táncház musicians went out to the countryside to
learn music from the folk. Unlike the state-sanction artists, the táncház
musicians insisted on retaining the raw and usually improvised character of
the folk music. Hungarian folk music, based on the pentatonic scale, has a
wonderfully off-key, droning and burred quality, as vocalists adhere to the
traditional somewhat nasal intonation. The difference between official
Hungarian folk music and the rowdy táncház performances would be roughly
analogous to respective versions of "Tutti Frutti" by Pat Boone and Little

There was always political overtones to their enterprise, since the
wellspring of Hungarian táncház music was in neighboring Romania where the
Hungarian minority in Transylvania felt oppressed by the Ceausescu regime.
Since the Hungarian government regarded Romania as a "fraternal socialist"
country, this subject was taboo. According to the program notes:

"The 'dance house' trend was launched in the early '70s as a means of
expressing Hungarian students' national feeling at a time when Russian
control was beginning to loosen. The authorities had no rational reason for
objecting to a wholesome interest in traditional music or dance but the
fact that it grew without official impetus or sponsorship made them highly
suspicious. Leading members of the scene were followed and had their phones
tapped and foreign travel curtailed."

It is no accident that anti-authoritarian artists would find Bartok a
sympathetic figure. As a musicologist, he painstakingly collected thousands
of folksongs from Hungary, Transylvania, Slovakia, Yugoslavia and as far
afield as Turkey. He transcribed hundreds of songs from the Szeklers,
former border guards stationed in parts of eastern Transylvania who had
their own distinct Hungarian dialect and culture -- a culture which is now
forgotten. And why did Bartok go to so much trouble? On one level, it is
clear that the music itself would help to enrich his own compositions. But
on another level, the diversity of the music spoke to his own democratic
and humanitarian instincts. He wrote:

"My own true guiding idea is the brotherhood of peoples, brotherhood in
spite of all wars and conflicts. I try . . . to serve this idea in my
music. Therefore I don't reject any influence, be it Solvakin, Romanian,
Arabic or from any other sources. The source must only be clean, fresh and
healthy." (The Economist, June 25, 1988)

Just like the Táncház musicians, Bartok ran afoul of conventional
attitudes, in this case from chauvinist Hungarians rather than hide-bound
government officials. In 1913, after he had finished his "Romanian Dances",
he was sharply attacked in Budapest as "an apostle of Czech, Romanian,
Slovak and God knows what other kind of music, abandoning the music of
Hungary." It was left to the more liberal, western-minded Hungarian
intellectuals connected with the journal "Nyugat," which was founded in
Budapest in 1908 -- to support Bartok and publicize his work.

Eventually Bartok felt that he could no longer work in a Europe overrun by
Nazis, who were antithetical to everything he believed in. Like many an
artist and intellectual before him, he packed his bags and came to the
United States in 1940.

It was Bartok's misfortune to land in New York City when serialism had
become a well-entrenched orthodoxy. Always driven by the commercial
marketplace--the worst dictator of all--classical composers can find
themselves unmarketable just like last year's fashions. A Hungarian
composer who laced his compositions with raw folk themes could not compete
with the serialists, whose abstract and remote compositions seemed to jibe
neatly with more recent trends such as abstract expressionism, Freudianism
and the formalist poetry inspired by T.S. Eliot.

In an act that amounted to charity, Bartok was appointed a research fellow
in anthropology without teaching duties at Columbia University. According
to an article by Paul Hume in the March 22, 1981 Washington Post,
"Unhappily the funds, limited at best, that paid Bartok's stipend at
Columbia gave out by 1942; and in the face of wartime privations, the
university felt unable to continue its grant to a non-teaching composer. It
was also a time when, although he has some concert appearances and some of
his music was being played, the income from both of these sources was minute."

The loss of income coincided with the onset of leukemia, which required
expensive hospital treatment. Deprived of almost every source of funds, the
publishing company ASCAP supplied Bartok with some money, claiming it came
from royalties. Bartok died in obscurity in 1945, a victim not only of
cancer but the heartlessness of a social system that puts a price tag on
everything, including music.

Now, 55 years later, there are signs that the cold and cerebral serialist
style has lost whatever power to inspire it once had. Other than the truly
inspired work of Schoenberg, Webern or Berg, most 12-tone music of the past
70 years is now rarely performed. Generally, the classical music world is
trying to find a way to re-connect to the deeper humanitarian spirit that
inspired Bartok. This shows up most clearly in the work of Eastern European
composers like the Pole Henryk Górecki whose work is unabashedly romantic
and melodic. Or the Estonian Arvo Pärt, whose work--like Bartok's--seeks
inspiration in native folk themes.

It is not too difficult to understand why composers continue to this day to
root themselves in the folk traditions of the nation. It is not only a way
to enrich the musical imagination, it is also a way to identify with some
of music's most progressive traditions. Obviously, as capitalism continues
to destroy the social basis of folk music--the peasantry--it will be more
and more difficult to find inspiration in the world that surrounds the
composer. Singling out Bartok, the great communist musicologist Sidney
Finkelstein addressed this theme in "Composer and Nation: The Folk Heritage
in Music":

"Bartok represents the end of a period, and at the same time helps lay the
ground for a new development. He is the greatest of those in his generation
who saw the peasantry as Synonymous with the nation; a viewpoint no longer
possible in the next generation. For the transformation of the countryside
is a world-wide process. Whether under the conditions of capitalism or
socialism, masses of peasants, farmers, farm workers and their children are
entering city industrial life, and those that remain on the land are
working under conditions of large-scale production that bring them close to
the city working class. The cultural isolation of the countryside, which
fostered the great oral tradition of folk music but the other side of which
was poverty and illiteracy, is being broken down. Like the research of
others in folk music, Bartok’s devoted and intensive effort to record and
preserve the old forms of folk music came at a time when this music was
losing its currency as a living oral tradition. And the preservation of
this music gives it renewed life on a different level, for it becomes part
of the conscious national heritage, lending its vitality to new forms of
musical creation."

Louis Proyect
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