Muzsikás and Bela Bartok


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 Richard.


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."