I am giving this book four stars as, given that it is a selection of essays and letters, I did not find it a uniformly enjoyable reading experience. However, it is for the most part very enlightening and furnishes many little clues to the character of this most enigmatic genius, providing an excellent follow up to Kenneth Chalmers more straightforward biographical narrative, Bela Bartok (20th Century Composers)
. To seek to understand the mind and character of a composer, as a way to better understand his music, is always a fraught and possibly futile activity. Just as much as hoping to understand the man through the music. Obviously there is bound to be a relationship there, but it cannot help but be a distorted and tortuously refracted one. Thus do some of us feel deeply compelled to attempt to understand composers and their music as reflections of one another, in order to attain one of the most intimate communions that can be accomplished with another human soul. For myself, the compulsion to understand the mind and the music of Béla Bartók as a complementary unity has become my latest obsession, to the degree of booking a holiday in Budapest in the forthcoming New Year. The quest is made more intriguing by the enigmatic nature of both sides in this equation.
Descriptions of Bartók the man are often contradictory. His pupils generally describe him as kindly but distant, unless he took in active interest in their development, whereafter he became 'very kind'. Whereas his sometime librettist, Béla Balázs, describes him as `not a kind man', even though he was clearly in awe of him, both as an artist and a personality. We hear from many concerning the kindness he showed to the peasants who provided him with his ethno-musicographical source materials, but his own letters home from these field-trips are filled with unpleasant grumbles. We hear again and again that he was a quiet, reserved and even humourless man, but family members insist that he had a terrific sense of humour and a frequent twinkle in his eye. We hear that he was honest to a fault, and never compromised his principles, to the point of refusing honours from the fascistic Horthy government. The picture emerges of a good and decent man who constructed an almost impenetrable shell to protect himself from the public world and through which to deal with it, but who was a gentle, loving man amongst his own family. Indeed it seems that Bartók is one of those people to whom family is everything.
As to the music; what have I learnt? I think that mainly the book has served to quell the doubts I had that perhaps I wasn't hearing the music right, somehow getting the wrong end of the stick and misunderstanding it. That what I'm hearing is what I think I'm hearing. I can think of no other composer who manages to so thoroughly avoid conforming to an obviously recognisable 'style'. With most composers, once you have heard a few of their works it becomes easy enough to recognise their signature in other works. But with Bartók each work is quite distinct and you could never be quite sure, within certain broad period and harmonic parameters, that an unknown work might in fact be by one of his. From the mischievous joy of the Concerto for Orchestra and the Piano Concerto No.2 to the bitter gloom of much of the string quartets; the fierce intelligence of the violin sonatas to the macabre and satirical Mandarin. The list could continue but one would be hard put to recognise the body of work as being from the mind of one man unless told so. In fact it has required the assimilation of many of Bartók's works, not just the better known ones, for me to begin to discern the underlying unity that is the signature of his profound individuality. So much of that individuality would seem to come down to the wide-ranging folk musical influences which he absorbed, adapted and extended to his own visionary purposes. From there derived the intricate compound rhythms, the strange, sometimes quirky, even alien chromaticism arising from clashing diatonic modalities, or from the pentatonic scales that he discovered to be underlying them, and the pungent harmonic language that he drew forth from them.
What would seem to be apparent is that Bartók's music shows little relation to his personal circumstances at the time of composition. Some of his brightest music was written in the difficult years of his American exile, whereas the dark and sombre string quartets seemed to pop up at random intervals throughout his career, with no obvious connection to external conditions. It would seem that whatever the sources of his creative inspiration were they had only the most tenuous relationship with the prevailing Zeitgeist.