Thursday, April 20, 2017

Wisdom of the people

I have been playing Bartok's Violin Duos with a friend, and this made me want to know more about Bartok. I borrowed David Cooper's detailed biography of Bartok. It is a portrait of an era, not only a very detailed account of Bartok's life and music. It also raises questions about Hungarian and generally European liberal history. Hungarians were a minority in lands that were inhabited by many different ethnic groups, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Wallahs,  Germans, Gypsies and Jews. Whatever their ethnic roots, people were defined by the language they spoke. Those who spoke Hungarian were deemed Hungarian. Language defined people's station in society. The aristocracy spoke German, French, even English, the gentry mainly German. The people of the land, the peasantry spoke by and large, Hungarian. Thus Hungarian nationalism was rooted in this class structure.  So Bartok, whose mother was German, developed an interest in Hungarian, and ultimately other ethnic music of the Balkans and North Africa, thus siding with the peoples of the land. This was also a rebellion against urban bourgeois and aristocratic culture, which relished ornamented, decorated, virtuoso gypsy music, the music of banquets at country estates and the music of the city coffee houses. Searching for real Hungarian, and real ethnic music, rejecting the prevailing romantic idiom made a statement about cultural values. 
Listening to Bartok music, some of it still sounds 'barbaric', 'primitive', but some of it is exquisitely beautiful and haunting. I have listened to the First Violin Concerto that he dedicated to Stefi Geyer and the First String Quartet. These are just sheer beautiful music. But embracing nationalism and national music, Bartok was treading on dangerous ground. Bartok's music embraced the music of many different people, without asserting the superiority or inferiority of any. But once nationalism glorifies a mythical past that impies the superiority of one people over another, it becomes poison.