Music by Luciano Berio and Béla Bartók
In 1931, the Hungarian composer and folk music collector-analyst Béla Bartók gave a lecture in Budapest on the “influence of peasant music on modern music”. At the end of his observations, he dealt with a reproach levelled against his music for lacking originality and against his creative powers for having developed his musical language directly out of his explorations of folk music, not even shying away from the use of actual folk melodies in a portion of his works. Drawing a critical distinction to the Romantic aesthetic of genius, in which the true artist demonstrates his individuality by inventing his own ideas and themes, Bartók argued: “It is a fatal error to attribute so much importance to the subject, the theme of a composition. We know that Shakespeare borrowed the stories of his plays from all sources. ... Is there any sense in talking of plagiarism, of intellectual sterility or incompetence? In music, as in poetry and in painting, it does not matter what themes we use. It is the form into which we mould them that constitutes the essence of our work. It is this form that reveals the knowledge, creative power and individuality of the artist.”
The Italian composer Luciano Berio, born 44 years after Bartók, would surely have endorsed these words. His music also feeds on a myriad of diverse sources, making reference to art and folk repertoire as well as other musics, borrowing themes and material and transforming them with great originality. Taking as an example his creative handling of folk music, Berio described the approach behind it as follows: “I’m not an ethnomusicologist, just a pragmatic egoist. I tend to be interested only in those folk techniques and means of expression that I can in one way or other assimilate without a stylistic break, and that allow me to make a few steps forward in the search for a unity underlying musical worlds that are apparently alien to one another.”
Composing with history – Berio’s Sinfonia
A striking example of Berio’s composing with history and his attempts to trace relationships between the most varied musical materials and make them audible is Sinfonia, composed in 1968-69. Its centrepiece is the third movement. Berio explained the basic idea of this, the most experimental and potent section of the work: “I had long intended to explore a musical work of the past from within – a creative investigation that would, at the same time, be an analysis, a commentary and an expansion of the original.” As the “object” of this undertaking, he chose the Scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony: “If I were to describe the presence of Mahler’s Scherzo in Sinfonia, the image which comes most spontaneously to my mind is that of a river flowing through a constantly changing landscape, sometimes going underground and emerging in another, altogether different place, sometimes very evident in its journey, sometimes disappearing completely, present either as a fully recognizable form or as small details lost in the surrounding host of musical events.”
As Berio so vividly describes it by means of the river metaphor, the presence of Mahler’s Scherzo varies throughout the course of the third movement: heard in fragmented individual parts or in the whole orchestra; in its original guise or distorted, instrumentally or vocally; clearly at one moment then once again only suggested or entirely absorbed by the enveloping musical proceedings. A substantial part of those enveloping proceedings – in other words, the “changing landscape” of which the composer speaks – consists of quotations from 250 years of music history. From Bach, Beethoven and Brahms by way of Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Ravel, Stravinsky, Berg and Hindemith to Stockhausen, Boulez, Globokar and Berio himself. In one instant, the evocative sound-world of Debussy’s La Mer materializes; in the next, the orchestra plunges into a wildly intensifying passage from Le Sacre du printemps or, heard in one timbral group, into the brusque main motif of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The crucial factor is that the composer doesn’t simply assemble the countless quotes in the manner of a collage. Instead they are embedded in the musical flow so as to give the impression of being generated out of the Mahler scherzo by a kind of stream-of-consciousness technique. And then there are the various texts in the solo voices: layered one upon another, they form a further level that at times seems to be independent, then commenting again, seriously or ironically, on the musical events in the orchestra. And so, the first tenor concludes the brilliant, crazy movement – tailored to this particular evening – with the laconic words: “Thank you, Mr. Simon Rattle.”
Composing in exile – Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra
Whereas Berio spent part of his life in the USA out of his own free will, Bartók arrived there in autumn 1940 as a refugee. The Nazis’ advance and “the imminent danger that Hungary, too, will surrender to this system of robbers and murderers” had led the composer, with a heavy heart, to abandon his homeland and, at nearly 60 years of age, venture into the unknown. Living in a free but unfamiliar country and making a new existence for themselves was fraught with difficulties for the Bartóks, as it was for many other emigrants. In addition to material hardships and feelings of rootlessness, the composer soon was confronted by massive health problems. It is not surprising that his creative activity nearly came to a complete standstill during the first years in exile: “I don’t know if I ever will be in the position to do some new works,” he wrote resignedly to his publisher in the summer of 1942. Only the commission of a new work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra from the famous conductor Serge Koussevitzky as well as a sudden improvement in the state of his health eventually got him through the crisis. In a few weeks of genuine creative frenzy during the summer of 1943, the Concerto for Orchestra, one of the most popular orchestral works of the 20th century, was composed at a sanatorium far from the hubbub of the metropolis New York.
As mentioned at the outset, Bartók was not only a great composer but also an important ethnomusicologist. On his many research excursions through Eastern Europe, but also to North Africa and Turkey, he collected thousands of folk melodies. After he settled in the USA, he concentrated on his Balkan material. The musical language of the Concerto for Orchestra is marked in numerous ways by this intensive research. Bartók constructed many themes in the style of folk tunes, for example the Slovak-coloured oboe melody at the beginning of the fourth movement. But other musical worlds come to life in the Concerto. In the fourth movement, tellingly entitled “Intermezzo interrotto” (Interrupted interlude), Bartók sets up a collision between three distinct musical spheres: a folk tune, an operetta melody, and the parody of a banal symphony theme. The third movement, “Elegia”, on the other hand, begins with nature music evoking the sounds and atmosphere of the night. All of these diverse musical worlds are enlivened by the orchestra’s ability to adapt and transmute as well as by the virtuosic solo and ensemble possibilities of its multifarious members.