Music is a realm of the human spirit – a realm perhaps a bit undervalued at the moment – that can reveal a great deal to us and offer insights into matters of fundamental essence. This aspect of music was perhaps most spectacularly evident in the revolutionary periods of the 19th century, at moments when music itself seemed to stand at the forefront of European artistic movements and indeed be itself the “soul” of the trends and changes afoot. This was followed at the turn of the century by another great wave of an entirely different nature, parallel with the dimming of literature and the thousand-year-old European spiritual and intellectual aura. The significance of folk culture and folk music began to grow more rapidly, drawing the attention of more sensitive minds to a new and essentially forgotten world. In my view, today it is perhaps again worth giving a bit more attention to music in order that we may better perceive the world from the perspective of the spiritual and sensual promptings that lie within us, instead of simply orienting ourselves and attempting to pass judgment on the basis of the discernments of history and politics. In this regard, Béla Bartók remains a figure of pivotal importance in the history of culture, from whatever perspective we examine his place, for he was the composer who, after a period of thousands of years, finally made a deliberate great leap towards world music, a music that had existed since the dawn of recorded history, a music that was elemental, natural, ritual, and many-hued. In the lives of ancient civilizations music clearly developed as organically as every other phenomenon of culture, but an analysis of its evolution would take us a bit far afield. I would like to note, however, (and I do not think that my observation is a case of retrospective projection, rather it is a matter of fundamental laws) that in the music of the modern era one can discern, with remarkable precision and clarity, a definite break between the European cast of mind and the Eastern cast of mind, a split that occurred essentially at the end of the Middle Ages. In the work of Bartók, however, the two were brought back together, and not merely as a simple matter of superficial juxtaposition, and thus began the process in the middle of which we find ourselves today; in the end we must turn back. Without abandoning our manner of thinking, we must burrow into the Eastern manner of thinking, a frame of mind characterized by respect for and understanding of the Whole. (It is perhaps easier for us, in principle, because we have traditions of sense and precision.) For the problems of the world today are so overwhelming that they can no longer be solved simply through reliance on particular, polarized, assertive manners of thinking. It has been my experience that all of the problems of civilization stem from this. In my view the historical era into which we are now entering will necessarily be saturated and transformed by the Eastern mentality, a mentality that still retains – and hopefully will preserve – the discernment of the Whole, the general and individual immanence and benevolence without which it simply will not be possible to overcome the problems we face today.
When considering the music of Bartók itself, where can one grasp the signs of the manner of thinking to which I have alluded? His inclination and his ingenuity as a composer and observer appear quite early in his oeuvre, in the rhapsodies and even more markedly in the Dance Suite, as does his uniform perspective, in other words his ability to think not only in terms of time in his music, but also in terms of space. Not only are the effects of his music governed by space, so are the “complications”. Asymmetries in time (rhythm) are resolved into symmetries in space and elevated in individual cadences and finales to an almost hymnic, heavenly equipoise. Some of the pieces of Microcosmos provide clear and unambiguous examples of this, as do orchestral compositions and compositions for the cello, if perhaps in a more adventurous manner. One might even think of the close of the first movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. If we had adequate education in music (I confess I find it disheartening how tone-deaf musical culture is today), perhaps we would have some insight into and grasp of why the Western practice of music making and the Eastern practice of music composition are so different. This difference lies not merely in anonymity, but rather in a more fundamental divergence. Namely, the Western mind thinks in accordance with a linear logic, creating and portraying a linear world. It divides time into periods, and its music is an expression (most often heroically passionate) of this. It attempts to make the linear world it has created artistically discernible. Driven by a continuous and consequential sense of lack, it has built an artificial world conforming to its vision. Its egocentrism and methodicalness have enabled it to develop the four part harmony of its music, but its principles of composition have gradually become questions of quantity. Its music has become unnatural, rampant polyphony, estranged from nature, a mere matter of snobbery, and organic rhythm has been subordinated to the rigid regulations of numbers. Looking back, one has the impression that the Western mentality must have always sensed that it was no longer one with the Whole, that its inner bond with wholeness had been severed, and that the only consolation remaining was a kind of gloating attitude of technical triumph. I will however refrain from speaking of this process, itself one of the social and cultural symptoms of a democratic and individualistic order.
In its essence, this linear manner of thinking is in opposition to the Eastern musical practice that was conceived in the spirit of shifting constancy (and this in itself is a spatial concept), a practice the essence of which is simply that each individual tone, no matter the instrument or singer, must in and of itself make felt that it resounds as part of the Whole. In its depths and heights, in the concentrated resonance of its sound and the aura of its breadth it must express time as a function of space. It must fill time with life, which originates in it, until it reaches the final borders of the senses, indeed it must stretch even beyond these borders, to the level of the mystic. Music, after all, is not first and foremost a social phenomenon, but rather a cosmic one. I would mention another concrete example. While within the very precisely and fastidiously clarified orchestral sound that is used today in Western music a cymbal, for instance, or any other percussion instrument is used to change the tinge or mood of a composition and thus remains little more than one instrument among many, in Eastern music every individual instrument, and first and foremost percussion instruments (the farther East one travels, the more so), is comprised of certain secret alloys. Their sound, when they are properly played, is an expression of the experience of and initiation into fulfilment, perfect in itself, with no unnecessary ornamentation, nothing decorative or superfluous. Clearly these musical instruments, even the simplest among them, were developed with the goal of serving the highest aesthetic demands and in accordance with procedures that were preciously guarded secrets, procedures that were then passed on to subsequent generations. It sometimes took years to make a single instrument, and the “recipe” was kept within the family. In the East this is characteristic of almost everything related to the arts (and things not related to the arts as well). This is the nature of the Eastern mentality. To return to Bartók, Microcosmos and other compositions (such as the Sonata for Two Pianos, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and Out of Doors), sensing the power of his own talents and the strength of the Hungarian mentality and culture, he built a bridge between East and West using the qualities and characteristics of folk music. Hungarian culture, he must have felt, must fulfil this task, both pressing and cosmic. It is a unique calling, and for that reason difficult to understand or compare with anything else.
If today we speak of Hungarian traditions (and we should perhaps keep in mind that in doing so we speak of Hungarian culture, for tradition is what sustains culture; culture does not consist simply of clever or educated individuals, but rather is only conceivable as the whole of the traditions of a community), it is worth recognizing that we are speaking of traditions deriving from two sources, East and West, like fact on the one hand and possibility on the other.
This duality is wholesome, organic, and true only if it remains steadfastly faithful to itself, assimilating European influences slowly. The features of the music of East and West that I identified above are clearly discernable in the fabric of Bartók’s oeuvre. I mentioned Microcosmos first because from this point of view the pieces of this composition are among the most readily recognizable and understandable. While he often used linear lines as a spatial, symmetrical game (one thinks for instance of Hommage à Bach), representing in a striking manner the creation of a new quality through the convergence of East and West, one nonetheless senses the extent to which this linear vision and arrangement remains elemental in the work of Bartók, who was born into a milieu where to this day one still finds the most authentic Hungarian folk culture and folk music. It remains an open question how long this folk culture will continue to thrive, or at least subsist. With regards to both the past and the future, this is a matter of some significance, as is the fact that in recent years there have been feverish attempts to undermine the manner of thinking embodied by Bartók. It is finished, not a path down which one continues, so the accusations went. I can think of at least two reasons for which this is by no means incidental. First, I understand the view of Antal Molnár, according to whom, in order for someone to be able to continue down the path blazed by Bartók, in order for someone to be able to live and take possession of these things, grasp them and make them universal, one must have tremendous talent. Second, I am convinced, however laughable it may seem to say it, that we are dealing with a kind of international struggle in which Bartók’s manner of thinking is simply not thought of as desirable or modern. This, however, again would take us a bit far afield.
Nonetheless, we are all called upon both by life itself and the moment in which we find ourselves to find our bearings, but in order to do this we need vision, talent, clarity, freedom from prejudice, and a certain sense of resolve. Everyone has a task and mission in this world. We must tend to ours, for if we do not, we can hardly expect others to do so for us.
One is familiar with the adage according to which talent is the only guarantee of quality. I sense the profound truth of this statement, for it is an assertion of the importance of autonomy and ability. At the same time, however, I find it inadequate, for in order for one to be able to create something of true quality one needs first and foremost healthy self-confidence. György Mandics and Zsuzsanna M. Veress compiled a tragic volume consisting of the diary notes composed in verse of 19th century mathematician János Bolyai (Bolyai János jegyzeteibõl. Kriterion, 1979). It contains one of Bolyai’s writings to Gauss in which he accuses the German scholar of murder for having extinguished his self-confidence. This is a grave accusation, and not simply a personal matter between the two of them.
A culture consists of people, the living and the dead, which means that the Whole itself must live. In this regard self-confidence is a well-intentioned, creative, active state of self-forgetting, the childhood terrain of possibility. How does the culture live in which a poet like Endre Ady, a composer like Béla Bartók (whether their talent be founded on self-assurance, sorrow, historical piety, or something else, for talent must be founded on something), full of self-assurance, became universal, both sustaining and living this culture? How does this culture, the Whole, live today? I fear – and I grow increasingly mute in my dismay – that this culture has gone astray in the labyrinth of today, a process only hastened by the meat-grinding mechanism of a civilization founded on big industry. This is one of the reasons why people find themselves faltering in an inner state of endless hesitation and uncertainty. One must perhaps admit that science in the so-called Gutenberg Galaxy (to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s metaphor) is by no means a mere innocent bystander in the demotion of immanent cultures, for in a manner perhaps well-intentioned but nonetheless self-serving it simplifies into two dimensions the complexities of living cultures and the phenomena that can only subsist through the bequest of tradition. Of course the other reason – and the two are interrelated – is historical, even political. Regarding the electronic age, again to borrow one of McLuhan’s terms, I am less pessimistic than I was at the outset.
I am increasingly convinced, however, even if the claim may seem a trifle “illogical”, that the most modern and most thorough form of passing on knowledge with respect to living culture today is and tomorrow will remain the bequest of tradition. The passing on of tradition is the most authentic, complete, and concise form of the transmission of knowledge, in which both the subconscious and conscious layers of the mind function and assimilate phenomena (according to Neumann the nervous system receives 14×1010 stimuli per second). I am speaking of personal, direct communication, which is essential, for it is the life of culture. People read heaps of books and newspapers, digesting innumerable filtered and often fanciful half-truths. This is at most a manner of passing time that may (or may not) be thought provoking. The world, however, is tending towards an organic approach that embraces and permeates everything, a new immersion in which the personal quality may well become the foundation and the bearer of an honourable system of values. A kind of self-regulation, with which each of us was born, is at work in us that strives towards this. But the human personality must be kept in order.
Years ago there was a memorable, superbly directed series on Italian television about Leonardo da Vinci in which mention was also made of Verrocchio and his school. Verrocchio taught the talented students (Leonardo among them) the fine arts. The children lived together with Verrocchio. They were near him day and night, and they saw how he lived, what he did, when he brooded and on what, what he was working on, how he behaved, what he noticed, and what motivated him when he did something unexpected. He was a brilliant master, surrounded by his diligent, curious, active, and strict students, who were able to discern for themselves the meanings of Genesis come to life in exemplary fashion in his person. In the preservation of cultural continuity examples of high personal standards and expectations are important, not dead culture, not the museum. History and the past are important as well, of course. But the living aspirations that never tire are the most important. In general, everything depends on this.
In my view there is a pressing need for spiritual stabilization, and were I to have to speak of its scale only the most profound thinkers would come to mind, such as Confucius, as an example of the order of magnitude of which I am thinking. Without this stabilization the collapse and disintegration we see taking place all around us will continue. And these are things that affect everything and everyone.
Then what, given all this, does musical tradition mean to me? I take as a point of departure the notion that rhythm is a sensory realm of the cosmos. It follows from this that I feel and perhaps even live the rhythmic characteristic of the Hungarian and, through it, the Eastern tradition (as a tradition and at the same time renewal) in which there is an unmovable, permanent, profound, almost timelessly stable core around which all forms of rhythm episodically appear, like a kind of sensory experience of existence. In European cultures individually varying rhythms took form most clearly in parlando-rubato, one of the two singing styles identified by Béla Bartók in European folk music.
I had an opportunity to chat a bit with a few people living in the Far East, and as these questions continue to fascinate me, and since I suspected that tradition must play a strong role, I asked them to share their views. Their answers convinced me that indeed a Japanese man or woman does live and experience history in such a manner that even with the passage of time there remains an inner, absolute stability, something timeless that does not change, and the events of the world are regarded merely as transient episodes. I came to understand that they experience the world of microprocessors, so widespread today in Japan, as something external, an event or incident. I see these as a form of exemplary continuity between tradition and renewal. They do not see the world divided neatly into discrete isms, to return to the European manner of thinking.
Anyone who sets aside a bit of time to listen to the music of the Far East will find astonishing things in Chinese music too, in which within a single work of music or a single musical event one finds “romanticism”, “classicism”, and a vast number of similar facets and tendencies in nuanced unity, facets and tendencies that in the European tradition have been partitioned into periods and periodic styles. I cannot quite free myself of the thought that this is again a consequence of our linear manner of thinking, which insists on transforming an idea, a thought into an absolute, elevating the part above the whole, and disrupting the proportional unity of time and space in order to give the dimension of time a greater role – hence our world of endless consumption and excess. This is all quite unknown in the world of the music of the Far East. And the music of Bartók and folk music more broadly, with its intimate parlando passages, its enigmatic rubatos, its ethereal tempo giusto, and its harmony of space and time, is not dead, is not a mere relic. Continuity, then, is nothing more than renewal in accordance with the vital conditions of inner freedom. The most important thing is the core, freedom bound to the Whole, eternal, unchanging inner freedom. The living Whole.
Translation by Thomas Cooper
Editor’s Note: György Szabados, member of our Editorial Board, an outstanding pianist and composer of free music, died on 10 June, at age 72. We are remembering him in Hungarian Review, not for the last time, with the English translation of one of his essays, published in 1985.