Bartók, Béla (1881-1945)


Bela Bartok using a gramaphone to record folk songs sung by Czech peasants.

Where do artists go for new ideas?

I was reminded of the Hungarian composer Bartok while listening to jazz pianist Chick Corea–the influence is obvious in Corea’s piano improvisations.

If you’ve never listened to Bartok, he combined folk music with modern music. As I was reading the Wikipedia article about Bartok, I was struck by a couple of his quotes:

The question is, what are the ways in which peasant music is taken over and becomes transmuted into modern music? We may, for instance, take over a peasant melody unchanged or only slightly varied, write an accompaniment to it and possibly some opening and concluding phrases. This kind of work would show a certain analogy with Bach’s treatment of chorales. … Another method … is the following: the composer does not make use of a real peasant melody but invents his own imitation of such melodies. There is no true difference between this method and the one described above. … There is yet a third way … Neither peasant melodies nor imitations of peasant melodies can be found in his music, but it is pervaded by the atmosphere of peasant music. In this case we may say, he has completely absorbed the idiom of peasant music which has become his musical mother tongue.

I was reminded of how many artists have found inspiration in folk art, such as Picasso (African folk art), Paul Simon (African music), and the Brothers Grimm and their successors (German folk tales). For the artist seeking inspiration, Bartok suggests 3 ways to go beyond simply experiencing folk art and hoping for new ideas to come unbidden.  First, one could take a folk concept and simply add to it.  Second, one could imitate a folk concept.  Finally, one could experience so much folk art that it gets absorbed into one’s subconscious and is later expressed in ways that may even seem mysterious to the artist.

Here’s some fun for the comment section.  Take an example (say, an African mask or whatever the subject matter of your artistic expertise is) and describe how you would add to it, imitate it or absorb it.  I’d love to see the creative process in action.

Another approach to idea invention comes from another Bartok quote:

Debussy’s great service to music was to reawaken among all musicians an awareness of harmony and its possibilities. In that, he was just as important as Beethoven, who revealed to us the possibilities of progressive form, or as Bach, who showed us the transcendent significance of counterpoint. Now, what I am always asking myself is this: is it possible to make a synthesis of these three great masters, a living synthesis that will be valid for our time?

In other words, you could ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who are the 3 greatest artists in my field?
  2. What is the essential contribution of each one?
  3. Can these essential contributions be combined in a composition of my own?



Source: Wikipedia (“Bela Bartok”) for photo and quotes.  The end of the article has some interesting samples of his music.