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.



Banchieri, Adriano (1568 – 1634)

Adriano Banchieri (1568-1634)

“One of the principal composers of madrigal comedies, choral pieces that suggest plots and action to be imagined by the performers and listeners (EB).”

I wonder if that idea could be extended to other art forms, where the plots are only suggested and are largely in the imaginations of both performers and readers/viewers/listeners.  What might such a work of art look like?

“Formerly, madrigal comedy was considered to be one of the important precursors to opera, but most music scholars now see it as a separate development, part of a general interest in Italy at the time in creating musico-dramatic forms (Wikipedia, “Banchieri”).

Since this art form combines two previously existing forms (music and drama), I wonder what other art forms could be combined?


Photo credit:


Arriaga, Juan

Arriaga “was nicknamed ‘the Spanish Mozart’ after he died, because, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, he was both a child prodigy and an accomplished composer who died young. Whether by design or coincidence, they also shared the same first and second baptismal names; and they shared the same birthday, January 27 (fifty years apart).” (YouTube description for “Guarneri Quartet plays Arriaga Quartet No 1 in D minor I Allegro” at

Britannica describes him as “a composer of extraordinary precocity” whose “music stands between the Classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart and the Romanticism of Rossini and Schubert; it shows abundant invention, freshness and technical resourcefulness.”


“in music, traditionally, any adaptation of a composition to fit a medium other than that for which it was originally written, while at the same time retaining the general character of the original.”

“Arnold Schoenberg in turn made many elaborate orchestral arrangements of music by Bach, Georg Matthias Monn and Brahms that amount to actual recomposition….”

I am intrigued by the idea of Schoenberg “recomposing” Bach and Brahms.  Given that Schoenberg’s own music is hyper-intellectual to the point of ugliness (in my opinion), what would his arrangements of Bach (one of my favorites) and a Romantic such as Brahms sound like?

Arcadia, Accademia dell’

“Italian literary academy founded in Rome in 1690 to ‘to exterminate bad taste and to see to it that it shall not rise again.'”  The academy was directed at Marinism, a poetic style dominant in 17th century Italy.

America is filled to the throat with bad taste.  The landscape shrubs around our homes are all-but-impossible-to-kill; practical, but ugly; invariably placed with exact symmetry; and trimmed into tedious repetitions of cones, cubes, and globes.  Even the word “shrub” conveys the ugliness.  Likewise, our music and television programs are usually of poor taste: neither conceived nor performed skillfully.

Why is there no cultural arbiter in America today?  Why is there no one to exterminate bad taste and see that it never rises again?

I can think of several reasons.  Perhaps America is simply too large.  Politically, we Americans often feel that our national government is too far away to be under our control.  A cultural “police” would have an easier time in a country the size of Italy.  Furthermore, being a republic rather than a monarchy, we do not have a history of listening to voices claiming to be authoritative.

Perhaps another problem is the huge volume of entertainment that capitalism produces for a large, relatively prosperous population that expects to be entertained 24 hours per day.  It is simply too much, and we throw up (our hands, that is).

Our education system certainly has its share of blame.  If the esthetic part of education were taken seriously, there would be no need to condemn the worst cultural rot on moral or any other grounds.  Children trained to play Bach, Beethoven and jazz would simply be too bored to listen to most rap.  Children who have experimented with writing short stories would never sit still for “reality” television shows.

Our schools create minds that are simple, not minds with a complexity worthy of human beings.  Our children are capable of understanding only those ideas small enough to fit on a “smart” phone.  Consequently, students have no appreciation of art that is complex enough to be enjoyed repeatedly in one lifetime and, in fact, over generations of lifetimes.  The other great sin of our schools is that students create very little art.  Those few who have tried to create art, who have struggled with the conflicting choices every artist faces and the technical skills that are required, have less tolerance for bad art.

And, of course, the biggest problem is post-modernism, which has exchanged standards of truth, beauty and justice for the clamorous nonsense of Subjectivity.  Is it any wonder that we feel as though we are living in a madhouse?