Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Bela Bartok

Dr. Bob Prescribes Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

I am frequently asked “who is my favorite composer?” My typical response – flippant but not insincere – is that I am a musical slut: I love whomever I’m with at the moment. I mean, really: when listening to Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or playing the Goldberg Variations, how in heaven’s name would it be possible for any of us to favor any composer over Bach? Ditto when listening to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro; a Beethoven Symphony; Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov;a Brahms Piano Quartet; Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; Schubert’s Wintereisse; Haydn’s Creation; Verdi’s Otello; Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto; and a thousand-and-one other works by a hundred-and-one other composers. So much great music; so little time. How can we possibly choose favorites among such a wealth of extraordinary work? On seemingly the same lines, I am also not-infrequently asked, “who is my favorite twentieth century composer?” Now: that is, in fact, a very different question. It’s a different question because starting around the first decade of the twentieth century, the vast majority of young composers began taking it upon themselves to create their own musical languages, partly if not wholly divorced from the melodic, harmonic, and formal traditions of seventeenth, eighteenth, and… 

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Music History Monday: Béla Bartók – An Appreciation

Seventy-one years ago today – on September 26, 1945 – the composer, pianist, ethnomusicologist and Hungarian patriot Béla Viktor Janos Bartók died at the age of 64 in self-imposed exile in New York City. Sixteen years later, in 1961, the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, the enfant terrible of post-World War Two musical modernism, wrote this about Bartók’s music: “The pieces most applauded are the least good; his best products are loved in their weaker aspects. His work triumphs now through its ambiguity. Ambiguity that will surely bring him insults during future evaluation. His language lacks interior coherence. His name will live on in the limited ensemble of his chamber music.” Boulez was not just wrong: he was snotty wrong. And in this he was not alone. Most of the post-War compositional modernists – which includes most of my own teachers – rejected Bartók because they believed he had squandered his potential as a compositional radical by employing elements of folk-music, neo-tonality, dance rhythms, and Classical era forms to create a body of music that was on occasion – God forbid – viscerally exciting and, even worse, accessible; music that employed such antediluvian elements as tunes and melodic sequences and… 

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