BELÁ BARTÓK (1881-1945)

Why is Béla Bartók so important? First, let’s consider the major problem facing composers at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century: how to create a new type of music that was NOT based on the continuing, tired-out, ultra chromaticism of the late Romantic period. Different composers experimented with different methods, as we have already seen in this class. For example:

Debussy made use of non-Western scales, static harmony, non-functional coloristic chords, and multiple places of activity going on simultaneously, as well as destabilizing tritone usage.

Stravinsky embraced Neo-Classicism and pandiatonicism for the greater part of his career, destabilizing traditional functional harmony with the use of added tones and major/minor dichotomy, as well as employing bitonality.

Schoenberg abandoned tonality altogether and adopted free atonality, and then dodecaphonic music.

Paul Hindemith came up with a logical and rigorous theory of consonance and dissonance based on the overtone series, which stressed quartal and quintal harmony over third-based harmony.

George Gershwin (and others) decided to employ the harmonies and chord combinations of jazz and popular music, thus enriching the traditional tonal system and creating a new type of music utterly different than the music of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Prokofiev utilized traditional tertian harmonies but in a non-functional manner, and was famous for his rapid fire changing of key (often to remote ones!) with little regard for traditional harmonic rules and usage.

How does Bartók fit into all of this? One of Bartók’s (many) contributions to 20 th century music was his adoption of FOLK MUSIC as the basis for most of his creative output. Bartók devoted much of his life to the study of authentic folk music from many different areas, and incorporated the melodies and rhythms into his original works. Since most true folk music is monophonic (i.e. no harmony), he came up with bold new ideas on how to generate harmonies based on the melodic patterns he was working with, and is associated with POLYMODAL CHROMATICISM, SYNTHETIC SCALES, and THE ACOUSTIC SCALE . Bartók’s embracing of folk music influenced many other 20 th century composers, from Ralph Vaughan-Williams all the way to Aaron Copland and others.

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