Sep 30, 2016

Bartók – Going to the Roots of Music

Bartok Cover

Last season, with the WDR Symphony Orchestra, we celebrated Sibelius, the year 2015 marking 150 years since the death of Finland’s most prominent composer. Performing Sibelius outside Finland made me reflect on going to the roots of music.
For me, as a Finn, the origins of the music of Sibelius are deeply familiar. A particular intensity without any superfluous extroverted performance manners belongs to his musical language, and perhaps to the Finnish mentality as well. In Finland it’s well-known that Sibelius found the original Finnish sound in the North Karelian singing tradition that still existed in his time. Performing Sibelius in Germany, and going to the roots of his music makes me think of how important it is to pass on a musical tradition to the next generation.

Last year’s experience in Cologne of playing Sibelius’ music forms a bridge to this season’s theme: the music of Bartók. The WDR Symphony got increasingly closer to Sibelius’ world – which may be experienced as somewhat foreign to German orchestras and other cultures outside Finland. I always hear from musicians that they somehow don’t have access to Sibelius’ music, but in this case, the orchestra gradually forged a connection to it during the course of the season. I always assume there is a natural path to this composer, but although we tend to think the language of music is obvious, maybe it isn’t always.

To me, the WDR Symphony succeeded in finding the right sound in the end – owing to their motivation and their will to do so – Sibelius’ sound was something they were curious to discover, and they did discover it, through repeated playing of his works. Top orchestras always offer a certain expression in the beginning: many musicians offer a beautiful sound; an idiomatic sound for their instrument, and may need encouragement and a vision to use their instrument differently for certain types of music. I want them to seek new dimensions of sound for composers like Sibelius and Bartók, and to find a new expression. This takes a long time, and it doesn’t always work. Musicians may consider it a big risk, and prefer to keep performing in their usual styles. There are some elements in Sibelius’ music that are hard to extract if the orchestra hasn’t grown up in this tradition. In my opinion, this is a psychological process – musicians have to dare to to learn something new and to adopt a new approach.

Bartók drew much inspiration from the folklore traditions of, for example, Transylvania and Hungary, as Sibelius did from the Finnish traditional way of singing, Other composers must have experienced the same. For example, how should we perform Brahms? His sound world and expression are very particular, and his style reflects a certain melancholy and pessimism. The fine tunings of different composers are sometimes forgotten – but all music can not played in the same way. Our mission should be to go to the roots of the music of every composer. Sibelius’ thematic material derives in great part from the Finnish Tradition – that was his source. All styles can and should follow a continuity from their musical origins.

Take Schoenberg as an example – sometimes we don’t connect his items of music to the Viennese tradition. His twelve-tone technique – if we listen to it without hearing its roots, if we play it without knowing, the music sounds empty, without a connection to the past. Many think he changed his style when he started composing in twelve-tone, but he was really drawing on the idioms of the Viennese school.

From Sibelius to Bartók

For me, one of the principal elements which make Bartók interesting is his direct roots to folklore. Revealing this link requires very particular expressive qualities and, in my opinion, we should not play Bartók’s music with the same expression we normally use. We must go to the roots of his music – in part stemming from the folklore of Transylvania, and from the impressions he had from the places he visited. His particular kind of rhythmical intensity – a certain roughness – and the shapes of his music, come directly from a tradition that is not found everywhere. We might find it in the street music of his time, but it isn’t necessarily obvious to a classically-trained musician.

I don’t know if I’m connected to Bartók’s music, but at least I’m curious. I want to explore it, and think I have an idea of what it is. I want to delve deeper into it myself. There are many things about him that make me curious: I’m interested in the characters found in his music following his last Romantic pieces, such as The Wooden Prince, which was influenced by Wagner and the German masters he admired. For instance, his first piano concerto is comparable to jazz or traditional folklore music. It has a popular, rhythmical, percussive message, reflecting Bartók’s change in focus. After his Romantic pieces he succeeded in creating his own musical language using the folklore influences he had assimiliated during his travels. He really created his own harmony and did not pursue the trends followed by other composers.

The Miraculous Mandarin is another example. In content and musical expression it is one of Bartók’s most daring and extreme pieces. Due to the story and its vulgarity, it was banned in many places after its premiere. We might compare it to The Rite of Spring, in the sense of the extremes he goes to and the brutality with which he treats the orchestra.

Many other works could have been included in the season. Still, many great works are there, such as Divertimento for String Orchestra, which allows the strings to play out the stylistic elements deriving from the folklore tradition.

Many musicians in the WDR Symphony are familiar with his music. Every string player has played the Romanian Folk Dances – the orchestra has a connection to that world already, which in a way follows the tradition of the players.

Considering the audience’s point of view, I have one message: we must play Bartók in an uncompromised way for it to work. We should sometimes forget aesthetics, but keep in mind the origin of the works and the genuine expression of the music. There is a difference between playing things beautifully, correctly and “instrumentally”, and this. We should move away from having an aesthetic intent every time we touch the instrument – especially for the extreme expressions required by Bartók, Janacek, and of course, Sibelius. We should forget our usual expression in our playing – but try to find the authentic roots of Bartók’s music. That is our purpose in focusing on these composers – finding their true styles.

An example of this idea is the opening of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. It is often played beautifully, but what is actually needed is a demonstration of an important, but elusive psychological element of the composition. It’s not romantic – you don’t make your mark in the first note – but to sustain its strength it needs a master and a vision. You need to be able to handle the instrument in a fantastic way. Everyone in Finland expects the opening to happen in a certain fashion, which is not obvious, not extroverted, but should contain an inner intensity. It demands a coolness which is neither lazy nor lethargic.

The most exciting thing about Bartók is that he is one of the composers who was obliged to go in another direction after Mahler and Wagner, with their overwhelming styles which had reached their utmost extremes. After Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Pelleas and Melisande, and Mahler’s last symphonies, no one could go further in that direction. Stravinsky and Schoenberg went their own ways, and so did Bartók. Like many others, he was driven to find a new language he could work with.
Bartók found his expression in the harmony and characters taken from the folklore tradition, which was his way out of Romanticism. Many others did too, such as Janacek, and I find it interesting to examine which direction the composers of the time went in and why.

Sibelius was asked who amongst the next generation of composers he believed in, and he mentioned Bartók. To me, it’s yet another world of music, and I’m encouraged by the strong versatility of the WDR Symphony, its openness and ability to perform different styles, It opens a new world to them and to the audience. It’s the same for me: I need this kind of variety.

Personally, this is one of the things that I want to explore, this Klang and with it the expression, working with an orchestra I already know very well.