4. THE WORLD AROUND
Viewed from close-up the Schoenberg School seemed larger than life. In fact
it played a rather modest part in the musical life of the years between the
wars, despite its noisy propagandists. Of all its output only Wozzeck reached
a wider public to become a musical sensation; the repertoire of contemporary
music was dominated by great masters who, in their own ways, also trespassed
on the old rules and on the experience of security and contentment but were
neither atonal anarchists nor adherents of any new teaching.
Maurice Ravel was the most widely acclaimed 'modern' composer of the time.
A piece like his 'Bolero' seemed to possess everything that could be expected
of new music: rhythm, impetus, harshness, bravura. Orchestras, conductors
and public alike revelled in it. I remember its first performance in Vienna,
when it had to be played three times. Today people prefer the Daphnis and
Chloe suites and La Valse which were also popular at that time; and everyone
who could still play the piano played the 'Sonatina'. Ravel's operatic essays,
however, were no more successful then than they are today.
After Ravel, Stravinsky had a harder passage. In his Histoire du soldat and
even more in the Symphonies for Wind Instruments and in the Octet he seemed
to be carried away by the atonal current; but he battled to reach the safer
shores of neo-classicism which made more of a point of their distance from
the past rather than their closeness to it. That was his real originality.
Oedipus, Apollon, Symphony of Psalms and Persephone were no nostalgic
recollections but overwhelming testimonies to the change of time, climate
and mood The unbiased public seemed to grasp this more easily than the learned
critics, who expected every new work to be another Rite of Spring-not that
they liked that either.
While all the rough edges of Stravinsky's 'barbarisms' were smoothed away
in the stream of European influences, Prokofiev brought all his with him
from Russia in their full and unashamed vigour. People listened with great
pleasure to the Classical Symphony, although it was a by no means good-humoured
skit on the most sacred elements in music. They even enjoyed the Scythian
Suite and 'Pas d'acier' which had frightened the dauntless Diaghilev. When
Prokofiev hammered out his Third Piano Concerto with his mighty hands the
audience were in a state of frenzy. Though his operas had no luck, the March
and Scherzo from The Love of Three Oranges had a resounding success throughout
the concerthalls of the New and the Old Worlds.
I met Prokofiev on his last journey to Russia. He felt ill at ease and attributed
this to the lack of his native air. He believed he had exhausted his inventive
powers and expected to find in Russian surroundings either a fresh excitement
in new music, or a fresh satisfaction in the old. In spite of his Herculean
appearance he had none of Stravinsky's greatness and resolution. With a boyish
laugh he waved his enormous right hand to bid me farewell. 'When I know how
to write music again I will come back! The Russian Government has promised
me full liberty: I can come and go as I please.' He did not come back, and
he did not live happily. What he composed in Russia does not compare with
the works he had written abroad. The furs belonging to his French wife are
still with a Paris furrier; in a Paris cellar lies a large box with programmes,
newspaper cuttings, photographs and hundreds of little souvenirs of the years
in Germany, France and the United States which he left behind, perhaps for
fear that they might hinder his rebirth.
Russia had become a place of mystery. News about life and art there was scanty
and biased. I remember a discussion with the Moscow correspondent of a leading
Viennese paper who, for reasons unknown to himself, had been left in Russia
during and after the purge of the early Thirties. Somebody asked him the
inevitable question: 'Do you think that the Bolshevist regime will last?'
'Oh,' he replied, 'I have been living in Russia now for sixteen years and
I cannot tell you. But if you ask someone who has made a fortnight's guided
tour through the country with Intourist I am sure he will not hesitate to
give you a definite "yes" or "no".' A few works and a few names attracted
attention, though not the indefatigable Miaskovsky, writing symphony after
symphony unperturbed by the superstition that nobody after Beethoven could
get beyond the Ninth. Mossolov's 'Iron Foundry' became a fashionable piece,
but people really listened to Shostakovich. His First Symphony and the concert
suites from his ballets The Golden Age and The Nose aroused expectations
that the new Russia, like the old, would make a great contribution to new
'The Iron Foundry' was a good counterpart to Honegger's 'Pacific 231' a musical
portrait of what was then the most modern railway engine. Music was finding
new subjects indeed for onomatopoeic exercises. But Honegger, the pin-up
boy of serious music, also wrote the beautiful 'Pastorale d'ete' and the
important Roi David.
The Spaniard Manuel de Falla presened some of the rare exotic charm of earlier
days. His works were few but they were all distinguished, colourful and justly
It is remarkable that Italian music, which had animated and dominated European
music for so long, was rapidly losing its momentum. The country which had
invented opera and kept up the supply for more than three hundred years could
produce no more. Italian opera did not fade-out: it simply stopped dead in
its tracks. Wolf-Ferrari, Zandonai, Montemezzi were, with their small successes,
far behind Verdi and Puccini. Alfano (who completed Puccini's Turandot) and
others failed utterly in the theatre. The younger composers took to symphonic,
chamber and instrumental music, for which the Italian masters of the nineteenth
century had had no time or use. Respighi's 'Pine Trees of Rome', with a real
nightingale on a record, and his 'Fountains of Rome', a somewhat inflated
sequel to Liszt's 'Jeux d'eau de la Villa d'Este', became fashionable successes.
(When I revisited Rome not long ago, incidentally, the fountains were gushing
with their old clear freshness but the pine trees were all brown and looked
sick and I was told that the polluted air of the Eternal City was slowly
but inexorably killing them.) Respighi's compatriot Alfredo Casella obtained
some temporary success by harking back to the glorious past with works like
'Paganiniana' and 'Scarlattiana' rather than by searching for a better future.
I was surprised at the reverence with which the Italians spoke of him after
the Second World War. His operatic attempts failed, no less than those of
Gianfrancesco Malipiero, whose ancestor had once thrown Venezia's weddingring
from the Bucintoro into the sea. With experimental works such as 'Impressioni
dal vero' he aroused more interest than applause. But the real genius among
Italian composers was Luigi Dallapiccola, who, perhaps for that very reason,
had to contend with artistic and political opposition. It is not easy to
understand why his music is not heard more often. It is, for me at least,
among the best written of our time.
Before we enter upon the German scene the strange figure of Ferruccio Busoni
deserves to be mentioned. Italian by birth, German by choice, he has to this
day a reputation which seems disproportionate to the work he has left. He
was an original thinker and speculated about a new aesthetics of music long
before Schoenberg. But his music hardly reflects that originality and is
strangely lifeless, inhibited perhaps by too much thought. He was a great
pianist and his Bach transcriptions demand the almost impossible, even down
to the haughty footnote that those who cannot span a tenth should not attempt
to play them. He must have been a fascinating teacher, but only his pupils
can bear witness to this aspect of the man and artist. He must also have
been a great inspiration, perhaps one of those rare men who stimulate their
pupils to give of their own best rather than to accept the ideas of their
master. It is difficult if not impossible for those who never met him-and
I am one of them-to appreciate all this, but it is reassuring that such personal
qualities alone can erect a monument which, in the second generation after
his death, still stands and commands the reverence of the musical world,
unsupported though it is by tangible achievements.
Among the young Germans Hindemith was the most outstanding. I remember a
hilarious evening in his company when, with Licco Amar, the first violin
of his quartet, he improvised 'off stage' a funny Tyrolean yodel duet. His
music had a modernity of a special kind. It avoided all recherche problems;
it was music to be played and enjoyed and not to be thought about, driven
by an impatient temperament, infectious in its joie de vivre. Hindemith had
a prodigious output, and the universal popularity of his works made him the
best-known of all German composers of his generation.
And the other German composers? It is most illuminating to step out of old
habits and acquired prejudices while one is still capable of an open mind.
In Britain Edward Elgar was still alive, Ralph Vaughan Williams and William
Walton had had their first successes. Yet in Germany they were just as irrelevant
as Reger, Pfitzner, Schreker, Mahler and even Bruckner were to the AngloSaxon
taste. Neither group contributed to an international contemporary repertoire.
In Germany, Elgar's 'Introduction and Allegro for Strings' was known, and
in England I was surprised to find Pfitzner's overture to his opera Christelflein
on the programmes. It cannot be said that the two were properly represented.
Differences in national temperament are often quite amazing and they express
themselves in music more openly than in any other way. After the Second World
War I persuaded Ernest Ansermet to perform Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony
in Geneva. 'It is certainly an excellent work,' he said to me afterwards,
'but who wants to hear it again?' Equally, Elgar's 'Enigrna Variations' were,
at my instigation, first performed in Zurich in 1948, but the critics wrote
that they preferred Brahms. On the other hand I remember Benjamin Britten
telling me how bored he was with Pfitzner's Palestrina after hearing it somewhere
in Germany. Before the Second World War the few attempts at introducing Mahler
into England failed lamentably. Experts and public agreed that his music
was too involved and too morbid. And Bruckner, second only to Beethoven in
the Germanic world, was too German, pompous, long-winded, stodgy, elephantine.
Strangely enough, both were discovered in Britain after the war, while Reger
and Pfitzner remained for the Anglo-Saxons what Elgar and Vaughan Williams
still are for the Germans.
Seen from a distance of thirty or forty years the musical scene between the
wars was turbulent and disorderly, a curious mixture of uncertain tradition
and uncertain innovation. In the midst of all the hue and cry about new music
the Czech Jaromir Weinberger earned a world success with his old-fashioned
opera Schwanda the Bagpiper, and Rachmaninov delighted audiences by playing
his piano concertos with a stony face and incredibly agile fingers. Above
it all towered Richard Strauss, imperturbably writing opera after opera,
undeterred by the bad press he invariably received after Ariadne. But in
fact he and Schoenberg were the only ones who stuck to their principles.
Also unaffected by theories new or old was Bela Bartok. This small, thin,
taciturn man was not an easy person to deal with, and his silences could
drive a visitor to despair without his so much as noticing it. He never looked
you straight in the eye and his finely chiselled face was like a mask, seldom
changing beyond the occasional fleeting shadow of a distant smile or momentary
anger. He spoke with visible effort, he seemed embarrassed to talk of himself
or of his own or any other music.
Behind the unapproachable facade lay an extreme intolerance in both artistic
and human matters. I cannot agree with the romantic descriptions of him which
insist that he was the kindliest of men but was ashamed of himself and took
refuge behind a wall of reserve. His reticence and intolerance were no deliberate
protection from a world which would not understand him. They were his very
nature and only in his music could he escape from it. Did this trouble him?
Bartok was not an unhappy man in the usual sense, but neither was he a happy
one who enjoyed himself and his music. In artistic and political matters
alike he was an idealist, without practical objectives. It was said that
he might have been chosen for the highest office, perhaps for the presidency
of the Hungarian Republic after the Second World War, if he had not been
doomed by then. His integrity was certainly unequalled, but I cannot think
of anybody less suitable, and if his death prevented it, then at least he
was spared another disappointment, of which his life had more than its fair
He never mentioned the music of other composers. He lived close to the aggressive
Schoenberg circle but utterly ignored it. He admired Liszt, which was then
an unfashionable thing to do, and played his works passionately, although
he was not himself a showy virtuoso. Occasionally one was reminded that he
had an astonishingly wide knowledge of music which one might otherwise have
thought did not really interest him. In a letter he once quoted to me a few
bars of cellos and basses which neither I nor anybody to whom I showed them
could identify. They were harmonically so strange that I though he had quoted
from a new work of his own. But later he confessed with some irony that they
came from the first act of Lohengrin.
Engravers and proof-readers dreaded him. He was the most scrupulous writer
himself and would not tolerate the slightest carelessness in others. If now
and then he abandoned the usual musical orthography he always had a definite
purpose in mind and his wishes had to be followed unconditionally and
unreservedly. Only rarely did he condescend to explain his intentions.
Once he partly let the mask slip. It was at the beginning of the 1930S. The
general economic crisis all over the world had hit new music hard: public
subsidies were cut, orchestras had to economize and give up all experiments.
With Bartok himself things had gone badly. His works were hardly ever played;
he had no satisfactory position in Hungary, he had few friends and none of
those were inconsequential. A journey through Turkey, collecting folk-songs
in the fastnesses of Asia Minor, was a short escape from all his disappointments.
The music which he wrote in those years testifies to the artistic, social
and financial crisis in his own life. It became a mirror of himself, withdrawing
into a hard shell of harsh, intolerant, unbending contrapuntal despair which
accepted the inevitable with utter contempt.
He then did what he had never done before: he complained. He complained that
even his piano works, apart from the 'Allegro barbaro', found no favour with
the public. He rightly called himself the only legitimate contemporary composer
of piano music, being a pianist himself and knowing how to write not only
good but real, effective piano music. I could speak only from my own pianistic
experience: from J. S. Bach to the Romantics every stylistic period had its
educational literature which taught the beginner about both musical style
and its technical problems; after Schumann this up-to-date literature of
exercises and easy pieces began to disappear and the young player still had
to start and finish with Czerny, which gave him all the equipment for Mozart
and Beethoven but was no help with Chopin and Brahms, let alone what followed.
'But I am always writing short, easy pieces for beginners,' replied Bartok,
'I have drawers full of them.' This was not enough, I said. What was required
was a system, a method. The real difficulty of contemporary music was perhaps
not technical but visual, the problem of reading. Long familiarity with diatonic
music had led to superficial reading. Perhaps not always with Chopin and
Schumann, but certainly with Brahms and naturally with all classical and
preclassical music, one had only to glance at a phrase or harmonic progression
and one could guess its continuation without precisely reading every note.
But with contemporary music everything was unpredictable-as Beethoven's music
must have appeared to his contemporaries-and that constituted the principal
difficulty of approach. Anybody who could play Chopin's studies in thirds
and sixths or the piano concertos of Brahms could cope with the technical
problems of Bartok, if only he could read the music. Bartok listened attentively
and said he would think it over.
The result was his Mikrokosmos, which I published in London in 1940. Since
Clementi's Gradus ad Parnassum, the last part of which had been published
exactly a hundred and twenty years before, nothing similar had been attempted.
But Bartok, compared with Clementi and with his contemporaries, had incomparably
superior mental and artistic powers. In I53 pieces, from the easiest in the
range of five notes up to the most advanced grade of the 'Dances in Bulgarian
Rhythm', he unfolded the whole contemporary art of music, a colourful world
of little tone-poems, sad and joyful, illustrative and pensive. Never before
had his power of invention and imagination been set so free. It is an astonishing
work which far exceeded my expectations and made Bartok's name famous in
circles which had never previously heard of him.
It is a strange coincidence that success came to Bartok just at the time
when all his fears came true and the darkness of impending catastrophe spread
across the world. I like to think that work on Mikrokosmos brought back to
Bartok a fresh creative impulse which had almost been extinguished in the
ten bitter preceding years. His Music for String Orchestra, Piano, Harp,
Celesta and Percussion, where he again demonstrated his sheer pleasure in
new sonorities, was an immediate success. But, uncompromising as ever, he
would not allow it to be performed in National Socialist Germany.
Things happened with bewildering swiftness. Austria was occupied and Bartok
at once broke off relations with his old and now 'aryanized' publisher. No
other creative artist met the forces of evil so unyieldingly. When he conduded
an agreement with his new English publisher he insisted on a clause forbidding
that his works should ever be published with German titles or texts. But
all this acted as a rejuvenating influence on his music. In the preceding
years Bartok had been confronted with an anonymous, invisible enemy and he
had withdrawn behind his contempt. Now at last he could see his adversary
and he felt relieved and vigorous again. The Violin Concerto, the Divertimento
for strings were gay and carefree. A new love of life sprang from his music
and took hold of the listener. Never had Bartok been so successful, so lovable,
as on the eve of the great upheaval.
The world outside, alas, was not in tune with this newly won inner freedom.
Hungary was in the grip of Nazi sympathizers and the future was dark. Friends
pressed Bartok to go to the United States. Against his better judgement he
did so-and the idea failed. It was bound to fail. People in the United States
have neither the time nor the patience to discover other people and their
worth, and this inconspicuous, silent man could not advertise himself As
a pianist he could not easily compete with others. His playing was a precious
experience for real music-lovers but it lacked the brilliance which a large
public expects. And so, on the eve of the war, he returned, in the forlorn
hope that Hungary might by a miracle be spared.
One year later-the war had already begun-he escaped by the skin of his teeth
with his wife and his younger son, and by way of Switzerland and Genoa he
found his way back to unfriendly America, which received him no more cordially
than before. Hard years awaited him. My publishing house and its owner, Ralph
Hawkes, have been reproached for having allowed Bartok to suffer want and
distress. But those who knew him well also knew how difficult, even impossible,
it was to help this proud, unbending man. When he left Hungary without a
penny in his pocket a wealthy Swiss friend paid for his passage to the States.
The sum was utterly insignificant to a man who had done much more for many
other struggling composers. But to his despair Bartok, who needed the money,
returned the exact amount a few weeks later. The war made contacts and
correspondence with London difficult, cables were not accepted and letters
took several months to reach their destination. The New York branch of my
publishing house was instructed to give Bartok not only every assistance
but also any money he might need, and Ralph Hawkes implored him to avail
himself of the opportunity. But he made only the most trivial use of this
offer and absolutely refused any advance or loan or gift.
There may be some who find such behaviour in extraordinary circumstances
admirable. But even in such matters one can go beyond what is reasonable.
It only emphasized Bartok's inability to deal with people and conditions.
It was his misfortune to have been born and to live in such troubled times;
for ultimately they overwhelmed him. But his new music blossomed forth as
never before. Serge Koussevitzky, the wealthy and generous conductor of the
Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned the Concerto for Orchestra, Yehudi
Menuhin played the Violin Concerto and commissioned the Solo Sonata for Violin,
William Primrose commissioned the Viola Concerto. With the great successes
which attended these works the sun at last rose on Bartok's life-but in 1943
all hope of saving him was lost. He lived just long enough to see Hitler
crushed and Hungary liberated. Would he have enjoyed the fame which had been
so long in coming to him? It has been widely debated whether he would have
returned to Hungary if he had still had the strength. He died in exile on
the threshold of a happier time, and even his death could not dispel the
shadows which had clung to everything he touched. Today, after more than
twenty years, there is controversy about his estate.
Very different from Bartok was his lifelong friend and collaborator, Zoltan
Kodaly. They had the same aim: to make true Hungarian folk-music a valid
idiom of the art. But while Bartok searched and fought, Kodaly earned enormous
successes. His 'Psalmus Hungaricus' of 1923 was acclaimed all over the world
as the best choral work since Brahms's 'German Requiem'. With Hary Janos
he gave the Hungarians their national opera. In Budapest alone it has had
more than a thousand performances, while the concert suite from it remains
a standard work of the international repertoire.
Kodaly was more easily accessible, more human than Bartok, more sophisticated.
He had his detractors popularity always has. But it is no blind fate which
confers happiness or misfortune on people. Bartok's hard intolerance attracted
trouble but Kodaly handled his art and the people around him with consummate
skill. He was no fanatic in either an artistic or a national sense. He was
endowed with a sense of humour that was never bizarre, with feeling that
was never ashamed of itself, obsessed by nothing except the human and artistic
conviction which he would allow nobody to touch. He knew how to treat them
all: the public, the authorities, National Socialists and Communists, the
war. When conditions demanded a decision he was in no doubt: Bartok emigrated,
Kodaly stayed behind, with a cool confidence in his own authority. He was
the most prominent man in Hungary and he feared no one. Inertia or dignity?
While he and his first wife, Emma, were in London after the war the extremists
of the Communist Party seized power and Kodaly was warned by the Hungarian
Embassy in London not to return, because a man with so many friends and
connections abroad must attract the suspicions of the new regime. Emma was
alarmed, perhaps for the first time in her life, and wanted to stay. But
Kodaly did not waver for one moment. Quietly, without any pathos, he said
that not only was the monumental collection of Hungarian folk-songs which
he had started with Bartok forty years before awaiting him in proof stage,
but, still more important, there were many people at home who needed him
and his help. He could not desert them now when things were getting worse.
And the Kodalys returned as they had planned.
Emma did not come back again. She died. That was the tragedy in his life;
and later he wrote to me:
You can imagine what fearful loneliness she has left behind. After half a
century with her I have to stumble alone to my grave. For the last four years
I have left her only for odd hours and regret now every moment I have spent
without her. I am amazed at the truly magic influence she had even on strangers.
From the hundreds of letters I am receiving I can see that she was an inspiration
wherever she went, sometimes only by a casual word ... I cannot think how
to arrange my future life .... I shall need much time to become a human being
After having overcome all the adversities of Nazism, war and Communism
he seemed to succumb now.
But the darling of the gods survived. It was Emma's last wish that Kodaly
should marry again, and she chose for him the young daughter of an old friend.
It was more than a gesture on her part; she was a very wise woman, the wisest
woman I have known. And Kodaly's young second wife truly transfigured his
last years with her love and devotion. The extraordinary dignity of both
soon silenced the sarcastic comments of the few.
It has often been said that Kodaly was not prolific or progressive enough
and that he rested too soon on his early laurels. It was overlooked, or perhaps
even unknown, outside his own country that for the last forty years of his
life his interest and enthusiasm were devoted to musical education. He developed
a method of teaching music at all levels from nursery to academy in order,
as he said himself, to educate both the public and the musicians. He firmly
believed that music was the essential element of a harmonious life and proved
that in those schools which adopted his methods children were better disciplined
and made quicker progress in other subjects. Kodaly was indeed the only prominent
composer of our time who really cared for musical education and worked for
it. More than two thousand part-songs, from the easiest nursery rhymes to
the most diffcult pieces, bear witness to a life's work which penetrated
deep into the consciousness of his people.
The gods were kind to him to the last and spared him the distress of a long
illness. He was suddenly taken away. The day after his death I received a
book from him, with his dedication written in the same firm handwriting which
I had known for forty years. It was like a message from the other world.
Even for one so important his funeral was an unforgettable occasion. A crowd
estimated at 80,000 followed his coffin; and the day after, when we thought
we might have a few moments of quiet remembrance, thousands stood and wept
at the grave. 'How merit and good fortune go hand in hand fools will never
see,' wrote Goethe. . . .