In his memoirs, Yehudi Menuhin tells about a meeting with Sibelius in the early 1950s. They were discussing music, and suddenly Sibelius asked him who, in his opinion, was the greatest composer of the twentieth century.
Thus challenged by one who had himself some claim to the title, I was at a stand between honesty and civility, but while I hesitated he rescued me. ‘Bartók is our greatest composer,’ he pronounced, adding that as a student in Berlin he had known Bartók. I could have hugged him – for casting me a lifeline, but more for his generosity and clear-sightedness.
The extraordinary thing here is the setting: a senior composer with his life’s work completed, speaking to a renowned interpreter of his Violin Concerto (1905), looks back at his time and acknowledges the life’s work of another composer to be greater than his own. In so doing, he knew very well that his interpreter was also an interpreter of the other, and he might have wanted to put him to a test. Yet there is no bitterness in his voice, but rather a satisfaction since it is obvious that the high esteem in which he held Bartók’s music was based on shared values. For him, it was probably a sort of proof that he had been right in choosing not to abandon tonality.
However, there is, in fact, no influence in either direction. Menuhin must have misunderstood something: Sibelius could not have known Bartók ‘as a student in Berlin’, because at that time, in 1889–90, Bartók was eight or nine years old. Sibelius hardly knew any of his music before he had practically given up publishing, if not composing, at the end of the 1920s. It is doubtful whether he ever heard Bartók’s works in concert, since Bartók’s name – unlike those of Debussy, Mahler, Dohnányi, Busoni, Schoenberg, and many other contemporary composers – does not figure in his diary, or in his correspondence. Nor does Bartók mention the name of Sibelius anywhere. Due to different backgrounds and a difference in age, the music of Sibelius and that of Bartók sound very dissimilar. Nevertheless, as Erik Tawastsjerna has shown in a paper presented at the 1971 Bartók Conference, there are compositional parallels, especially in the handling of folklore-based material. And there are still other similarities on the more abstract, problem-solving level.
A young composer’s main problem is to find his or her own voice and to create space for it in the midst of an omnipresent and overwhelming tradition of great music. For tradition is not ‘a generous friend or a kind teacher’, but ‘an intolerant despot’, as Joseph N. Straus writes with reference to the literary critic Harold Bloom’s theory of ‘influence as anxiety’. Bartók described his struggle against the tyranny of tradition in his Autobiography. First, he was ‘under the strong influence of Brahms and Dohnányi’. Later, after studying ‘with great enthusiasm Wagner’s work… and Liszt’s orchestral compositions’, he ‘got rid of the Brahmsian style, but did not succeed via Wagner and Liszt, in finding the new way so ardently desired’. Then, in 1902, he heard Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, which filled him ‘with the greatest enthusiasm’. At the same time he was animated about ‘a new national movement in Hungary’, and under these influences, he composed the symphonic poem Kossuth (1903). Finally, the study of Hungarian peasant music, unknown until then, ‘was of decisive influence upon my work, because it freed me from the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys’.
The pattern is clear: a young composer has thrilling musical experiences within the tradition but is unable to reach its high level. He is stagnant and distressed until, unexpectedly, he encounters an “Other” that provides new insight into the nature of the problem and sets free his creative force.
Sibelius was similarly faced with the tyranny of tradition when studying in Vienna in 1890–91. He was deeply moved by Beethoven’s Ninth and Bruckner’s Third, which he heard in concert, and started to write a symphony. He wrote two movements but noticed then that he could not complete the work because of his inexperience in handling the symphonic form, as he explained to his fiancée in a letter He sent the two movements to Robert Kajanus, who performed them in April 1891 in Helsinki as Overture in E major and Scène de ballet. Nevertheless, he immediately began planning a new symphony, this time ‘altogether Finnish in spirit’. He had been reading the Finnish national epic Kalevala (1849) and reflecting on Wagner’s ideas about the relationship between poetry and music, and he had seen Mascagni’s new opera Cavalleria rusticana, which reinforced his trust in national music because he found in it some content that ‘only a Sicilian can understand’. Back home during the following year, he completed this new symphony, the Kullervo Symphony, after having heard the venerable rune-singer Larin Paraske singing ancient modal melodies originally associated with the Kalevala poetry. Here old Finnish rune singing was the “Other” that finally enabled him to “misread” the tradition in a creative manner. He could now offer a solution to a problem that had occupied many artists – and not only musicians – from the fringe of Europe at the same time, the problem of combining the universal and the national, the general and the particular, to produce a result that is understandable for an audience familiar only with the general. On the one hand, the national element in the Kullervo Symphony consists of the Kalevala’s Kullervo legend, and on the other of the world of the ancient modal runes originally associated with its poetry. But the Kullervo legend also has something of the universality of a myth. A tragic hero like King Oedipus, Kullervo commits an act of violence against a person whose identity as a close relative is revealed only afterward and then punishes himself by taking his own life. Musically, as well as dramatically, the particular is combined with the general: the modal world of runes with tonal harmony, and the Kalevala world of mythical structures with the forms and genres of the western musical tradition, such as the symphony and the symphonic poem, the oratorio and the operatic scena, with no respect for the authority of their generic norms.
The discovery of Bartók’s music was formative for many post-World War II Finnish composers of different generations, such as Einar Englund (1916–99), Joonas Kokkonen (1921–96), Aulis Sallinen (1935–) and Jouni Kaipainen (1956–), to mention a few. Europe was in ruins, the time of national Romanticism was definitely over, and a new beginning after the more or less chauvinist atmosphere of the 1930s was needed. In Finland, young composers had also a domestic problem: the legacy of Sibelius. This was a complicated issue. Einar Englund tells in his autobiography (characteristically entitled ‘In the Shadow of Sibelius’) that Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony was for him a distantly shining ideal when he was composing his first major work, the Piano Quintet (1941). But he added: ‘The fear of being under the influence of the Titan was, of course, real…’ That he started to write symphonies after the war was part of the trauma: in the country of Sibelius, a young composer had to write a symphony to prove himself, and it is, therefore, logical that Englund made an attempt to break out of his great predecessor’s shadow by misreading one of his symphonies. For the first movement of his First Symphony (1946), it was, according to Edward Jurkowski, the corresponding movement of Sibelius’s Third (1907), with which it shares a number of fundamental properties. But, as Jurkowski emphasizes, equally noticeable is his ‘misprision of the precursor’s text through a trope of irony in which a younger poet swerves from and attempts to avoid an earlier text by exposing its relatively naïve visionary limitations’.
Here the “Other” that made the misreading possible was probably Mahler, Sibelius’s opposite in the early 20th-century symphony, who, according to Englund, introduced the grotesque in music It could not have been Bartók since he was no symphony composer. But after two symphonies (the Second is from 1947), when Englund turned to the piano concerto, a genre not found in Sibelius’s oeuvre, Bartók’s and Prokofiev’s works for piano and orchestra became the most obvious precursor texts. Take for instance the first movement of his Second Piano Concerto from 1974. The listener cannot avoid the impression that it has been designed with the corresponding movement of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto (1945) in mind. Whether the opening theme of the movement (Ex. 1) is to be considered a quotation, a homage or an allusion, is not quite clear. It is equally possible that the misreading here only went halfway, in which case there seems to be a problem: the relationship to the previous text is too obvious to be convincing, the swerve in a different direction does not take place. In any case, Mahler, Bartók, and Prokofiev were among the composers who for Englund represented the “otherness” that enabled him to break out of the shadow of Sibelius and to overcome the “anxiety of influence” caused by his music.
Ex. 1. Einar Englund, Piano Concerto No. 2 (1974), 1st movement, piano part, mm. 13–24.
Jouni Kaipainen is a different case. The composer explains that his first composition teacher Aulis Sallinen, himself the author of four string quartets at that time (in 1973), advised him to study Bartók’s quartets. He took the advice quite literally, bought six scores and started to listen to and read one quartet every day, always in chronological order, until he had heard each of the six quartets 69 times during a period of 530 days. ‘Although I certainly got much from my teachers, this quartet bath was nevertheless the most efficient study effort of my youth,’ he recalls. He then wrote two string quartets (1973, 1974) as a study project.
It is more than natural that Bartók was the model. During the rite of acquaintance I had been captured by many traits of his quartet music. The strength of the rhythmic idiom and the density of texture in the fast movements, the constant “control of the situation”, the ability to keep from losing the offensive inertia in spite of recurrent changes of tempo and texture and, of course, instrumental invention were the backbones of my musical thinking, as were the timeless and immaterial intensity of the slow sections, the exploration of the “transcendental” with few but the more pertinent small elements. The same things are still guidelines for my work.
The above quotation contains what seems to be a Freudian slip. Kaipainen first describes qualities that he admired in Bartók’s quartet music but then refers to these qualities as backbones of his musical thinking. The spiritual father was dead. What the father taught him, he now considered his own. But as a mature composer, thirty years later, he knows that what he really achieved in these youthful exercises was only a simplified simulation of Bartók’s style with emphasis on its easily adaptable neoclassical surface, while the more sophisticated and genuine characteristics of Bartók’s textures were out of his reach. But this was just the right time to get rid of the model, since ‘a more comprehensive assimilation of another person’s idiosyncrasies tends to become a burden’. Anxious of Bartók’s influence Kaipainen then found in Alban Berg’s quartets (op. 3 and the Lyric Suite) an “Otherness” that enabled him to change direction. His two youthful Bartókian quartets are now withdrawn, although they still figure in his list of works.
Closest to Bartók of all Finnish post-World War II composers was certainly Joonas Kokkonen (1921–96). He became a major figure in Finnish musical life after his breakthrough as a composer in the second half of the 1950s. A professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy from 1959 until 1963 and thereafter a member of the Academy of Finland, he was widely considered the country’s most important composer after Sibelius. His list of works includes four symphonies (1958–60, 1961 1967, 1971), other symphonic works for orchestra, such as Opus sonorum (1964) and Symphonic sketches (1968), a Cello Concerto (1969), three string quartets (1958–59, 1964–66, 1976) and the opera The Last Temptations (1973–75), which was the peak of his career. Like every Finnish composer of his generation, Kokkonen was initially under the shadow of Sibelius, and to escape it he needed both a precursor text in Sibelius’s oeuvre and an “Other” that made the “misreading” possible. According to Edward Jurkowski, the slow movement of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony (1911) is ‘a central precursor text’ to the first movements of his four symphonies, the final movements of his first and third string quartets, and the final scene of Act I from the opera The Last Temptations. ‘What is it’, Jurkowski asks, ‘about the movement from Sibelius’s symphony that makes Kokkonen anxious and forces him to wrestle with Sibelius’s work to achieve his own strength?’ A central characteristic of the slow movement of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony is an alternation of two contrasting elements: whole tone material with extensive use of the tritone, on the one hand, and diatonic material characterized by the perfect fifth, on the other. Formally the movement is a deformation of the sonata form that cycles through the same thematic material several times. James Hepokoski called it ‘rotational form’. Now, the first movement of Kokkonen’s First Symphony adopts the same principle. Both movements contain four rotations of the material, and in both cases the four rotations ‘can be placed within a binary form design, where gradual increases in texture, dynamic level, and rhythmic activity between the first and the second rotation are matched, albeit on a greater scale, between the third and fourth rotations.’ In this process of misreading a text from Sibelius’s oeuvre, Bartók’s music had the role of the “Other” that made the swerve happen. Kokkonen had noticed the symphonic character of Bartók’s large-scale works, such as Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, of which he said in 1989: ‘According to my way of thinking this work is a typical symphony, although Bartók did not give that name to it.’ But if Bartók’s music initially was the “Other” that helped him to emancipate from Sibelius’s sphere of influence, later several of his works became for Kokkonen ‘central precursor texts’, from which a swerve caused by misreading was necessary.
Kokkonen was also a versatile writer and lecturer on music, and in this role, he paid special attention to the music of Bartók. In 1958–59 he introduced Bartók’s string quartets to the Finnish audience in a series of seven radio programmes, consisting of a general introduction and one programme for each quartet In 1962 he gave a lecture entitled ‘Some aspects of Bartók’s melody’ at the Jyväskylä Arts Festival and in 1966 a series of three radio talks on Bartók’s orchestral music. In 1981 he wrote, in commemoration of Bartók’s centenary, an article in which he described his personal relation to Bartók’s music – a text that deserves to be quoted at some length, because it offers perspective to the following discussion of Kokkonen, the composer, in the magnetic field between Sibelius and Bartók.
I became acquainted with Béla Bartók’s music only after World War II. In the 1930s, when I was just a schoolboy interested in music and composition, Finland’s musical life was so conservative that works of even the greatest masters of our century were only rarely and randomly performed. After the war Finnish musical life not only recovered, but exhibited a much more sympathetic attitude towards the music of our century. No wonder then, that when I got to know Bartók’s music more deeply, it had a very strong impact on me. The music of the Hungarian master was like a revelation. From those times more than thirty years ago I especially remember the performances of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and String Quartet No. 5. Ever since Béla Bartók has been for me one of the greatest masters of the music of our century, if not simply and subjectively the greatest. I then seized every opportunity to study carefully all of Bartók’s scores I could get hold of. So I can say without hesitation and unabashedly that no other composer of our century has affected my development more than Bartók, even if the influences were more intuitive than conscious. Generally speaking, I can say that analysis of Béla Bartók’s works has opened my eyes to the deepest essence of composition more clearly than study of the music of any other composer, except Bach and Mozart.’
How, then, are these influences apparent in Kokkonen’s music? When speaking of Bartók’s First Quartet in one of his radio talks, Kokkonen made the following remark:
Already at the beginning of the First Quartet we can clearly observe the religioso tone that subsequently becomes one of the central characters of Bartók’s music in his last period and finally appears as a simple chorale in the slow movement of the Third Piano Concerto.’
The tempo marking of the opening movement of Bartók’s First Quartet (Ex. 2) is simply ‘Lento’, and the score contains no trace of or allusion to an eventual religious content or meaning.
Kokkonen’s remark is a part of the misreading that allowed him to make a revisionary ratio of the said movement in the second movement, ‘Andante molto tranquillo’, of his own First Quartet from 1958–59. Out of several possible examples from Kokkonen’s music I will, for the sake of simplicity, concentrate on this one. Particularly interesting are the first 13 measures (Ex. 3).
Ex. 3 Joonas Kokkonen, String Quartet No. 1 (1958–59), 2nd movement, mm. 1–13.
Features that prompt one to assume that a misreading here has taken place are the following: 1. The texture is throughout in imitative counterpoint. 2. The instruments are handled in pairs, quasi-stretto as in Bartók, but in the opposite order. 3. Both movements begin in 4/4 time but use mixed meters. But there is also a further similarity beneath the surface. In one of his more analytical essays, ‘Some aspects of Bartók’s melody’, Kokkonen develops a theory that he calls the principle of horror vacui, or the fear of empty space, and gives the opening measures of Bartók’s First Quartet as an example.
The Quartet begins with a duet of the violins. When we observe their melodic line in the first five measures, we notice that both use eleven tones of the chromatic scale. The missing tones are A in the first violin, F in the second. These tones appear in measure six, where also a rhythmic motive that points to a later development is introduced. It is scarcely unintentional that these tones have been “suspended” up to this point, where the development of the main theme towards a big climax begins. It is even possible to explain without much effort, why these missing tones did not appear in the five previous measures despite their rich chromaticism. We can assume that the second violin avoids the tone F, because it is the obvious tonal centre of the first violin’s melodic line. The missing A in the melodic line of the first violin again may well be explained by the fact that the second violin puts emphasis in measure five on the motive B flat–A–D flat–C that with its different variants is one of the core motives of the whole Quartet.’
Kokkonen applies the principle here described in the slow movement of his First Quartet. The first section (measures 1–13) is based on two symmetrical and inversionally related six-note rows, set-class 6–Z23 (234222), and their permutations (Ex. 4).
Ex. 4. Rows A and B (mm. 1–13)
As the two hexachords have three common notes, combined they cover nine notes of the chromatic scale. The missing notes are F, G and A. According to the principle of horror vacui, they have been postponed to a structurally critical point of the musical argument: they all appear in the viola part from measure 11 to measure 13 and mark the transition to the second section of the movement (mm. 14–18) that is based on a seven-note collection 7–25B (345342) (Ex. 5) and its T7 transposition. The notes G–C–E flat–F–A–F# in the viola part in measures 11–13 actually form a retrograde of the first six notes of that seven-note series.
Ex. 5. Row C (mm. 14–18)
Kokkonen’s misreading of the beginning of Bartók’s First Quartet fulfills the criteria of a clinamen, a corrective movement that Joseph N. Straus describes as follows: ‘The later work… incorporates certain elements of its precursor but then, at a certain point, takes those elements in a new direction.’ The new direction, the revisionary ratio, is serial composition here. Serial composition was the “Other” that enabled Kokkonen to misread a highly appreciated earlier work in a creative manner and to transform it into a music of his own. The religioso tone and the horror vacui principle are two separate aspects of Kokkonen’s misreading of Bartók’s music. A third one is the Golden Section. Kokkonen became excited about the aesthetics of this proportion after reading Ernö Lendvai’s article ‘Einführung in die Formen- und Harmonienwelt Bartóks’, published in German in 1957. In his radio talks on Bartók’s string quartets in 1958, he explicitly mentioned the article and noted in addition that Jussi Jalas – conductor and Sibelius’s son-in-law – had observed the same proportion in Sibelius’s symphonies, both in large-scale forms and in details. There is a reason to believe that Kokkonen meant the Golden Section when writing, in his memorial article on Bartók mentioned above, that ‘analysis of Béla Bartók’s works has opened my eyes to the deepest essence of composition more clearly than the study of the music of any other composer, except Bach and Mozart.’ Later he wrote an article on the Golden Section in Mozart’s piano sonatas, at the beginning of which he explains the background of his observations as follows:
When composing my opera The Last Temptations I was constrained to consider problems of structure in music from a new angle… A basic impulse that came to my mind was about the large-scale structure of the opera: the second act must relate to the first act as the first act relates to the whole opera. This idea about the Golden Section then influenced many other structural decisions, and I had to get rather deeply acquainted with the essence of sectio aurea and its application in musical structures.’
The ‘basic impulse’ seems to be a flashback from Bartók’s Fifth Quartet, which Kokkonen had analyzed for the purposes of his radio talks more than 15 years earlier. Here, according to Kokkonen, the duration of the last two movements relates to that of the first three as the duration of the first three to the total duration of the Quartet. Now, there is to my knowledge no evidence of Bartók’s intentional use of the Golden Section as a structural principle in his music. The evidence provided by Lendvai and others is purely speculative. The basic problem with calculations of this kind – no matter whether one counts measures, eight notes or minutes and seconds – is the following: any object can be divided according to the proportions of the Golden Section, and for an analyst with imagination it is not difficult to find good reasons for the location of the division. To put it in another way: the test of the validity of the Golden Section hypothesis is not empirical, but logical, and it results in failure because it is tautological and fulfills the characteristics of circular reasoning. The appeal of the Golden Section for Kokkonen was undoubtedly a result of the fact that its proportions – whether intentionally created or just there – can be uncovered in the music of the masters he admired most: Bach, Mozart, Sibelius, and Bartók. But it seems that the Golden Section was also connected in his mind with the religious content of his opera The Last Temptations. For him, as for Luca Pacioli, the Golden Section was, after all, a ‘divine proportion’. (Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae XLVII/3–4, 2006, pp. 467–479)