Photo Credit: Hungarian Culture Center in Beijing


A Hungarian composer, pianist, ethnomusicologist, and teacher, Béla Bartók is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Bartók represents a group of “nationalist” composers yet broadened the definition of nationalism by fusion with his own modernism. Profoundly influenced by the folk music of Hungary, Romania, and other nations, he successfully escaped traditional major/minor tonality. The use of folk materials in his compositions is very accessible to the audience, especially Chinese audiences.

Together with his like-minded contemporary Zoltán Kodály, Bartók initiated an extensive research and capture and transcribed folk and peasant melodies of Magyar, Slovak and Romanian language regions. The use of those folk materials in his works shows his contemporaries and future generations how to create a synthesis with tradition and modernism.

How do the selected works from the other composers in the festival contribute to Bartók’s legacy? Kodály’s music illustrates how the two contemporaries were using a very similar compositional approach yet produced two different sound sonorities: Kodály being a little more conservative than Bartók in its tonal and harmonic language. The music of his future generations shows us how those composers were “struggling” to stand on the giant’s shoulders and strived to find their own voices.

Great music is more than a beautiful melody one can hum along with after having attended a concert. Music is more than pitches simply put together in order. Music has so much to do with rhythm, emotion, timbre, gesture, character, inevitability, and play with expectation. Some modern music might not have a beautiful tune one can trace from beginning to the end and can remember and recite, but there are many other great moments worthy pondering on.

Many modern and contemporary works call for a second or third or many hearings to comprehend perhaps just a bit. Remember, Beethoven’s late music was once thought of as incomprehensible. Yet, history has proven that is no longer the case nowadays. Some modern and contemporary music needs time to settle; what sounds avant-garde today might not sound that modern tomorrow. Additionally, every single piece of music was once “new music” to its audience. As audiences, we need to give those works time, patience, and opportunities for another listening session.

Special thanks to our Hungarian flute faculty member, Gergely Ittzés, who has provided so much of his knowledge on Hungarian composers and their masterpieces, including many works that were written for him or played by him in the past. While focusing on some of Bartók’s chamber music in the concerts, we are also discovering and presenting works by Hungarian composers one or two generations after Bartók. In addition, we are thrilled and thankful to guest artist Dóra Szabó, for her participation in the Tianjin Juilliard Ensemble concert on January 29. We want to express our gratitude to the Hungarian Culture Institute in Beijing for providing us scholarly materials on Bartók and Kodály. We are also grateful to Gabor Takács-Nagy, renowned conductor and violinist, for sharing his knowledge and experience in orchestra and chamber works by Bartók and Kodály with our students.

Festival reporting contributed by Shen Yiwen.