Béla Bartók: his work flits between earthy grit to the eerie fantastical. Credit: FL Historical collection 9 / Alamy Stock Photo

Why 1922 was the year of revolutionary music

One hundred years ago musicians like Bartók broke the mould. Can today’s composers do the same?
December 9, 2021

1922. The year the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók went to Aberystwyth and broke down in a motorcycle sidecar. The motorcycle was being ridden by an English composer and music critic called Philip Heseltine, better known by his occultist pseudonym Peter Warlock. They made an unlikely pair. Warlock, a volatile Old Etonian in search of a purpose, was enthralled by the quiet, meticulous Bartók, who had field-tripped across eastern Europe and beyond recording thousands of traditional tunes with a respect for their subtlest and wildest inflections that few classical composers could match. He sidestepped folk nationalism by digging deep and going mongrel, sourcing his material from far and wide. Refusing to be mired in border politics earned him flak in Hungary, but made his musical language resplendently rich.

At the time, Bartók was still relatively unknown in Britain. He and the violinist Jelly d’Arányi toured his new sonata from Liverpool to London, where the Times critic HC Colles declared that “only a very clever or a very stupid person would proffer to understand it at a first hearing”—though conceded that “whether one likes it or not, there can be no doubt it is new.” A month later, Bartók performed in Paris to a more receptive audience that included Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, Karol Szymanowski and Darius Milhaud—“half the leading composers of the world,” as he wrote to his mother. He also lunched with Erik Satie, though they sat in excruciating silence while Poulenc tried and failed to break the ice.

Later in 1922, Bartók wrote a second work for d’Arányi. Both sonatas open with flint and fire, then flicker into a sort of night music—a realm of private, shimmering majesty. These moments of almost animist spiritual wonder keep turning up in his pieces: in the heart of his Fifth String Quartet, in the dismantlingly tender adagio religioso movement of his Third Piano Concerto. Where’s he taking us in these glimmering reveries? Like every European artist still processing the brutality of the First World War, Bartók grappled with how to make work that felt rooted yet moved beyond the immediate past. His answer was to fuse folk music with modernism, and to flit from earthy grit to the eerie fantastical.

1922 was a landmark year, the year Ezra Pound declared a new era. (Apparently the previous one had ended the day James Joyce completed Ulysses: 30th October, 1921.) The year of Eliot’s The Waste Land and the year Stravinsky—a global superstar thanks to his earthshaking Parisian ballets—anointed himself “the head of modern music.” The year Louis Armstrong took a train from Louisiana to Chicago, where he joined King Oliver’s band and blew trumpet solos of unprecedented soul and saunter. The year Ruth Crawford, also freshly arrived in Chicago, wrote a tiny, lopsided triple-time number she called “Little Waltz”—her earliest surviving score. Crawford’s search for new dissonance in American music would result in two of the most articulate works of the era: her “Three Chants” and her astonishing String Quartet 1931, a threnody for all that was lost and a premonition of the clouds regathering over Europe. 

A century later, what sounds will speak for 2022? Like so many sectors, classical music requires systemic change to seize the post-pandemic moment. During lockdown we had the chance to pinpoint what was overdue a reset. To question who it’s really for. This was a concern that Graham Vick—that pioneering opera director we lost to Covid in 2021—raised decades ago when he said that opera must be of the world. Vick was damned if he was going to watch the music that he loved become “the guarded privilege of an ever-smaller section of British society,” so he got the ordinary citizens of Birmingham singing Verdi and proved it belongs to everyone. 

One critic said of Bartók’s work: “only a very clever or a very stupid person would proffer to understand it at a first hearing”

Will we really cut our addiction to elite superstar culture? International touring cannot continue—at least not in the old carousel model that saw extortionately paid soloists and conductors flying across the world to perform orchestral one-night stands. Those leading the resistance include violinists Pekka Kuusisto and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, both advocates of longer local residencies that are more artistically meaningful and more environmentally sustainable. But glance through the latest season brochures of most major orchestras and you’ll find the carousel cranking into rotation again.

What we do have are composers taking stock of our dizzying times. Liza Lim, Annea Lockwood, Carola Bauckholt, each in her own way summoning earth and elements with an urgency that cuts to the heart. George Lewis and his powerful enactments of social change. Maurice Louca tapping the irruptive energy of Cairo’s counterculture. The giddying imagination of Jennifer Walshe, vocalist-improvisor who plays with the new digital vernaculars (and a whole lot else besides). Laurence Crane and Oliver Leith clinching the wit and deadpan wisdom of the everyday. Cassandra Miller, master of intimate, rugged beauty. Kaija Saariaho and her deep-probing dream states. Eliane Radigue and her slow-fi splendour. Brian Irvine and his raucous communitarian new-music subterfuge. Rebecca Saunders and her searing rigour. There are so many more. 

We’re spoiled for voices telling the strange, tough, tender truths of today. The lesson of 1922: we just need to be open to hearing them.