Bartering Bartók

Wednesday, May 24, 2017 - 1:15pm

As an Irish composer living in Hamburg and Italy, FRANK CORCORAN considers if niche cultures, whether indigenous folk music or avant-garde art music, can maintain their identity in the face of more powerful colonialist and capitalist forces.


Is cumadóir ceoil mé. I am an Irish composer. The pre-industrial, rural Ireland of my childhood in the fifties was, in a way, not unlike the small, agricultural Hungary of Bartók’s youth and maturity. Dublin and Budapest were, for all their artistic short-comings, vitally important cultural metropoles. (For Hungarian and Irish music-lovers they still are.) Small nations both, their surrounding neighbours often seemed culturally omnivorous, omnipotent, posing a real threat that the identity and self-respect of both little emerging states would be gobbled up by an all greedy neighbour.

Bartók ploughed the lonely furrow. Bartók said “NO!” to cultural tyranny. Bartók took his stance. Moral. Artistic. Not that he wanted to marry folk and art music; you can’t. But as a folk-collector and as a 20th-century composer, forging and finding his individual composer’s voice, he refused to let lazy indifference stifle musical diversity or musical courage. Courage – that’s it. He discovered the unknown,hidden jewels of folk-art. He composed his own mighty musical structures. Behind both of these, yes, heroic stances, was Bartók’s refusal to give in.

My own little Ireland in my 20th century has gone a, in many ways, similar path. With very mixed results. My Irish language dies daily a thousand deaths. Ireland, too, had a Renaissance, an explosion of Irish traditional music which, however, by its very over-kill and over-exposure in the media, is endangered.

As a composer in Ireland, an Irish composer, I had to plough my lonely furrow. In my native Tipperary I had to overcome a still mightily hostile indifference to the oldest layers of Irish singing and instrumental art. In my own youthful struggle to compose and construct tonal structures at once private and public, the enemy number one was Dublin’s very clearly post-colonial dependence on a second-rate, hand-me-down, London-based music-pedagogy.

Even bits of Bartók were misused in our musical curricula, his work contextlessly, lovelessly paraded without any real understanding of where Bartók was coming from, but shamelessly paraded as ‘‘our’’ apologia for contemporary music, as ‘‘our’’ bulwark against, say, the horrors of the Second Viennese School. And my little Ireland, politically a ‘‘free’’ Republic, had not, in its early days of liberation psychologically and politically, succeeded in providing a climate of musical understanding and the respect for musical creativity necessary to have, in its critical years, an Irish Bartók, Bartók na hÉireann.

My Quasi Un Bassofor solo bass is my diptych for, as Bartók uses it, a mighty orchestra in a solo instrument. (I am thinking of those – now sadly ubiquitous but then so fresh, so shocking Bartók pizzicatos from his basses in the orchestral works like his Divertimentofor string orchestra, the extraordinarily long legato lines near the end of his Music For String Orchestra, Percussion and Celesta, the daring and brilliance of his orchestral imagination.) Mine are two fragmented pictures from my vanished Ireland.

Art music today faces the most viciously anti-art global market known to man. We have no place where wares are bartered. But YOU CANNOT BARTER BARTÓK! – Nor indeed any music of lasting value. It is questionable whether the folk musics of either Hungary or Ireland will survive the market’s kiss of death. It is doubly questionable whether Hungarian and Irish composers will survive our global village which today is swollen with the greatest ocean of sonic rubbish known to man. Have we composers a place to be heard? Where’s the silence from which music is born and heard?


The Pratoleva Trio will give a concert of Frank Corcoran's music as part of the Hugh Lane Gallery's Sundays@Noon series on June 4th 2017.


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