Composers have never been able to separate their art from who they are as people, and music has been all the richer because of it. In the nineteenth century especially, art music began to take on national perspectives as composers drew upon the folk songs and dance tunes of their youth to write new music. This continued into the twentieth century. Gustav Mahler, for example, was said to have absorbed the many types of music he heard as a child, finding ways to use these styles in his compositions. He grew up near a military base and heard the marches and trumpet calls there. Mahler also heard traditional klezmer music and explored that in his Symphony No. 1. In the town where Mahler grew up, Iglau, his family owned a tavern, and we must imagine that Mahler heard lots of dance and folk tunes coming from this establishment. Mahler’s music would be very different without these influences.
In 1904, when Béla Bartók was in his early 20s, he heard a young woman singing folk songs to children. Inspired by her and by the music, Bartók became what we now call an “ethnomusicologist.” In this pursuit, he often worked with fellow composer and ethnomusicologist, Zoltán Kodály. One of their first projects was collecting Magyar folk songs. At the beginning, Bartók simply notated the songs, eventually using an Edison wax cylinder phonograph to record people performing folk music. As Bartók did this, he began to assimilate this music into his own style. There was something pure and unpretentious about folk music, and Bartók held it up as an ideal. Some of his new compositions used folk music in one of three ways: 1) he might write something that sounded like a folk tune in style or harmony, but was still an original piece, 2) he might set a pre-existent folk melody as the “jewel in the crown” of his new composition, or 3) he might adapt a folk song into a new musical context, changing it to fit, and in the process creating a new piece. However he used folk music, its influence irrevocably changed him and his music.
Lest we think that such phenomena were happening only in Europe, the music of the Americas has similarly been influential. I’m thinking specifically of Argentina, and of Alberto Ginastera, whose Variaciones concertantes will appear on this weekend’s concert, Concertos: Handel & Mozart. Ginastera was born in Buenos Aires to a Catalan father and an Italian mother. Although seeing a strong sense of consistency through his oeuvre, Ginastera himself named three developmental periods in his career: objective nationalism, subjective nationalism and neo-expressionism. In the first, Argentinean themes and styles dominate. There are not many actual quotes of folk music here and this may stem from Ginastera’s emulation of Bartók’s first strategy for using folk music. In the second period, subjective nationalism, Ginastera’s references to Argentine folk music and rhythms becomes less explicit, and his allusions include rhythmic patterns or brief melodic motives. Variaciones concertantes was composed in 1953, at the very end of the first period and the beginning of the second. Ginastera’s third period focused on other ideas besides Argentine culture, but folk ideas are not completely absent.
In 1941, young Argentinean composer, Astor Piazzolla, began lessons with Ginastera. By day, Ginastera and Piazzolla would study the music of Stravinsky and Bartók, and by night, Piazzolla would play bandoneon (an accordion-like instrument) in the tango clubs. When Piazzolla received a grant to continue his studies in Paris with famed French conductor and teacher, Nadia Boulanger, he tried at first to sell himself as a classical composer, making no reference to his work in tango. But Boulanger realized quite quickly that the tango was part of Piazzolla. She understood that separating Piazzolla from tango was to separate him from his art.
It has been decades since Piazzolla’s fateful conversation with Nadia Boulanger, and in the intervening time between then and now, acceptance of folk music or popular music in the concert hall has become a given. Wasn’t it just last season that LACO premiered a work by Gabriel Kahane, a singer-songwriter who works in both classical and popular styles? And in 2009, LACO played a stunning mandolin concerto by Chris Thile, a man known for playing bluegrass music with his former ensemble Nickel Creek and current group Punch Brothers. I think people who attend concerts of classical music are, for the most part, interested in new ideas. Classical and popular, art and folk, “high” and “low,” if done skillfully, these combinations are perfectly acceptable to our sophisticated ears.
As long as human beings create art, aspects of it will reflect the personal experiences and influences of its creators. Composers will juxtapose musical styles, fusing disparate ideas into new soundscapes. The music of youth and family will continue to plant seeds in fertile creative minds, growing into new and interesting foliage. An artist cannot be separated from his or her life, experiences, friends, or memories. And that’s exactly right. These are the elements in the chemistry of art.