chapter
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Introduction

From the composer’s earliest achievements to the present day a guiding theme of Bartók reception has been the success or lack of success with which he forged a synthetic Hungarian modernism. Both contemporary cosmopolitan intellectuals and subsequent commentators have celebrated stylistic and cultural ‘synthesis’ as among his key achievements as a ‘great’ of Western musical modernism, while a separate line of reception, especially characteristic of the period immediately after World War II, has been coloured by its negative image, namely ‘compromise’. 1 Notwithstanding the fact that it is possible to value ‘synthesis’ or hybridisation differently depending on the context, the composer himself actively encouraged its multidimensional rhetoric. In 1939 Bartók famously referred to his efforts to combine Western art music and Hungarian folk musics in these terms, saying: ‘Kodaly and I wanted to make a synthesis of East and West. Because of our race, and because of the geographical position of our country, which is at once the extreme point of the East and the defensive bastion of the West, we felt this was a task we were well fitted to undertake.’ 2 He also spoke about his syntheses of various art music sources: of Debussy, Beethoven and Bach he said, ‘What I am always asking myself is this: is it possible to make a synthesis of these three great masters, a living synthesis that will be valid for our own time?’ 3 Both during and since the mid to late 1920s he has also been widely received as having forged some sort of synthesis of Schoenbergian and Stravinskyan modernisms. Moreover, much English-language Bartók scholarship has involved efforts to account for the synthetic nature of his mature tonal-modal-atonal harmonic syntax. 4