There was something unnerving about Bartók, as Agatha Fassett indicates in The Naked Face of Genius, her 1958 'novel' about his American last years. 'That's one bit of information that might have been left unremembered,' Bartók curtly informed her when, on their first meeting, she had given the wrong answer to the absurd question: 'Would you call this a coconut?' The object he was holding reminded her, she confessed, of a 'weird-looking Indian head', but he had tender sympathies with the downtrodden, and the dinner party was ruined. Bartók seems to have had a comparably unnerving effect on the critics and historians of 20th-century music. They always manage to leave him out of the reckoning. Summarising Bartók's position from the vantage-point of the Nineties in the first chapter of The Bartók Companion, Malcolm Gillies notes that since the late Forties and Fifties 'the authors of books on 20th-century music have generally placed him about fourth in their line-up of leading innovators - if number of pages can be taken as a guide - after Debussy (as father of impressionism in music), Schoenberg (pioneer of atonality and serialism) and Stravinsky (rhythmic innovator and Neoclassicist). Bartók is, almost invariably, given as the chief representative of folk influence in art music.' One question that a hefty and scholarly Companion such as this might therefore resolve is whether or not that end-of-term grade is accurate, and if not, whether Bartók might climb to number one.
LRB 8 September 1994 | PDF Download