Just as Dave Brubeck or Chet Baker are considered “gateway” (aka accessible) artists for an introduction to jazz, so are Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy for classical newbies who are searching for something other than Bach or Mozart. But if you’re ready to move beyond classical music’s greatest hits, I recommend exploring the music of Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith. I find their music modern and edgy.
I was introduced to both Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith by a 1960’s Angel LP (pictured at right) featuring the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The music fascinated me; it was exotic and took me places. I wouldn’t assume, however, that it is music for everybody. Hungarian composer Bartók’s music was challenging because of its odd meters and dissonances; German composer Hindemith loved using a lot fourths, which might sound weird to more conservative listeners, but jazz musicians loved it. And I think I liked both composers because I also loved modern jazz music à la Miles and Coltrane.
Lenny Bruce, in his infamous “Shorty Petterstein Interview” (from Interviews of Our Time), says he didn’t dig Juilliard because the music they taught–stuff like Schoenberg–didn’t swing. As a jazz French horn player, he said he liked Bartók instead. Charlie Parker admired Hindemith and wanted to study with the German composer, who was teaching at Yale University during the 1940’s. Parker had already introduced a radical new harmonic system, known as the bebop II-V-I changes, and was looking to advance his music in new directions. In a 1949 DownBeat interview, Parker raved about his love Hindemith’s Kammermusik and Sonata for Viola and Cello. Unfortunately, he never made it to New Haven to study with Hindemith.
When I was living in Paris in 1976, I met a South African man who had moved to escape the draft there. He told me that one night, after taking LSD, he was walking along a street in Johannesburg and he heard amazing, intriguing music. He followed his ears to the apartment from which the music emanated and knocked on the door. Two older people opened it and invited him in. The couple was listening to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a tour de force composed in 1943 and one of Bartók’s final works. I still find that piece totally amazing, though the uninitiated might find it scary, even spooky.
While it’s challenging music that might not be to everybody’s taste, you’ve most likely already heard Bartók even if you don’t own a single record of his music. Many film soundtrack composers have borrowed not only ideas from Bartók–or his music–to dramatize certain intense and scary movie scenes. Examples include The Shining, Being John Malkovich, China Lake, Melinda and Melinda, Control Room, among others. Bartók’s music was even used in the TV series Doctor Who.
Ready to give it a try? Here’s the Orchestra of the University of Music FRANZ LISZT Weimar playing Béla Bartók’s Concerto For Orchestra:
Let me know what you think. I hope you find it as captivating as I do.