issue 9

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December 29, 2014

At the Turn of the Centuries:  Art and Politics in Sri


Written by Sabine Grosser

Nearly half a century after the end of colonial rule a new generation of artists was developing in Sri Lanka during the 90s, who understood themselves in the context of a complex, changing and multifaceted culture rooted in a strong Buddhist tradition.

This generation not only redefined the concepts of the local art scene, developing new art forms, using art galleries and public space to distribute their ideas: they also used art as their main weapon to influence public opinion and contribute to a peaceful solution to the civil war and ongoing violence at the turn of the centuries.

Current social and political topics hardly played a major role in the pictures of Sri Lankan art until the end of colonialism. However, political tensions increased after Sri Lanka reached independence: The conflict escalated in 1983 into civil war. War and Violence dominated life on the island until the turn of the millennium, influencing the youth of a whole generation of artists in the 90s. Close to the turn of the millennium the local art- and exhibition-scene was dominated by this topic.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara and Jagath Weerasinghe were two artists of the new generation who confronted war and violence in their work. Both artists had returned in the early 90s from studies abroad. One came back from the Soviet Union and the other from the USA, to exhibit the results of their work in individual art shows. In these first exhibits in their homeland they were already reacting to news, which they had translated into art during their studies abroad.


Chandraguptha Thenuwara: “Mirror Wall”, oil on canvas, 159,5 x 140,3 cm, 1992


In 1992, Jagath Weerasinghe opened the exhibition Kaansaava - "Anxiety of Today“ in the National Gallery of Art in Colombo. The same year, Chandraguptha Thenuwara[1] presented a painting called "Mirror Wall“. In this painting he mediated his reaction to the news of the pogrom against the Tamils. In an interview[2] he described the artwork as his statement concerning the former political situation. The title "Mirror Wall“ refers to a rock face in Sigiriya by the same name, on which visitors have left their messages for centuries. Thenuwara interprets these graffiti as political statements which in his painting seem to have been covered with paint. The emptied bucket in the painting points to this imaginary action. According to the artist, the image of the emptied bucket generally represents the "Absence of something“. The “carelessly” spilled paint could also evoke associations to needlessly spilled blood.


Even though both exhibitions hinted relatively subtly to the topic by the choice of titles for the individual paintings, this is how the topics death, war and violence become introduced into the discourse of the Sri Lankan art-scene where mostly young artists took them up.

Expressive panel paintings were the dominating form of expression at the time. In Weerasinghe's and Thenuwara's artworks, helmets, body parts and crouches become symbols for the operators of war; the soldiers. Rather than being depicted as personified figures or as heroes or victors they were shown as victims. The composition of their paintings is fragmented, symbolizing wounded bodies, damaged by war.

Jagath Weerasinghe also worked with muted and broken colour palettes. The helmet, the body parts and the hand raised in premonition like a warning sign are clearly recognizable and stand in bright contrast to a diffuse background. The colour palette reminds the viewer of bush-fighting and blood. The dark green and red tones increase their effect through an intense complementary contrast. By the title: "Who are you Soldier“ the artist also speaks directly to the viewer: Who are you, son, father, husband – whose insignia of a soldier’s life is recognizable in the picture? As a whole, the artwork addresses the individual, to remind him of his individual societal responsibility.


Two years later Chandraguptha Thenuwara also questioned the role of the soldier with the title "Dance of Victory“: What remains after an alleged victory, when the injured winners have staggered away from the battlefield?


Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Dance of Victory, oil on canvas, 152,5 x 173,5 cm, 1998


Even at the "Dance of Victory“ which illustrates the title of the picture, the figures do not appear as heroes but as vulnerable and pitiable. For his work the painter uses a very clear, simple and easily decodable visual language, staying loyal to his intensive colour palette of yellow and orange hues.

During an interview, Thenuwara comments on the intention behind his work:

C. T.: ... sometimes I have to do political work and [sometimes I need to work on] the human figure …

S. G.: You divide these two aspects, but do you also bring them together in a way?

C. T.: I’m trying now to bring them together. Sometimes you need modern art forms, sometimes you need the orthodox conventional art forms to deliver a message. I’m lucky I can do both. If I need a figurative expression I can do it. I have the skill and the training, [and that is] an advantage.

S. G.: You vary your technique so that the people can understand your works better?

C. T.: Yeah, yeah, and that’s why I might have to repeat the same thing again and again to simplify the work and do more political exhibitions than exhibitions only to show [my] capacity as an artist.

(Sabine Grosser (S. G.) interview with Chandraguptha Thenuwara (C. T.) 2.4.2002)

With the mentioned works both artists remained in the visual language of modernity as it was received in the local context: on one hand there were distinctly decodeable pictorial symbols to be identified, on the other hand pictorial subject matter was not depicted in a naturalistic sense, but rather realized with a certain degree of abstraction, by use of clear colours and an expressive flow. Many young artists adopted this working method for themselves during this period, predominantly painting picture panels with oil and acrylic that stylistically reflect the local debate on modernity: The paintings had distinct colours, were expressive in style with a mostly fragmented composition . At the same time they focused on the statement and the communicated message of the painting, which often combined the political and the personal level.


During the turn of the centuries more and more artists explored the subject of war and violence through their paintings and discussed the possibilities of art as a political instrument. With the already mentioned expressive visual language the artists met the taste of the majority of the local audience. The question of which artistic instruments would best accomplish the intended effects on the viewer, also increasingly became a theme of debate.[3] The artists now reflected on their role in society by discovering various possibilities of art and instrumentalizing cultural events as political forms of action. Jagath Weerasinghe’s exhibition "Anxiety of Today“ (1992) served as a framework to try out new forms of artistic expression. At the opening two artist friends, Nimal Mendis and Anna Paff (Cologne), staged the first performance in a Sri-Lankan art context: They demanded the right to a burial as a basic individual right. Their faces were painted white and they were dressed in white gowns during the performance, in which they carried black coffins into the hall, eventually destroying them.

In 1997 two installations at the Heritage Gallery in Colombo enriched the discussion: Chandraguptha Thenuwara‘s "Barrelism“ and Jagath Weerasinghe’s "Yantra Gala and the Round Pilgrimage“. Jagath Weerasinghe referred to his Buddhist background and combined artistic, political and spiritual aspects. Chandraguptha Thenuwara described himself most clearly as a political artist. Human and social aspects based on humanitarian ideals were the most important for him to highlight in this context, and with the work complex of the so called “Barrelism”, series of camouflage works launched in 1997, Thenuwara realized this high ambition most consequently. The ending “–ism” reminds us ironically of various “isms” in art history.

The first artwork in this series was an oil painting titled “Camouflage” (100 x 149,5 cm). Human figures holding crutches arise like silhouettes in between the camouflage patterns.


Chandraguptha Thenuwara, “Camouflage”, the painting introducing the “Barrelism” concept, 100 x 149,5 cm, 1997

In order to address as many different people as possible Chandraguptha used various artistic styles and techniques to transmit his ideas. The most important thing for him was the intended political message.

Most consequently he used military barrels (employed in militarycheckpoints and  elsewhere, interrupting public life in the capital Colombo) which he combined with his paintings, like in the installation ‘Woman in Barrelistic Area’, but he also used them for art installations in public space.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, “Women in Barrelistic Area”, acrylic on wood and three painted barrels, 1998.

The exhibitions intensified the public discussion and more young artists raised their voice. Both formally and thematically they went beyond the limitations of easel painting and contributed to a public process of opinion making against the war.


Pradeep Chandrasiri, born 1968 and himself a victim of a torture camp, was one of the young artists who connected to the local visual context with his installation “Broken Hands”. Chandrasiri used a very common type of clay as material for the hands lying on wooden piles in different heights. In combination with charcoal, oil lamps and beetle leaves he evoked impressions of a local everyday culture beyond its representations in temples or museums.


The artworks of Sujith Rathnayake, born 1971 in Ranna, Sri Lanka referred to the aesthetics of the local print media of this time: The general representation of the war was dominated by pictures of scattered body parts of the suicide bombers depicted in the local press without restrictions.


Sujith Rathnayake implemented these pictures in his artwork and also combined them with his own gestural paintings. With the title “After the Town Hall Bomb”, he referred to an assault on Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike in front of the town hall in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo. The young artist described very clearly how suddenly his daily life was affected by the presence of war:

In an instant, the “Town Hall Bomb” transformed that area into a war zone. Though I have never met or seen Chandrika in real life, the fact that a bomb was meant to kill her made that night extremely difficult to bear. The silent head of the suicide bomber suddenly reminded me of a girl I used to date some time back and war became a reality in the inner realms of my being.[4]


Tamil artists were not visible in the local art scene in Colombo during the nineties as the country was divided. Only in 2002 the Paradise Road Gallery showed a solo-exhibition by Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan. This prominent artist was born 1980 in Jaffna, studied art in India at the University of Delhi and currently works at the Art Department of Jaffna University. In his art work, in which one major topic is the interrelatedness of the individual with his surroundings, he combines Tamil traditions with postmodern thinking.

On the catalytic effects of war

The examination of war also had a congregational effect on the artists. Despite their different opinions, they united in order to take a public stand. They formed coalitions with other groups, at the same time as they reflected on their societal and public role. As it turned out, people accepted them in their increasingly public function, gradually turning them into the voice of a public opinion agitating for peace.

In this sense the war served as a catalyst for artistic development: new stylistic methods and forms of expression such as installations and performances were tested and implemented. The exhibition space was discovered and used as a sanctuary for political expression, combined with the increased use of public space as an arena of art, which stimulated the creation of opinions.


Artists for Peace, mobile flag project since 1999, here at the opening of the ‘Shrine of In-nocents’ in Battaramulla, 1999. (Photo: Sabine Grosser)

In parallel with this thematic and stylistic development and the mobilizing effect of war on the art community at large, the artists particularly worked on systems of distribution and display for their art. Mobile concepts played an increasingly important role, such as the concept for a mobile exhibition of flags "Artists Against War: Flag-Project-Workshop“ ("Noothana Sithuvam Vansaya“) designed by Sri Lankan artists and presented at various public places of political interest, like in 1999 at the opening of the peace memorial "Shrine of Innocents“ designed by Jagath Weerasinghe in Battaramula (Colombo).[5]


When Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam, a lawyer, politician and human rights activist became a victim of a political assassination in 1999, the artists reacted promptly with a street art painting at the place of the assassination and were united – apart from varying artistic confrontations – in the Neelan Thiruchelvam Commemorative Programme - an Art Exhibition for Peace and Reconciliation (2000).[6]


The artists also associated with other groups in society, e.g. the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts which organized an exhibition in cooperation with the Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) and the Law & Society Trust & Thiruchelvam Association.


In addition to exhibitions, lectures and briefings, means of advertising were increasingly being used. In 2000, an association of industrialists launched a large-scale print and TV advertising campaign under the slogan "Sri Lanka First" with full-page newspaper advertisements and commercials for peace. An impressive climax to this campaign was a human chain from the airport to the southern tip of the island. At the time, public opinion was clearly against the war. Ranil Wickramasinghe was elected in December 2001, and in February 2002 the new prime minister agreed to an official ceasefire.

Even after the ceasefire the artists continued their work. In 2002 they ran the exhibition "ART PEACE" at the Lionel Wendt Gallery in Colombo and in 2003 artists from Colombo organized, together with colleagues from Jaffna, the first exhibition in a city that had been inaccessible for many Sri Lankans for a long time.

This positive development was interrupted in 2006 with the re-intensification of the war, but even today, after the military ended the war in 2009, it is not completed. Rather, many representatives of the current artist generation continue to work politically and engage, not only in dealing with the trauma of war.


Sabine Grosser is Professor of Aesthetic Learning at the University of Applied Science, Kiel, and author of Kunst und Erinnerungskultur Sri Lankas im Kontext  kultureller Globalisierung – Eine multiperspektivische Betrachtung als Beitrag zum transkulturellen Dialog, Oberhausen 2010.

[1] A special thanks to Chandraguptha Thenuwara,  for his permission to publish his photos. More artists and their art works contributing to this development, like Kingsley Gunatillake, Muhanned Cader, Anoli Perera, Tissa de Alwis and others are described in: Grosser, Sabine: Kunst und Erinnerungskultur Sri Lankas im Kontext  kultureller Globalisierung – Eine multiperspektivische Betrachtung als Beitrag zum transkulturellen Dialog, Oberhausen 2010.

[2] The interview is published in English in: Grosser, Sabine: Kunst und Erinnerungskultur Sri Lankas im Kontext  kultureller Globalisierung – Eine multiperspektivische Betrachtung als Beitrag zum transkulturellen Dialog, Oberhausen 2010, p. 503 – 514.

[3] Compare the chapter: Die Reaktionen der lokalen Kritik, in: Grosser 2010, p. 342  - 345.

[4] Quotation of the artist, (21.3.2004).

[5] Commemorative culture takes a special role in this development but can’t be mentioned here due to the length of the article. Chandraguptha Thenuwara as well as Jagath Weerasinghe are also acting as pioneers in this direction, regardless of their very different ways of expression (compare: Einflüsse zeitgenössischer Kunst auf aktuelle Entwicklungen lokaler Erinnerungskultur, in Grosser (2010), p. 349 – 378).

[6] An exhibition catalogue was published by Anoli Perera, Jagath Weerasinghe and Chandraguptha Thenuwara in 2000.


Grosser, Sabine: Kunst und Erinnerungskultur Sri Lankas im Kontext  kultureller Globalisierung – Eine multiperspektivische Betrachtung als Beitrag zum transkulturellen Dialog, Oberhausen 2010.


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December 29, 2014

Music, Politics and the Imagination: Béla Bartók’s

Concerto for Orchestra

Written by Howard S. Meltzer

Every true work of art arises out of the particular and real alternatives of its time.  The means for the dynamic rendering of these alternatives is what we are accustomed to call style, which requires a two-fold investigation.  One must consider the what of the human content in the alternatives and in the meaningful responses to these alternatives; and second, the how in the artistic expression, the way in which the human reactions to the world are articulated and fixed aesthetically.[1]


Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed in 1943 and first performed on December 1, 1944, has achieved a political profile as a work believed to express the composer’s reaction to the Second World War and his own status as an exile.  Musical works may come to be regarded as political through two very different sets of criteria.  In one case, an explicitly political text (sung, recited or presented in the program), the stated intentions of the composer, or the function of the piece (as an anthem, as part of a ceremony) may justify our considering the piece as a political statement.  In contrast, music may also be received as political either through association with the circumstances surrounding creation of work or reception of work.  Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra fits the second condition.  The work has been imagined as political, not presented by the composer as such.  In this essay, I shall consider how a work comes to be received as political.

Musical works, notated works, are peculiarly anchored in the past and the present.  At a piano recital, a string quartet or orchestral concert, the performers will often pass through three centuries of musical works.  The performances will all be present events, the works themselves bound, one imagines, to a particular historical moment (revealed through the work’s style).  With knowledge of its historical status, the listener reflects on the circumstances of the work’s composition.  In her response to the performance, the listener has an immediate engagement with the work in the present.  Georg Lukács’s statement, from the preface to Writer and Critic was directed towards painting (Cezanne) and literature.  To what extent might it apply to a work by music, specifically a work by Lukács’s friend and fellow countryman, Béla Bartók?  If a work reveals its status as historical artifact, does it also reveal the conditions under which it was composed?

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is one of several musical works composed during or immediately after the Second World War that have acquired distinct political and historical associations.   It is an unlikely candidate for this status.  Unlike Olivier Messaien’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, composed in prisoner of war camp in Silesia or Arnold Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw,” with its text chronicling the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Bartók’s work has no obvious biographical or textual connection with the war.  Bartók was in exile in New York in poor health and financial distress, but arguably not in immediate physical danger.[2] The Koussevitsky Music Foundation commissioned the work.  Since the 1920’s, Bartók had composed works regarded as absolute music, chamber music – sonatas and string quartets, concerti, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste.  The Concerto for Orchestra might well be regarded as another work removed from all extra-musical associations.

Bartók’s writings support this view of the work.  His only public explanation of the work describes its structure and mood, but alludes neither to the war nor to his personal exile. The work’s fourth movement, the “Interrupted Intermezzo,” contains a musical quotation, the single overt connection to politics.  The source of the quotation is contested, leading to two different interpretations of the movement’s political significance.  In the absence of an explicit statement by Bartók, the validity of a political interpretation raises two distinct issues.

First, there is a question of musical meaning.  The content of purely musical sounds has always been questioned.  Whether or not one regards political critique as the province of artworks, there seems little reason to doubt that literature or the plastic arts, painting and sculpture, could engage in critique.  Words and images are the common currency of political expression.  Although musical works are created at a particular historical moment (and if Lukács’s statement applies to music, embodies that moment), the assertion that musical works could indeed either comment on or reflect history, and politics is in itself problematic.  Instrumental sounds are not obvious signs or symbols as words or images are.

Second, there is a question of evaluation.  Literary works, paintings, and sculptures with overt political content run the risk of being labeled propaganda or kitsch.  The same might be said of musical works if we admit the possibility that they could function as political commentary.  Great music (as well as other artworks) may be regarded as existentially autonomous, created and received without reference to the circumstances of its composition.  Independent of outside concerns, whether political or biographical, the musical material generates the work, following what could be loosely termed a musical logic.  Extra-musical associations, political pressure, historical concerns distort the work.  Indeed, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, one alleged source of Bartók’s quotation in the Concerto, has been viewed as work structurally distorted by its programmatic elements.

We assume that music speaks to something beyond merely a spinning out of notes, however elegantly we can demonstrate the interrelationships of pitch and duration within the work.  Since the composer’s death in 1945, Bartók’s work has most often been evaluated through analysis of compositional technique.  While a view of the work as a political statement was not necessarily foremost or immediate in these earlier critiques of the Concerto for Orchestra, claims of political content recur in more recent writing.  The reception of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra as a political commentary may be an act of the listener’s imagination, one not warranted by the work itself, but only by extra-musical factors.  In other words, it is dependent upon the sense of the past in the present performance, a sense derived from knowledge of the work’s origins.  Essentially, critical response to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra reflects an ongoing tension between opposed views of instrumental music itself.

Purely instrumental music gained ascendance in the latter half of the eighteenth century, as exemplified by the symphonies and chamber music of Mozart and Haydn.  With the rise of instrumental music came questions regarding its possible content, apparent in both Rousseau’s writings about music and in Kant’s Critique of Judgment.  Musical expression had long been linked to expression of a text.  Rousseau maintained that music did not reach the level of the other imitative arts, in that the imitation was not immediate as in painting or prose.  In his definition of “Sonata” from the 1768 Dictionary of Music he (perhaps peevishly) wrote:

In order to know what all these heaps of sonatas mean, one would have to follow the example of the inept painter who must label his figures, this is a tree, this is a man, this is a horse.  I shall never forget the sally of the celebrated Fontenelle, who finding himself overburdened with these interminable Symphonies cried out in a fit of impatience, ‘Sonata what do you want of me’?[3]


On his part Kant, writing in The Critique of Judgment claimed:

If on the other hand, we estimate the worth of the fine arts by the culture they supply to the mind, and adopt for our standard the expansion of the faculties whose confluence, in judgement, is necessary for cognition, music, then, since it plays merely with sensations, has the lowest place among the fine arts–just as it has the highest among those valued at the same time for their agreeableness…Music advances from sensations to indefinite ideas; formative art from definite ideas to sensations.  The latter gives a lasting impression, the former one that is only fleeting.[4]


During the nineteenth century, composers and writers offered two different responses to Rousseau and Kant.  One response, the solution advanced by advocates of program music, provided explicit content through text and title.  The other denied the necessity of specific content and justify music as abstract sound structure.  This response leads to the definition of absolute music.  Though the term “absolute music” was coined in the nineteenth century, the rationale for absolute music was given in the eighteenth.  Responding to Rousseau, Charles Burney suggested that instrumental works were admired for their structures, the composer’s inventiveness in presenting and developing musical materials.

The famous question, therefore, of Fontenelle: Sonata, que veux tu? to which all such recur as have not ears capable of vibrating in the sweetness of well-modulated sounds, would never have been asked by a real lover or judge of Music.  But men of wit of all countries being accustomed to admiration and reverence in speaking upon subjects within their competence, forget, or hope the world forgets, that a good poet, painter, physician, or philosopher, is no more likely to be a good musician without study, practice and good ears, than another man.  But if a lover and judge of Music had asked the same question as Fontenelle; the Sonata should answer: ‘I would have you listen with attention and delight to the ingenuity of the composition, the neatness of the execution, sweetness of melody, and the richness of harmony, as well as to the charms of refined tones, lengthened and polished into passion.[5]


Burney’s statement suggests that music be valued simply as music, needing no further justification for its existence.  No content was to be inferred because none was necessary for the appreciation of the work.  In the nineteenth century, this claim for music’s intrinsic value is associated with Eduard Hanslick, whose On the Musically Beautiful (1854) set forth the following premise: “The ideas which the composer produces are first and foremost purely musical ideas.  To his imaginations there appears a particular beautiful melody.  It exists for no other purpose than simply to be itself.”[6]

Hanslick specifies what he regards as the content on an artwork.

Whatever the content of a work of literary or visual art may be can be expressed in words and traced back to a concept: We say that this picture represents a flower girl, this statue a gladiator, that poem one of Roland’s exploits.  The more or less perfect fusion of such a definite content into the artistic phenomenon, then, is the basis of our judgment concerning the beauty of the artwork.[7]


While Hanslick’s concept of content may strike a contemporary reader as impossibly narrow or simplistic, it reflects a view common enough in the nineteenth century and sets up the distinction between music and other art forms.  In music, according to Hanslick, form and content are identical.  “The content of music is tonally moving form.”[8] One consequence of adopting Hanslick’s view would be to measure the success or value of a particular musical work by the degree to which the work’s form, the development of its musical material, was evident to the listener.

Consider Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  This work will serve as a model for music for music’s sake, as it seems to meet the criteria I just suggested.   A clearly identifiable motive is presented immediately; its presence and development can be traced through the four movements of the work.  Beethoven has made the link among the four movements not only obvious aurally, but forced performance of the four movements as a unit by eliminating the break between the third and fourth movements.  This suggests Beethoven intended the work to be heard as a whole, in contrast to previous performance practice where a symphony’s individual movements might be separated in performance.  In generating the large-scale work from a single idea and unifying the symphony as a cycle, Beethoven’s work invites a view of a musical work as an organic whole, a work that has grown naturally and inevitably from a musical seed.

By demanding the listener’s attention over forty minutes, Beethoven’s work also raises the question of significance. If a composer demands forty minutes of your life, what will you receive in return?   If Hanslick suggested that our apprehension of form is sufficient reason to value a work, Beethoven’s contemporaries did not regard form as the only source of value.  In an 1810 review, E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote:

In a similar way, Beethoven’s instrumental music unveils before us the realm of the mighty and the immeasurable.  Here shining rays of light through the darkness of night, and we become aware of giant shadows swaying back and forth, moving ever closer around us and destroying within us all feeling but the pain of infinite yearning, in which every desire, leaping up in sounds of exultation sinks back and disappears.  Only in this pain, in which love, hope and joy are consumed without being destroyed, which threatens to burst our hearts with a full-chorused cry of all the passions, do we live on as ecstatic visionaries.[9]


Hoffmann’s comments are those of an enthusiastic listener, one indulging his imagination without invoking the composer’s intention to provide content. Beethoven’s one-time secretary and factotum Anton Schindler ascribed the oft-cited “Fate knocking at the door” to Beethoven himself.  Writing in his 1840 biography, Beethoven as I Knew Him, Schindler claimed,

In the crown of the master’s symphonic creations, the C minor symphony stands next to the Pastoral. Indeed, as free poetry which, though independent of all outer influences, still owes its existence to external forces, it surpasses the Pastoral and represents the greatest triumph in instrumental music up to that time.  Among of the hundreds of compositions written by many masters, no work bears out more fully than Beethoven’s C minor symphony the maxim that every true work of art is a realization of the divine, whose purpose it is to confer the loftiest blessing on man by the enlightenment of the earthy and the spiritualization of the sensual as well as by the sensualization of the spirit.  What a marvelous union of pathos, majesty, mystery, and grandeur is contained in those four movements!  What a life of poetry this work unfolds before our senses, allowing us to see into its depths!  The composer himself provided the key to those depths when one day, in this author’s presence, he pointed to the beginning of the first movement and expressed in these words the fundamental idea of his work: ‘Thus Fate knocks at the door!'[10]


Schindler’s comment led to an interpretation of the symphony as the triumph of an individual (whether Beethoven himself or some unnamed avatar) over fate, represented by the transition from the minor mode of the first movement to the major mode of the finale.  The four-note motive plays its role as the constant presence of fate through all four movements; perhaps fate displayed in four “seasons” of the protagonist’s life.  Supposedly licensed by Beethoven himself, such interpretations would place the work in the company of literary or visual artworks (Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life comes to mind) or prefigure Berlioz’s overtly programmatic Symphonie fantastique.

Thus Hanslick’s remarks in On the Musically Beautiful can be understood as a response to the claims made by writers like Hoffmann and Schindler as well as a defense of music as an abstract art of tone.  The skepticism regarding narrative interpretations of the Fifth Symphony continued into the twentieth century with writers debating the content of Beethoven’s works.  Theorist and writer Heinrich Schenker wrote in 1921:

“Even if we accept that there was a connection between the rhythm of this motive and the idea of a Fate knocking at the door, it is nevertheless only the office of art, not of Fate, which has responsibility for this knocking.  And if one wished to offer a hermeneutic interpretation, that Beethoven was wrestling with Fate throughout the movement, then it would not be Fate alone that participated in this struggle but also Beethoven himself: but not merely Beethoven the man, but even more so Beethoven the musician.  If Beethoven wrestled in tones, then no legend, no hermeneutic interpretation can offer a satisfactory explanation of the tonal world, unless one thinks and feels with these tones exactly as they themselves think, so to speak.  Anyone who, in spite of everything, still finds it difficult to rid himself of the musical and metrical nonsense on account of the legends, merely has to consider that Beethoven developed a similar note repetition in the contemporaneous piano concerto; was it perhaps another door at which Fate knocked, or was Fate knocking at the same door, only in a different way?”[11]


Schenker’s comments could be regarded as a theorist defending music analysis as a valid discipline (valuing structure over any intimation of content). Roman Ingarden’s writings are my final example of a philosopher rejecting any notion of musical content.   His views on musical content are best understood as the counterexample to his conception of literary works, a conception developed in two works written in the 1930’s, The Literary Work of Art and The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art.  In Ingarden’s conception, a literary work has level of sound (the sounds of the words themselves), a level of meaning of words and sentences, a level of objects, and a level of interrelationships.[12] In a literary work, sound is merely one level with which the reader interacts.A musical work, however, is only a sheer sensory experience of sounds, sounds which do not interact with a level of semantic meaning, objects projected by that semantic meaning, or relationships among those objects.  Ingarden thus contrasts the single stratum of the musical work with the multiple strata, or levels of meaning in painting and literature.  In a musical work, there is no place for the listener to locate meaning:

The notion that some musical works perform the function of expression or presentation leads to the supposition that in this respect the musical work and the literary work are related.  Now the literary work performs those functions by virtue of the stratum of phonological formation and the stratum of meaning units occurring in its total structure; thus one is led to believe that meanings in the musical work are borne by individual musical motifs…the musical work contains within itself no stratum of linguistic units of meaning.  Consequently, no states of affairs projected by sentences and hence no objectivities presented by these can occur in the musical work as elements of it.[13]


Since there is no room in a musical work for (social, political or other) meaning, , a listener who adopts the notion that the work has content mishears the work.

Thus, whoever, upon hearing a musical work, imagines certain objects or objectual situations or events and in this imagining actualizes the corresponding aspects, that person in doing so goes beyond the proper content of the musical work; under the influence of the musical work which can be absent (and indeed ought not to take place) without the aesthetic apprehension of the musical work itself being in any way impaired.  For these literary fantasies distort and adulterate the aesthetic apprehension of the musical work.[14]


In spite of this lack of specific meaning, Ingarden values the listener’s experience of music, that is purely instrumental music.  The shift in thinking from Kant and Rousseau to Schenker and Ingarden is in that valuation.  Curiously, once pure music is valued, even the writers most committed to an appreciation based solely on the experience of sound itself attach significance to musical works beyond the sheer enjoyment of the relationship among tones.  Hanslick and Ingarden suggest that music has other aspects that are valuable.

Hanslick’s later writings suggest an acceptance of some notion of content, even where Hanslick wrote about his favorite composer of symphonies and “standard-bearer” for absolute music, Johannes Brahms.

Even the layman will immediately recognize it as one of the most individual and magnificent works of the, symphonic literature.  In the first movement, the listener is held by fervent emotional expression, by Faustian conflicts, and by a contrapuntal art as rich as it is severe.[15]


Ingarden, writing about non-sounding elements in The Identity of the Musical Work also appeals to emotion:

From what I have just said, it will be clear that I recognize the existence of emotional qualities within a musical work.  They appear upon specific sound-constructs, both of a higher and of a lower order, and sometimes they permeate the whole of the work in a characteristic way.  In ‘emotional qualities,’ I include both purely emotional ‘feeling’ qualities and qualities of desires, states of excitement, satisfaction, and exultation.  When we take ‘emotional qualities’ in the wide sense we detect their presence in many musical works.  Sometimes even the coloring of a sound carries a specific emotional character, as in, say, the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony.[16]


Bartók’s own statement about the Concerto for Orchestra reflects this somewhat equivocal attitude towards musical content.  After explaining the title “by its tendency to treat the single instruments or instrument groups in a ‘concertant’ or soloistic manner” and then devoting three paragraphs to the formal structures of the various movements, he closed with this comment:

The general mood of the work represents–apart from the jesting second movement–a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one.[17]


It is evident that debate over the value of instrumental music continued without resolution from the mid-eighteenth century through Bartók’s lifetime (and continues to the present day).  While philosophers and critics may have begun the debate, composers, whether through direct statements in prose or more obliquely through titles and commentaries for compositions, participated in the debate as well.  The recurring issue of absolute music’s value is not merely an abstraction, but shapes composition as well.

Composers, whether or not they are also performers (as Bartók was), are continually faced with works by their predecessors.  This familiarity can be thought of as a liability.  The debate regarding absolute music was as much a question of originality as a question of content.  As formal structures became the subject of textbook study in the mid-nineteenth century (as in the work of A.B. Marx), Liszt and Wagner argued that composers of absolute music simply followed patterns invented by their predecessors.  In contrast, following a poetic conception, as was the practice in program music, not only guaranteed musical content, but fostered originality.  Each work would have its own pattern of introduction and development of themes.  In the view of Liszt and Wagner, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven had created their musical forms ex nihilo; Schumann and Brahms merely imitated.  Bartók’s comments about the Concerto reveal his rejection of Liszt and Wagner’s views on form, as he is explicit in stating his use of established formal patterns.

This has been part of the appeal of Bartók’s music for analysts.  In his most clearly cyclic works, the Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste for one, a single theme unifies the four movements of the work, like Beethoven’s Fifth.  The work under consideration, the Concerto for Orchestra, while not cyclic, suggests developmental processes similar to, if not demonstrably derived from Beethoven’s and Brahms’s works.

A tradition of learned devices, reworked or made original, can be traced through works of absolute music.  The fugue that opens the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste contains elements of fugues written by Bach (and those of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms who continued writing fugues), yet also varies the structure (the full circle of fifths).  As was the case with the finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, a passacaglia that reworks a movement from a Bach Cantata, works like Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste almost invite analysis because of obvious references to earlier works.


In the appendix I offer a brief sketch of the opening measures of the Concerto for Orchestra’s first movement to suggest the compositional processes that tie Bartók’s work to “traditional” forms.


Even the most informal writing about Bartók began by considering the composer’s mastery of technique.  Although the reviewer Olin Downes in his comments on the work’s premiere spoke of the emotional impact of the work, the review begins by citing Bartók’s reputation as a composer for the intellect:

This was due in the first place to the fact that the score is by no means the nut to crack that other of Bartók’s late works have offered.  It is a wide departure for its author’s harsher and more cerebral style.  There might even be the assumption, with an artist of less sincerity than this one, that he had adopted a simpler and more melodic manner with the intention of an appeal to a wider public…But that would not be Mr. Bartók’s motive.  Nor would the emotional sequence of this music or the care with which it has evidently been fashioned support such an assumption.  What is evident is the courage, which this composer has never lacked in striking out, in his late years, in new directions.[18]


More recent commentary has sought extra-musical explanations and justification.  David Cooper’s monograph on the Concerto begins with the premise that the work is significant, a comment in keeping with Lukács’s remarks cited at the beginning of this essay.

The Concerto is historically embedded in a world in crisis.  Written at the turning point of the Second World War, it forms the most powerful of Requiems, one that perhaps only an atheist could have written.  It is a lament for man’s inhumanity to man, but also a positive vision of a world in a kind of harmony in which chaos and order, the primeval enemies, are held in dynamic equilibrium.[19]


How has this view of the work developed?  The answer lies in our view of the reception of musical works.  As I have stressed earlier in the essay, even those writers most committed to a strictly formalist view of musical content, that is that work is simply a construct of sounds following an internal musical logic, are unwilling to abandon some notion of significance beyond that formal structure.  On one hand, a host of writings, some addressed to concert-goers, students, and laymen proceed from the assumption that biographical data is as essential to an understanding of musical works as explication of structure and style critique.  Judit Frigyesi’s study, Béla Bartók and Turn-of-the-Century Budapest, is an exemplar of the range of materials that we regard as influences on the composer.  Beginning with a consideration of nationality and ethnicity, Frigyesi traces Bartók’s education, readings and personal associations, to undertand the background of the work.

Frigyesi presents a “theory of organicism,” traced through Nietzsche, to Lukács, the composers of Second Viennese School, and Bartók.[20] In presenting an analysis of segments of the Concerto, I have demonstrated how the work might be viewed as “growing” from a limited amount of pitch material.  Analysis and analytic methods, then, are not entirely internal to the piece, but themselves refer to prevailing concepts which have emerged from a particular historical context.  Bartók’s Concerto demonstrates coherence under a certain set of assumptions.  Much the same may be said concerning Bartók’s presumed expression of nationalism or religion, the attributions Cooper makes in his statement about the Concerto.  Frigyesi’s work provides evidence of Bartók’s interest in Hungarian culture, both the urban culture of Budapest and the rural culture of the agrarian communities Bartók visited to collect folk music.  In comparing Bartók with poet Endre Ady, she suggests that the very act of collecting folk music represents a particular stance.

Within the context of this controversy [radical politics in turn of the century Hungary], Bartók’s discovery of peasant music has political significance.  Bartók’s attitude was by no means intentionally political.  His ethnomusicological thesis was presented in a scholarly manner and the results of his research were in essence, independent of aesthetic and political considerations.[21]


In this statement, by no means intentionally, Frigyesi has stated the heart of the matter.  Musicians make political statements whether they wish to or not.  In the broadest sense, this concept plays into our sense that artworks on the whole may express more than their creators consciously intended.  In particular, we seem to have adopted Adorno’s view that music (and art in general) expresses the composer’s (and artists) life as a political being, whether that is consciously intended.

What allows us to regard Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra as political?  There are indeed elements in the work, the appearance of themes, patterns of rhythm, elements of formal structure that serve as evidence.  There are statements attributed to Bartók that articulate a political critique.  The question that remains is that of the warrant.  Is it licit to connect the extra-musical to the musical and hear the work not in isolation, but with knowledge of specific circumstances (not the general historical background of the work)?  The matter is made more tendentious by the manner in which the extra-musical associations emerge, revealed not with the initial performances of the work, but afterwards, through analysis and reportage.

In sum, we seem to operate with the following tacit belief.  As we move further and further in time from the work, we gain a true understanding of the work.  It is as if the circumstances of the work’s creation are a chrysalis from which the true work, its essence, emerges.  We are then able to judge (to continue the simile), whether the work is a moth or a butterfly.  Analysis, in its attempt to view the work in isolation, operates with this belief (along with the concomitant belief that analytic methods are akin to scientific theories, not tied to the particular time in which they were created or employed, but also achieving a more satisfactory understanding of the work with each improved or more powerful method).  This runs counter to the idea I suggested at the opening of the paper, that musical works are peculiarly tied to the past, even as they are performed and received in the present.

While valued as absolute music, the Concerto for Orchestra is also valued as a reflection of Bartók’s experience in the world.  It seems to me that Hanslick’s and Ingarden’s own difficulties in maintaining the completely isolated and abstract status of instrumental music reflect the inability of any listener to hear a musical work without placing it in some context.  Musical works are heard both in reference to other musical works and to our knowledge of the work’s history.  The past resonates in the present experience of the work.  If that past is that of an exile in New York during World War II, it would be difficult to imagine the work as not being influenced by the circumstances of its composition.  That is precisely my point.  The political interpretation of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra resides in the listener, not in the piece itself.  In light of the composer’s reticence to speak directly, absolute music as political statement is perhaps best understood as a product of the imagination of the listener.  That it resides in the listener’s experience does not render it less valid or meaningful; we value artworks for the responses they provoke.

Howard Meltzer is Chair of the Department of Music and Art, Borough of Manhattan Community College/ CUNY

[1] Georg Lukács, Writer and Critic, (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1971), 18-19.

[2] The circumstances of Bartók’s final years in New York have been differently evaluated.  For what appears to be a relatively balanced assessment, see Tibor Tallián, “Bartók’s Reception in America, 1940-1945” in Bartók and his World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[3] Rousseau, Dictionary of Music, 1768, in Weiss, Taruskin, 287-288.  The original may be found in Jean Jacques Rousseau, Oeuvres completes, V (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1995), 1059-1060.

[4 ]Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, translated Meredith (London: Oxford University Press, 1982): 195

[5] Charles Burney, A General History, Volume II, (New York: Dover Publications, 1957), 11.

[6] Hanslick, On the Musically Beautiful, translated Geoffrey Payzant, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1986) 10.

[7] Hanslick, 8.

[8] Hanslick, On the Musically Beautiful, 29.

[9] E.T.A. Hoffmann, “Review: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” in Ian Bent, Music Analysis in the 19th Century, Volume 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 146.

[10] Anton Felix Schindler, Beethoven as I Knew Him, translated Constance S. Jolly, (New York: Dover Publications, 1996), 147.

[11] Schenker, “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” in Der Tonwille, Volume, I, translated William Drabkin, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 29.

[12] A brief summary of Ingarden’s views on literature can be found in the translator’s preface to The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973).

[13] Roman Ingarden, Ontology of the Work of Art, translated Raymond Meyer (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989), 31

[14] Ibid.

[15] Eduard Hanslick, Music Criticisms 1846-99, translated Henry Pleasants (Hammondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1950), 126.

[16] Roman Ingarden, The Work of Music and the Problem of Its Identity, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 97-98.

[17] Béla Bartók, “Explanation to Concerto for Orchestra,” in Béla Bartók Essays, selected and edited by Benjamin Suchoff, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976), 431.

[18] Olin Downes, “Bartók Concerto Introduced Here,” The New York Times, January 11, 1945.

[19] David Cooper, Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 2.

[20] Judit Frigyesi, Béla Bartók and Turn-of-the-Century Budapest, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 25.

[21] Judit Frigyesi, Béla Bartók and Turn-of-the-Century Budapest, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 77-78


In the appendix I offer a brief sketch of the opening measures of the Concerto for Orchestra’s first movement to suggest the compositional processes that tie Bartók’s work to “traditional” forms.


Burney, Charles, A General History, Volume II. New York: Dover Publications, 1957

Cooper, David, Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996

Dorati, Antal, “Bartokiana (Some Recollections),” Tempo, No. 136, March, 1981

Downes, Olin, “Bartók Concerto Introduced Here,” The New York Times, January 11, 1945.

Frigyesi, Judit, Béla Bartók and Turn-of-the-Century Budapest. Berkeley:

                         University of California Press, 1998

Fricsay, Ferenc, Über Mozart und Bartok. Copenhagen: Edition Wilhelm Hansen, 1961

Hanslick, Eduard, Music Criticisms 1846-99, translated Henry Pleasants. Hammondsworth:

                            Penguin Books Ltd., 1950

                            -   On the Musically Beautiful, translated Geoffrey Payzant. Indianapolis:

                                Hackett Publishing Co., 1986

Hoffmann, E.T.A., “Review: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” in Ian Bent, Music Analysis in the 19th Century,

                              Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994

Ingarden, Roman, Ontology of the Work of Art, translated Raymond Meyer. Athens:

                                Ohio University Press, 1989

                            -   The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art, translated Ruth Ann Crowley and Kenneth R.

                                Olson. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973

                             -   The Work of Music and the Problem of Its Identity. Berkeley: University of California

                                 Press, 1986

Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Judgement, translated Meredith. London: Oxford University Press, 1982

Lukács, Georg, Writer and Critic. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1971

Rousseau, Jean Jacques, Oeuvres completes, V . Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1995

Schenker, Heinrich, Der Tonwille, Volume, I, translated William Drabkin, Oxford:

                              Oxford University Press, 2004

Schindler, Anton Felix, Beethoven as I Knew Him, translated Constance S. Jolly. New York:

                                   Dover Publications, 1996

Schoenberg, Arnold, “Brahms the Progressive,” in Style and Idea, edited Leonard Stein. London:

                                Faber and Faber, 1975

Suchoff, Benjamin (ed.), Béla Bartók Essays, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976

                                   -  Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra – Understanding Bartók’s World. New York:

                                      Schirmer Books, 1995

Tallián, Tibor, “Bartók’s Reception in America, 1940-1945” in Peter Laki (ed.), Bartók and his World.

                      Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995


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