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The astonishing omission of Bartók - inadvertent, but justified by the editor ex post facto - from the recent Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music prompts reflection on why Bartók is such an indispensable figure in any adequate account of the music of this time - and after. All the more indispensable has he become, paradoxically enough, now that musicology is at last turning away from the “poetic fallacy,” according to which composers are the only historically significant agents in music history,, and giving due weight to meditation and reception. To imagine “Life without Bartók” will be among this paper's thought experiments. Another, perhaps inevitably, will be a comparison of Bartók and Stravinsky,, not only as composers but also as forces in cultural life, both in their time and in ours.

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In his inaugural lecture to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Béla Bartók proposed dividing the works of Liszt into two unequally valued portions: the valuable works that showed Liszt as an artistic innovator, and the undesirable ones that adopted a false “Hungarian” style that pleased unsophisticated listeners but corrupted their taste. In sum, he asserted a radical pseudo-aesthetic dichotomy in the interests of a political agenda. Only a dozen years later, Bartók’s own legacy was dichotomized in a very similar way by musicians and politicians, on both sides of the Cold War divide, who were acting according to a political agenda that no one even tried to disguise as aesthetic. The crypto-political pseudo-aesthetics of the twentieth century, whether practiced in the name of pure national traditions, in the name of social justice, or in the name of aesthetic autonomy, has corrupted both the production and the reception of art music and has played a part in its devaluation, all too evident in twenty-first-century society. The many errors of evaluation enumerated in this essay have contributed to that melancholy history.

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