Friday, 8 February 2013

Bartok and nationalism:
A History in Six Dances, 1

I am putting up the text for the 40 minute talk given on Sunday 3 February at the South Bank. It formed part of The Rest is Noise season of music, history and context, based on Alex Ross's excellent book of the same name. The title was suggested to me by the organisers. 

My decision was to take one of the items due to be played that evening, Bartók's Six Romanian Folk Dances and to write notes under each of the pieces, ideally by referring to the music itself. I used Zoltán Kocsis's recording and played a dance before each section.

The text is not an article: it is a talk. There is a difference and I would rewrite it as much as necessary for it to become something to be read in a journal other than here. The little cartoon above is the only way I can put in Kocsis's version. I will try to provide the piece of music for each part. The blog will have six parts. This first part is the longest.

1. Stick Dance
Bot tánc / Jocul cu bâtă

The stick dance is not exclusively Romanian. Most cultures have a stick dance. Men in Hawaii do it in grass skirts, clashing their bamboo sticks together, half percussion half martial arts. Iroquis perform stick dances, men and women together, strolling round in a circle, spinning and stamping. Indians do it but with shorter sticks, making graceful gestures. Egyptians do it with two sticks, twirling and balancing. Morris Men do it of course, jingling bells to fiddle and accordion, moving in circles or parallel rows. There are fierce cries and pantomime fighting. In Teignmouth they do it in spooky black. Stick dances are ubiquitous. Everyone does it. Argentines, without means, do it. People say in Boston even beans do it.

Bartók watched Romanians do it in Transylvania, a good part of which was then part of Hungary, recording the tune in roughly 1908, before committing it to piano in 1915. 

Bartok was born in 1881, in  a town that was then part of Hungary but is now Romania (only a stone’s throw from the current Hungarian border though) to a Hungarian father, who was a rural teacher with some connections to the lower nobility and a Serbian mother who spoke German though she was from Upper Hungary, now Slovakia, but who also had some Polish forebears. 

When Bartók’s father died his mother first took him to what was then Nagyszölös in Hungary but is now Vinogrady in the Ukraine, then they all moved to Pozsony or Pressburg (once capital of Upper Hungary), which was then Hungary but is now Bratislava in Slovakia. At the age of eighteen Bartók was accepted by the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, which was then capital of Hungary, and still is.


Between 1899 and 1903 Bartok studied under the Hungarian István Thomán, who was himself a student of Franz Liszt. Liszt, who never spoke Hungarian, had been a major champion of Hungarian music, identifying it with what he called Hungarian Gypsy music. Liszt wrote enthusiastically about gypsy music, admiring its romantic wildness and its closeness to nature, opposing it to the decadent music of the city, and, probably with some help from Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, painted an unflattering picture of small-minded, mixed-blood urban Jews as a contrast to the free-living racially-pure gypsies. 

Later musicologists, very much including Bartók, came to question Liszt’s ideas about gypsy music, arguing that the music they played consisted of peasant tunes that gypsy musicians had picked up here and there in villages but then presented in a more sentimental, fancy style at courts and at big urban restaurants. Liszt himself heard the music as played by highly regarded gypsy musicians at courts rather than in villages.   

Liszt’s idealising picture of the romany life and soul was of no great help to real Roma. The poor non-musical gypsy was a member of the underclass. The most skilled musicians formed an affluent sub-aristocracy, much admired at courts and halls, but were still regarded as essentially members of an elevated servant class. In the middle were the disposable gypsy musicians who played second fiddle in bands that did or did not last, that did or did not get regular employment.

Bartók himself started with Liszt’s conception of Hungarian music, writing his symphonic poem, Kossuth, named after the great national hero of 1848 in 1903, but in 1904, while on holiday in Transylvania, he heard a young woman called Lidi Dósa, singing folk songs that did not resemble  the gypsy tunes he knew - and he knew a great many - but this sounded different. This is where his music changed.


Place names change, sovereignty changes, identities adapt and change. To live in Central Europe at any time after the mid sixteenth century was to stand on a broken mirror whose pieces were constantly breaking and reforming. There’s the old joke in which a child asks his grandfather to tell him the story of his life and the old man replies that he was born in Austria-Hungary, went to school in Czechoslovakia, married in Hungary, worked most of his life in the Soviet Union and now lives in the Ukraine. You’ve travelled a lot, grandad, the child gasps. "No,” replies the grandfather. “I never moved from Mukachevo."

Thinking about it again, that is no joke. Or rather the history of Central Europe and the Balkans is no joke. Who we are, is not a joke question: the answer is demanded of us not only by the border guards, the police, the employer and the colleague, but, as in Bosnia in 1992, by our closest neighbours, people we appear to have known for years.  We can be killed for who we are.

In the key text for this season, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross tells us how after a few trips into the still Austro-Hungarian countryside Bartok acknowledged the gap between what the bands played and what the people were singing. ‘He decided,’ says Ross, ‘that he had to get as far as possible from what he would later call “destructive urban influence.”’ Ross goes on to note ‘a certain fanaticism in Bartók’s philosophy” which sailed close to “the noxious racial theorizing that was á la mode in Bayreuth.” What saved Bartók from bigotry, he goes on to argue, is that he refused “to locate his musical truths in any one place; he heard them equally in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Turkey and North Africa”.

We should remember though that before the First World War  most of those places were in fact Hungary, at least in Austria-Hungary terms.

And that’s just one of many problems. Austria-Hungary was the big stick in the local stick dance.

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