Sunday, 10 February 2013

Bartók and Nationalism:
A History in Six Dances 3

Béla Bartók: Six Romanian Folk Dances, Pianist Zoltán Kozsis

Continuing with the text for the South Bank talk. This is the third of six. It is, needless to say, a personal view. I am neither a musicologist nor a historian.

On The Spot
Pe loc / topogó / On One Spot or In One Place

This dark little tune is like twilight,  the creeping and winding of shadows at sunset before  the light completely fades away.


The years following the defeat of the war of independence were years of Habsburg retribution and repression. Austria hanged the leaders of the revolution and a period of passive resistance followed: tax avoidance, avoidance of military service, and simple truculence. These were known as the Bach years, after Alexander Bach whose task it was to eradicate opposition. But under military pressure from outside, Austria began to look for a compromise and by 1865 the way was open to agreement.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was created in 1867, the year when Austria entered a joint constitutional arrangement whereby Hungary became an independent self-governing nation with power over most of the regions that had comprised it before the Ottoman invasion. Today it is regarded by some Hungarians as a golden age, when, not just autonomy, but power returned to Hungary.  When the deeply patriotic talk about Greater Hungary it is this period of forty-two years they mean. It was not necessarily a golden age for the peoples subsumed under Hungarian rule: Romanians, Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, Poles, Slovakians, Slovenians and other groups were not so pleased, but their time was to come.

The twilight of the brief Austro-Hungarian Empire, the period between 1896 and 1919 is particularly poignant for Hungarians. It is full of intense nostalgia. The great writers, artists, photographers, musicians and film makers I mentioned earlier were born into this period of national self-confidence, urban development and rural decay. Rural Hungary was still in a semi-feudal condition and there was much emigration, particularly to America. 

But then came the First World War. The  Golden Age was lost.


Bartók’s work in the period leading into the First World consists of a good many collections and transpositions of folk songs. The Romanian folksongs that we are hearing were published in 1915, Bartók was quite clear in distinguishing the Romanian Folk Dances from their Hungarian and Slovak equivalents.  There was little politics attached to such distinctions at that time. Clearly there were other ethnic populations living in Hungary but they didn’t present an immediate threat. The Wooden Prince is from this period as are the first two string quartets,and the first version of The Miraculous Mandarin.

The chaos at the end of the war resulted in the so-called Aster Revolution at the end of October 1918 producing a democratic socialist government under Count Mihály Károlyi. It lasted only till 21 March when the government fell to a Bolshevik revolution led by Béla Kún, but the Bolshevik republic of councils lasted only until 1 August. The Hungarian Red Army (n so far as it was Red) tried in vain to resist a Romanian invasion from the south-east. When the Romanian army reached Budapest Kun fled the country. This was the cue for the ultra-conservative Admiral Horthy to enter Budapest on a white horse and declare it a city of sin, one that he was, eventually, willing to forgive. Kun’s Red Terror was replaced by Horthy’s  White Terror. The Treaty of Versailles had been signed by then: the lethal Treaty of Trianon was to follow. 


The great early twentieth-century poet and novelist, Dezsö Kosztolányi captures the moment of uneasy balance between Bolshevism and the new Horthy regime beautifully in his novel Anna Édes. Here, the janitor, called Ficsor, who had been made superintendent of the block under Bolshevism, meets the upper class councillor tenant Vízy, neither of them quite sure who has come out on top. Kosztolányi begins with the appearance of the janitor.

He wore a scarlet-lapelled jacket like a postman, but his collar was uncomfortably undone.
‘Good day, your excellency,’ he bellowed, loud enough for the whole house to hear. ‘May I have a word with your excellency?’
‘Oh, it’s you, comrade,’ responded Vízy.
‘Your humble servant, your excellency.’
‘Do come in, comrade Ficsor’
The exchange was conducted with remarkable politeness in the historical circumstances. Both men were uncertain of their status, both anxious the give the other the advantage....
....‘They’ve gone!’ enthused Ficsor, still at the top of his voice. ‘The rascals are done for. They’re packing up and leaving.’
‘Really,’ murmured Vizy, as if surprised at the news.
‘Yes, your excellency. The national flag has already been raised over the Vár. My brother-in-law raised it with his own hands.’
‘The important thing,’ pronounced Vizy, avoiding the subject, ‘is that there should be peace and security.’
‘The dear old red-white-and-green,’ gushed Ficsor in a fit of patriotic reverie, keeping a careful eye on Vizy’s immobile face. ‘Now there’ll be some scores to settle, your excellency. Yes, now they’ll have to dance to a new tune.’

The flag of the Bolshevik government was, naturally, red. When the caretaker praises the good old red-white-and-green he recapitulates the sash dance.  After Trianon, Kodály and Bartók’s old research field was hostile foreign territory. The places that most writers wrote about, the scenes that painters painted, were amputated from the everyday imagination and relocated in despair and fury. Bartók’s Romanian folk songs meant something different now.


Under the terms of Trianon Hungary lost 72% of its territory, 64% of its population and most of its natural resources. Austria-Hungary was a great patchwork of ethnic groups under a single administration: after Trianon there were isolated communities under several administrations. These isolations were painful. Families were broken up, fortunes lost (and gained) and tensions started to gnaw away at minds under pressure. 

So, to recapitulate, we have the two great traumas of Hungarian history: 1526 and 1919. There are besides these two heroic defeats: 1849 and 1956, making four key events, but the traumas are greater. 

Bartók continued to interpret Hungarian folk song but after 1920 there are no more 'Romanian' tunes. A whole world had vanished.

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