Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Bartók and Nationalism:
A History in Six Dances 6

Fast Dance
Maruntei / Aprózó

Aprózó: the word is derived from apró, meaning tiny or diminutiveand is a set of short or tiny steps, also interpreted as fast. 

Hungary’s dance into nationalism continues at fast dance pace. On attaining its two-thirds majority Fidesz set about the constitution, changing it, as their 68% majority entitled them to, ten times in a year, passing over 200 laws and drafting and adopting a new constitution—since followed by nearly 2000 amendments, before presenting the country with an entirely new constitution at the beginning of 2012. 

The changes were radical, designed to keep Fidesz in power and to control opposition. The underlying aim was to redefine the identity of the country by every means possible. 

Defining a nation also entails defining that which is not part of the nation. The more strictly the nation is defined the less tolerant it is of those who, it deems, lie beyond the definition. Socialists, liberals, internationalists, Jews, and Roma are regarded with suspicion: they are not properly part of the nation. 


Bartók’s early letters 1902 and 1903 reflect his nationalist views of the time. He disliked the general use of the German language at higher levels of bureaucracy and culture. He even began to adopt national dress. In his 1921 autobiography he tells how “It was the time of a new national movement in Hungary, which also took hold of art and music. In music, too, the aim was set to create something specifically Hungarian.” In a later letter of 1905 he says:

A real Hungarian music can originate only if there is a real Hungarian gentry. This is why the Budapest public is so absolutely hopeless. The place has attracted a haphazardly heterogeneous rootless group of Germans and Jews; they make up the majority of Budapest’s population

He was wrong of course. Jews never did make up the majority of the Budapest population, but in speaking of ‘rootless groups’ he was using almost exactly the same term as T S Eliot was to use later: ‘rootless cosmopolitans’. Roots were vital. As David Cooper, writes in an essay: 
‘peasant music represented for him the literal roots of his identity... it became his vernacular, his ‘mother tongue’...As a result of this musical rebirth his large scale works were increasingly composed ‘outwards’ from the peasant music rather than inwards from the European frame’
However, Bartók did not become an anti-Semitic nationalist. Cooper quotes Bartók’s essay on racial purity in music where Bartók dissects the popular Rákoczi March and discovers it to be composed of ‘the most heterogeneous elements’ Cooper then suggests that Bartók’s own compositions “reconstruct Hungarian nationalism by accepting the importance of racial impurity and hybridisation in the art world’ that represents a continual ‘crossing and re-crossing’ between national, social or musical boundaries.’ Adorno considered the music of both Bartók and Janácek to be beyond the ‘party-line tenet of National Socialism - truly extra-territorial music.’


The Hungarian problem is wounded identity and isolation. The country is living in a condition of post traumatic stress disorder, seeking to narrow and stabilise its definition of itself. But Hungarians are by no means a pure race. They have intermarried for centuries. Some of the most common Hungarian names such Szerb (Serbian), Tóth (Slovakian), Orosz (Russian), Román and Oláh (both Romanian), Németh (German), Lengyel (Pole) suggest as much. A great many names have been changed. One of the leading Jobbik figures last year was horrified to learn he had a Jewish grandparent. He was expelled from the party. Even the nation’s great patriotic poet, Sándor Petöfi was born Petrovich, his father being a Serb or Slovak immigrant.

Hungary’s isolation is chiefly linguistic. Hungarian minorities in surrounding countries are part of the region’s hybridity. Other countries were rich and powerful once but are not now. They can get over it. 

The Bartók solution of valuing ethnic traditions equally - that extra-territorial music - is a potential solution. 

Let's call it the Bartók cure.


Time told against a fuller development. My original notes were twice the length. Perhaps, to end with, it might be appropriate to have Bartók's own, subtle interpretation of his composition:


Sue Guiney said...

George, these amazing posts have especially struck a chord with me. Although I'm not Hungarian, my violin teacher throughout my youth was, and was a student of Bartok's protege.My teacher, Mr. Firago, and I used to play these same Bartok dances you have been posting, but transcribed as violin duets. I play them to this day and so I've always considered myself a student of Bartok, as well, just as my teacher did. Too much bound up in my own adolescence at the time, I never thought to ask Mr. Firago about his own diasporic experiences in working class, suburban New York. I wish I had. But the connection you have made between this music and Hungary's past and present difficulties is quite insightful. Thank you.

George S said...

Yes, the Six Romanian Dances exist in various arrangements, Sue, in a variety of interpretations. The violins sound particularly good. I didn't know you were a violinist too - my brother is a fiddle player in the CBSO, Birmingham. He has been there for decades, haviung trained as a soloist. at the Royal Academy and Trinity College, London.

I had forgotten you were a New Yorker.

Dennis Tomlinson said...

Thank you for these articles, George. I knew something of the political history of Hungary,the Treaty of Trianon etc., but not the development of Hungarian culture behind the politics.