Saturday, 9 February 2013

Bartok and nationalism:
A History in Six Dances 2

2. Sash Dance

The Japanese sash dancer wears red horns and holds aloft a red sash as if he were winding wool. The Navajo perform round something like a Maypole. In Ireland the Sash means something rather different. The singing of The Sash My Father Wore and the beating of the Lambeg drum unites the Orangemen who wear the sash and divides them from those who don’t. 

Hungary had been established as a country in the Carpathian Basin in 896. A thousand years later it celebrated its Millennium with a World Fair and a rush of building. Bartók was just fifteen at the time. Budapest was the fastest growing city in Europe and the Fair, with its blending of historical pageant and technological progress, set the crown on this growth. The world’s second underground railway system - the first was in London - was opened in Budapest in 1896. Europe’s largest stock exchange had been finished in Budapest the previous year and the Hungarian Parliament, the largest parliament building in the world then, was close to completion. Hungary had modern art and modern literature, an active commercial sector and a busy cosmopolitan culture. It had a lively theatre, it had its opera and operetta, it had its national literary epics.

The capital itself was dripping with money and some of the greatest writers, photographers, film makers, thinkers, scientists, architects, and psychoanalysts were busy getting born or proceeding through childhood and early teens. Endre Ady, Gyula Krúdy, Dezsö Kosztolányi, Attila József - all major writers - the photographers Brassai, Kertész, Munkácsy and Moholy Nagy;  movie directors George Cukor, Alexander and Vincent Korda and Michael Kurtiz; Leo Szilárd, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller of the Manhattan Project - all these were born within a twenty-five year period after 1880.

In his book, Budapest 1900, the historian John Lukács notes that there was something rakish and romantic about the sexual life of the capital. Women outnumbered men. There were many high-class brothels, gambling dens, casinos, races and other amusements. Assignations in the Biedermeyer apartments of Pest, on the commercial left bank of the Danube, might be discreet but they were certainly not uncommon. There were fine cheap restaurants, cafés where writers and lovers were welcome, with live gypsy bands on hand to entertain them.  


The question Bartók - a provincial boy - was to ask was how far Budapest was truly Hungarian. Budapest could celebrate as it liked but to the eyes of the poor rural population and the country gentry it was a sinful irreligious metropolis that some referred to as Zsidópest, or Judapest. Where was the purity, the pure clean heart of the nation? Where was its true music?

The question of the true, the real, the authentic, is a complex matter that is not altogether distinct from the quest for racial purity. It assumes stasis at the core, a golden age in which everything once came to perfection and from which condition it has declined through adulteration: the people through miscegenation with foreigners, the culture through misinterpretation and exploitation by outsiders, the economy by foreign bankers and traders. This corruption was, it was assumed, the work of people referred to elsewhere, by T S Eliot, as rootless cosmopolitans.  These were the people, in these sort of circumstances, who constituted what Bartók called a ‘destructive urban influence’. Roots were the key.


The map of the Kingdom of Hungary in 1190 includes all of Transylvania, pretty well all of Croatia and Bosnia, Slavonia, Slovakia, bits of Serbia and some of Poland too. There is no Austria at that time but there is the Holy Roman Empire that includes both Germany and the territory of Austria. Hungary was a major power then and reached its apogee in the great Renaissance period of King Matthias Corvinus in the second half of the fifteenth century, with a court and a library that rivalled the finest in Europe. 

Within thirty six years of the death of Matthias it was over. The Ottoman Turks, led by Suleiman the Magnificent crushed a ramshackle Hungarian army at Mohács in 1526 and took control of the greater part of Hungary for the next 158 years. The country fell apart and was divided into three major pieces. Mohács, still referred to as The Mohács Disaster, was the first of a long series of defeats. 

The years of occupation, exploitation and intermittent warfare between the Habsburgs in the north and the Ottomans in the south left much of Hungary enfeebled. The land ran to waste. Constant skirmishes meant massacres, hostage taking, and figures on the run. But when in the 1680s the Turks retreated there was no immediate improvement. The rule of the Habsburgs who took over for the next 150 years or so were no less devastating.  Hungary was in no position to resist. An eight year rebellion under Ferenc Rákoczi was put down in 1711. In 1790 the Hungarian nobles tried to set up an independent Hungarian army which was defeated.


And so it went on till the great March revolution and war of independence of 1848 that seemed to have been won but was defeated by the armies of the Russian tsar the next year. It is Mohács plus the 1848 revolution that, together with 1919 and 1956  most fully defines the national state of mind in terms of disaster: an hour of brief triumph followed by years of humiliation and misery.  

The flag of the 1848 revolution - red-white-and-green - is the flag of Hungary today though it is now being challenged by the far right who prefer to use what is called the Árpád flag of red and white horizontal stripes, a flag that conjures the period of first Hungarian power. The red and white flag was also used by the fascist Arrow Cross party who took murderous control of Hungary in the last seven months of the Second World War until April 1945, the year that Bartók died.

So we have red-white-and green as against red-and white. The sash dance goes on with rival sashes, representing different ideas of character and identity.

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