Friday 15 February 2013

After Attila József

Péter Simon: Hommage á Attila József

Working, working, working, dreaming, wasting time, working, wasting time, dreaming, working. There must  be a rhythm to this, some powerful discipline of disciplines like the key to all mythologies, but it's what I've known most of my life, and it's random.

I spent this morning writing a poem on the traces of Attila József's A város peremén, whic you could translate as At the Edge of the City, or On the Periphery. There are many translations of it. Here is the beginning of John Bátki's:
On the city's edge where I live,
when sunset comes caving in,
like so many tiny bats
soot floats down on soft wings
settling into a crust of guano
a hard and thick skin...
Over sixteen verses of six lines each, József paints a picture of an industrial quarter. It's part elegy, part protest. There are a number of translations, including Bátki's, but it wasn't a translation I wanted to write but a new poem, a kind of echo. It should be in the same form and maybe it would have a touch of John Davidson's Thirty Bob a Week, that begins:
I couldn't touch a stop and turn a screw,
And set the blooming world a-work for me,
Like such as cut their teeth -- I hope, like you
--On the handle of a skeleton gold key;
I cut mine on a leek, which I eat it every week:
I'm a clerk at thirty bob as you can see..
This is not what I was going to do this morning but last night I was in London to hear Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri present an excellent and moving programme of poetry, partly Clive's own work and partly Clive and George's translations from the Hungarian. But even before that I was meeting Gyöngyi at the HCC to talk about an anthology of poems for József, to be commissioned from various British poets. She asked me if I too would do something, to write not exactly a translation, but a response to one of József's poems, and I immediately thought of A város peremén.

I say immediately because I hadn't been thinking of it at all before. But I thought about it on the train home and this morning I sat down to draft a poem titled In the Banlieue, which suggested the right sort of outer suburb. Yes, sixteen verses, and yes, the same rhyme scheme, even roughly the same metre. And so it began. Now there are sixteen verses, as planned. It has been through four or five drafts but I am at the stage where I keep changing my mind. Here is the beginning as it stands.

In the Banlieue
After Attila József’s ‘A város peremén’
We live on the edge of town
in a banlieue of the time,
in a square of the imagination
haunted by crime,
and when we are dead and buried 
we’re buried in quicklime. 
We’re scum in the eyes of the world,
drunks, addicts, whores, and pimps,
but for any dozen of us that sways
another dozen limps.
We’re not the housing the state invests in
but the dumps on which it skimps.
Once inner city slums were home
and that was far from great,
but it was clear we wouldn’t last
in realms of real estate.
They threw us into this shanty town
and they could hardly wait.
Don’t come to us after dark, sir.
Madam, avoid the street,
there are some of us lurking here
you wouldn’t want to meet,
and certain words in our loud mouths
I don’t care to repeat...
Not quite right, not yet. And there are the other twelve verses. I write fast when I write such things, ninety-six lines in place within two or three hours, but then come the corrections and eventually I am confused so have to let it alone. I will return to it, maybe tomorrow. And then again the nightmare that it may all be no good. 

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:

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Bartók and Nationalism:
A History in Six Dances 5

It is hard to separate Dance 5 and 6 so the same piece of YouTube will have to do. I could separate them in sound on the day. It's still Zoltán Kocsis playing. He'll play again tomorrow.


Poarga Româneasca / Román Polka / Romanian Polka 

The poarga begins as a wild dance, an old Romanian dance in fact similar to the polka. Bartók found it in a place called Belényes at the time, though it is now called Beius, It is in Bihor Country, Romania, very close to the Hungarian border, even closer to it than Alba, just a few miles from Oradea, the city Hungarians used to call Nagyvárad. It is very close indeed. The names change, as the great Hungarian writer Krúdy wrote, but the people remain the same.

The reaction to the loss of territory, people and resources was authoritarian rule and an idealised image of the real soul of lost Hungary as something embedded in the old ways of the gentry and the peasantry. Tradition became a fancy dress parade of tarted-up regional costume  and deep conservatism in all cultural matters. One of the leading writers of the thirties, László Németh wrote an essay  with the title Kissebségbent, meaning ‘in a minority’ where he introduced the idea of mélymagyarság, or ‘deep-Hungarianness’. The term was not intended to suggest racial purity but an essentially Hungarian character in literature and culture generally, but it escaped its context as such terms often do. 

The recovery of greater Hungary, or at least some of it, had been an item on the agenda ever since Trianon. Children were shown maps of pre-Trianon Hungary and were taught to recite verses that declared that rump-Hungary was not the true Hungary, nor would it ever be. Political and cultural campaigns were launched overseas to enlist international support for a redrawing of the border.

The country was moving ever closer to outright fascism. All the circumstances, both inside the country and outside it, facilitated that move. Then the Second World War broke out.  Hungary was very much in the German sphere of influence and could count on help from Germany and Italy when, in 1940  under the terms of the Second Vienna Award, Hungary recovered the northern part of Transylvania.

Bartók who, despite official pressure, had become distinctly anti-fascist at home and refused to give concerts in Germany in the 1930s, sent his manuscripts out of the country and, like many European artists moved to the USA permanently  in 1940, precisely when part of Transylvania was once again open.


During the war there were  ever more severe anti-Jewish laws. This war too was a disaster for Hungary. A whole army was lost in Russia. By 1944 Horthy was trying to pull the country out of the war so Germany sent in Eichmann and the SS.  Hundreds of thousands of remaining Jews were deported and died in concentration camps. Many thousands of others were hastily shot on the banks of the Danube.

Then the Red Army arrived and ‘liberated’ the country on the Soviet Union’s own terms.

Famine followed, disease followed, hyperinflation followed, show trials, executions and torture followed,  another wave of emigration followed. After 1949 the country was a Moscow-based Stalinist dictatorship under Mátyás Rakosi, a survivor of the 1919 Bolshevik government. When Stalin died in 1953 Rákosi lost power and was briefly replaced by Imre Nagy. In 1956, following a wave of Polish strikes, fighting broke out in Budapest. For ten days between 23 October and 4 November  Hungary seemed to have escaped the grip of the Soviet Union. The composition of the revolutionary government, led rather reluctantly at first by Nagy, was changing from day to day. In the end the Soviets double crossed Hungary, and under the cover of the Suez debacle, sent in a second army and put down the Uprising. János Kádár, an ex-victim of Rákosi and an apparent supporter of the revolutionary government, was installed as the next leader,

After the first few years of reprisals, executions and repression Hungary grew to be the most liberal state in the Soviet sphere. Kádár’s system was called goulash communism. and Hungary was referred to by Russians as Little America. The rise in affluence was funded by borrowing and by a black market that soon outstripped the official one. By the mid-eighties it was clear that there was going to be trouble over the debt. By 1988 Kádár was gone and by the end of the next year so had communism. I spent most of 1989 in Hungary watching it collapse around us.


We are now in the post-1989 world. It should be a spot of sunlight in a rather dark Hungarian history - not just a winning battle but a won war. But something else has happened instead: the economy has slipped down every steeper slops and the social fabric, if not exactly broken, has developed large and dangerous holes. There was the scandal of the leaked speech of the last socialist prime minister in 2006 and a landslide election in favour of Fidesz, a party that calls itself centre-right but extends a long way to the right, overlapping with an outright fascist party, Jobbik, that came third in the general elections of 2010, with a one-in-six vote. Fidesz in government have rewritten the constitution, as they were entitled to by their 2/3rds representation in parliament, and filled all available posts in both government and culture with its own supporters. The intensity of right wing rhetoric has risen to screaming pitch. One main government supporting paper has called for the extermination of the Roma, a member of Jobbik has asked for a register of all Jews as major security risks. The flag of Jobbik, the red and white stripes, is flown in a good many places. People in the media have been sacked, and major figures in the arts have not had their contracts renewed. Fascist writers are back on the school syllabus and statues of Admiral Horthy are rising in parks and squares all over the country. There is a long list of worrying moves by the government that is leading Hungary back to the thirties. The same kind of bull-headed patriotism we see here in the British National Party and the English Defence League is finding itself in uniform, all criticism of it dismissed as foreign propaganda. 

Monday 11 February 2013

Bartók and Nationalism:
A History in Six Dances 4

Béla Bartók: Six Romanian Folk Dances, Pianist Zoltán Kozsis

Dance from Bocsum
Buciumeana . Bocsumi tánc

The word Bucium means bugle. The instrument as used by Romanian shepherds has a very long horn, longer than the average didgeridoo.  Really it’s a kind of alpenhorn. Bucium, the place, is in Alba, Romania, not far from the city of Alba Iulia, which was known to Hungarians as Gyulafehérvár, the white fort of Julius. All places in Northern Romania and Transylvania had Hungarian names, as well as German or Saxon ones, sometimes transliterations of each other.

A good many Hungarian artists left Hungary after 1919. Most left because they felt vulnerable politically and culturally, either as Jews, socialists or avant garde artists, some because they could see better opportunities abroad, some becauase they feared persecution.  Horthy’s white terror was directed largely at Jews, because Jews were among the most active figures in the Bolshevik administration. Horthy’s government brought in the very first anti-Jewish laws, the numerus clausus of 1920, which restricted the number of Jews in higher education and the professions, and this was just a start. Clearly, opportunities for Jews were going to be restricted. If you stayed at home you had to keep your head down and, possibly, give up religion and change your name.

It wasn’t just Jews leaving of course but many other prominent writers, philosophers, musicians, painters, singers, scientists, far too many to name. For them too it was clear that Hungary was not going to be sympathetic to revolutionary or avant-garde art. It was a major cultural diaspora, one of many in Hungarian history but culturally probably the greatest. Nor was it just Hungarians moving around Europe and America. All that revolutionary cross-fertilisation, all that meeting of ideas we find after the war, was the product of trauma and collapse.

Those who stayed at home would find their reputation restricted. The great Hungarian photographer Károly Escher for example is hardly known here because he stayed behind. But he is of equal stature to those who went. 


The writers generally left for a while then returned. Hungarian was the language they wrote their poems and novels in: that was their art and nobody abroad spoke or wrote Hungarian.

The issue of the language is closely tied to the condition of the Hungarian psyche. Hungarian is utterly isolated. It is an island in a sea of Slavonic, Romance, and Teutonic languages, unrelated to anything else, except, according to most accepted theories, to Finnish and Estonian. The benefit of linguistic isolation are that you are obliged to learn other languages in order to get about the world, so when you do leave you are prepared.. The disadvantage is that you will never quite hit the precise shade of meaning that matters. If you are a writer that is fatal.

Having an isolated language is a matter of both insecurity and pride. It is what you are, but no one outside your language circle will ever known what that is. It is a vital element in the Hungarian psyche and an important factor in the temper and stance of Hungarian politics.

The post war emigration had said goodbye the country. The dance from Búcsúm has a nicely Hungarian twist and lilt. By a strange linguistic quirk the Hungarian word búcsú means farewell.  

This is the shortest text. Two more to come.

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.

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.

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.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Erbil - photographs by others

Inside the hall at the university. mid discussion on stage

The privileged seats inside the hall - the writers (I'm at the far end)

Students in the great hall

Students sign in

On the bus with the Reel Iraq group

The Shandahar Park Gallery where the poetry readings took place

Adam Foulds, Nadia Faydh, Amal Ibrahim, Rachel Holmes, me

Most of these photos are by Charla but I'm not sure of the last two, or the one of the Shandahar Park Gallery - probably by a member of the Reel Iraq group, maybe Ryan.

Saturday 2 February 2013

Erbil, a few photographs 1

Me with the Poetry class, most of them are behind the camera. The girl reading was the first to finish the poem and was keen to stand and read it. She did it very well. Not my photograph but Charla's.


These photographs below are my own. I'll add a few from the BC site and from the Reel Iraq site in the next blogpost. (Tomorrow I am in London at the South Bank to give my Bartók and Nationalism talk.)

From the 8th floor of the hotel

Inside the Tea House

Megan Walsh of The Times in The Citadel

Myself, Lucy Caldwell, Doug Wallace of the BC, Megan Walsh and Adam Foulds

View from The Citadel

In the town, The Citadel behind.

Friday 1 February 2013

Erbil - a summing up

Not from the festival but from From YouTube here

A couple of times, once in the bus, and once at the Tea House in central Erbil, just by the citadel, singing would start up. On the bus two of the young women began it and others joined in, singing, clapping along or snapping fingers in time to it. At the Tea House one man started a haunting air, then a woman took it up, then another man, then the woman again. They sang impromptu. It was, I learned on asking, a love song. People joined in clapping. The whole place was suddenly beautiful, burning with life. It was celebratory. It came alive.

And again, on the last night, after the Reel Iraq readings, after an interval and an awkward spell of roughly tuned chamber music, followed by another interval, a group of dancers came on. The tunes were familiar as were the dances. The hall was far from packed, and even barer by this time, but there was clapping and dancing in the aisles. It was spontaneous. The hall was rather forbidding, but the dancing in the aisles might have been anywhere in the street, in a tea house or in a bazaar.

The music of a place is where its intimacy and identity open up. At this point the sense of community is at its most receptive, and anyone from anywhere becomes emotionally a part of it. Music and dancing are beautiful infections. We all have bodies that like to move in beloved patterns.

Erbil may have money pouring into it, it may have constructed an international-standard airport - which, as Gulanar Ali wrote, was of great symbolic importance because, for once, aeroplanes were not associated with bullets and bombs but were ways of connecting this much damaged place to the outside world - it may even have raised a few hotels, but it is essentially poor. It is not so much a city of a million as an enormous township hugging the ground, a gathering of urbanised villages. It is a wounded place that needs time to heal. Maybe it will get the time but that is not assured. It is poor, half-finished. In the shadowless rain that haunted our three days, it felt almost spectral.


The mind is always looking to comprehend some key part of its circumstance and condition.There were people at the festival who had undergone suffering and tragedy of the kind we only read about. They don't speak about it directly. It's in the voice, the posture, the eyes which are sometimes guarded, at other times warm and pleased that we are there to see them, not as victims of troubles but for the deeply civilised people they are. The music is a sign of that.

As is the poetry, though language has walls that music can transcend. There are many languages in a single place. That is not simply a matter of Kurdish and Arabic, but of the varieties of language common to any culture: the language of the street, the language of formal beauty, the language of thought with all its own metalanguages, the language of meetings, introductions and goodbyes, the coded languages of community, family and friendship, the language of this or that person with their own personal history of usage.

Even so, poetry and story can touch others though in translation, or indeed without translation, as gesture, rhythm, performance. We feel our way through other people's codes. We want to understand what the other is saying, not as a series of rational statements, but as a way of being and feeling in the world.

Festivals are necessarily formal. The hall we started in heightened the sense of formality and it took a little time to feel relatively relaxed in it. The hotel was a good hotel with good rooms and good food, but hotels are hotels, varying only in degree. There is staff you rarely see. You return and the room is tidy, the bed made. You glide up lifts. You return to the buffet. You sit with those you know or have met. The language barrier is always hard work. I exchanged books with the writer Hameed Al-Rubayee. We won't be able to read each other. The exchange is a gesture to say: I think we would like each other's minds so let this be a token of that.

For me the highlight was the session I was offered to take at the end. It was good to be able to run something at what I thought of as an open pace, with students present. I liked the students. I liked to see them smile. I liked their courage in writing to a given pattern. I liked it when they asked questions. There should always be questions. I make no assumptions about them, their home lives, their histories. Their home lives, judging by dress and looks, were probably traditional in ways that they might sometimes love, at other times resent. That is their affair, but since we are all people with a love of music, poetry and stories, we can present ourselves in ways that seem natural to us. These are our other selves, those curious instinctive selves we discover at points of singing, stories, poetry and dancing.


I am glad to have been in Iraq, or rather in Norther Iraq, Kurdistan. Death, pain, violence, survival, degradation, power: all are aspects of the human condition from time immemorial. The cultural politics of national organisations are always complex and fascinating. Function and person, purpose and chance, the formal and the informal are their business. Writers, artists, musicians, dancers, actors are the raw material of their politics, because politics is not simply leaders talking with leaders: it's what happens and how it happens. The Erbil Literature Festival is, I imagine, a way of supporting a possible UK-Kurdistan / Iraq relationship by introducing us to each other in art.

But art, that raw yet highly sophisticated material, has its own pace and unconscious improvised politics. For me, the informal contacts, the odd conversations while walking or waiting, were of as much importance as the official events. They were warm personal contacts: friendships in the making.

At Erbil airport on the way out we were security-checked four times. The airport was clean and smart. There were no crowds. Relatively few airlines fly to Erbil. I had bought two bags of delicious spices. They were confiscated. A young female officer took a pack of Tampax from a colleague's bag and asked what it was, wondering whether it was a kind of device for smoking (she demonstrated). She had never seen Tampax. The airport, the uniform and the flights were international class. They were indeed a symbol of hope. This odd incongruous moment was a human moment.

I'll put a selection of photos in the next blog. The music above is the closest I could find to the spirit of what I heard on stage, on the bus and in the Tea House.