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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Bela Bartok - There's a composer at the next station

By Norman Lebrecht / September 30, 2004

Bela Bartok, whose statue is going up outside South Kensington station, is our link to the dangerous edge of Europe

I am sitting in the entrance hall of Bela Bartok’s house in Budapest, wondering where he has gone. Of all the 20th century’s musical transformers – Mahler, Schoenberg, Janacek, Stravinsky, Shostakovich – Bartok is the least discussed, the least central to world culture. Since the last flurry of activity in 1981 for the centenary of his birth, no orchestra outside Hungary has showcased his music, no reinterpretation has quickened international attention.

In reputational retreat, a composer gets stuck in time and place. For Bartok, this was 1930s Budapest: a hillside home, a surge of new scores, all the honours he could covet in a fascist state that grew nastier by the month. In 1940, after his mother died, he forswore comfort and sailed to America where, five years later, he died indigent. He wrote only two works in exile - the Concerto for Orchestra and an unaccompanied sonata for Yehudi Menuhin. The majority of his music is rooted in Budapest.

There, the conditions that inspired and repelled him simmer close to the surface. The street walls are pocked with gunshot, some crevices dating back to the civil war of 1919, others to the German and Russian occupations, some recent and mafia-related. I am served lunch by a man whose mother was shot dead as she suckled him at the breast. 'Violent' is an adjective often attached to Bartok's dissonances; it reflects an indigenous reality. Hungary may be a paid up member of the European Union and an avid player in the open market, but its temperament is decidedly intemperate.

How little we know of that wild land. A festival of Magyar Magic this past nine months has reached a million people across Britain but our arts minister, in her opening address, was unable to mention one Hungarian artist, and the pianist brought over for its closing concert will be playing a Chopin concerto, not Bartok.

Hungarian National Opera and Ballet are here next week to present Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and The Miraculous Mandarin at Sadler’s Wells; and a life sized Bartok will be unveiled this Saturday on a traffic island opposite South Kensington underground station. The statue, a copy of Imre Varga's behatted likeness of the composer from his Budapest garden, has been commissioned by the Peter Warlock Society, fans of a half-cracked English composer who, in 1922, introduced Bartok to London.

Sixteen years ago, when Bartok's remains were on their way home from exile, Margaret Thatcher drove from Downing Street to Southampton to pay her respects. This weekend, no junior minister will catch a tube to South Ken to consecrate the composer's statue. With the Cold War over, Bartok is no longer an official concern.

There are other reasons for his retreat. Bartok was a remote man, unknowable to close friends, perhaps even to his two wives, both of them ex pupils. Much of his music is rebarbative, his texts Hungarian. Though obviously important, his is not an art that is easily assimilated – not a music that thrills at first hearing.

For half a century it was championed by powerful compatriots-in-exile – Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia, Fritz Reiner in Chicago, Georg Szell in Cleveland; Ferenc Fricsay in Berlin; Antal Dorati in London and Washington, Georg Solti in London and Chicago. Once these masters died, though, the baton fell to earth. Budapest’s chief conductors, Zoltan Kocsis and Ivan Fischer, are locked in mortal enmity. Bartok's sons - one Hungarian, the other American - fell out over his legacy. The manuscripts are scattered inhalf a dozen archives across Budapest and a private Swiss museum.

Unlike Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Bartok attached no philosophy to his music. He was the least theoretical of revolutionaries and, in consequence, the most open to self-contradiction. On one wall of his house (now a museum) he is quoted as saying that everything he did was done for Hungary. On another, he asserts that the only thing he ever aimed for was understanding between nations.

Ascetic to the point of stoicism, his only opera and ballet are riddled with lust and blood. Bluebeard describes a duke who kills his brides after sex; Miraculous Mandarin has three pimps connive with a tart to murder her clients. Both provoked outrage. The present director of Hungarian National Ballet, Gyula Harangozo, is the son of the Mandarin's first choreographer, whose work was banned by the communists for its explicitness. Harangozo junior has now restored the original Mandarin, which he regards as the quintessence of Hungarian expression. ‘We in Budapest may never dance Balanchine like New York City Ballet or Swan Lake like the Kirov,’ says Harangozo. ‘But a ballet with a strong story we can act better than anyone.’

The striking thing about Mandarin, as in most of Bartok's music, is its terrifying contemporaneity. Bartok can make a noise as loud as a rock riff, a gesture as risque as Madonna's. He was the first composer to embrace multiculturalism, according equal respect to Balkan and North African musics which he collected on extended field trips. His sensitivity to nature was acute, his string quartets buzzing with insect wings and nocturnality. He could be the patron saint of any green party.

For Hungary, cut off from the world by the impenetrability of its language, Bartok is a vital mediator. Hungary today stands at the edge of the known world. An hour down the Danube are the war-torn Balkans. You can no longer sail beyond Novi Sad; the river is clogged by war debris. Budapest has an ambitious, outward-looking government. There is a public building boom - a new national theatre, a riverside concert hall. But the streets are cluttered with beggars, the public services are poor and the political rhetoric teeters on the very brink of physical and racial violence.

In the new corridor of insecurity that runs from Belgrade all the blood soaked way to Beslan, Budapest is the new Berlin: the frontier town ofan undeclared war. Budapest is a vital security interest for the whole of western Europe, yet few beyond its language barrier know what makes it tick, which way it might turn. That's where Bartok comes in. Bartok is the only Hungarian who speaks to the world uninterpreted. His statue in South Ken, more than just a hunk of bronze, is a pointer to Europe's future.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001