On 14 June 1982, a statue of Béla Bartók was dedicated in Paris. The bronze sculpture by Imre Varga, of which several versions exist, was a gift from Budapest to the City of Paris on the occasion of the naming of a public area in the 15th arrondissement after the Hungarian composer. The inauguration address was delivered by none other than Jacques Chirac (future Prime Minister, later President of the French Republic, and Mayor of Paris at the time) with his hallmark verve and empathy. I recall being surprised by the length at which he dwelled on the Kossuth Symphony, dissecting a work that was hardly ever performed in those days, and one which Bartók had composed at the age of twenty-two as a vehicle for his passionate feelings about his Hungarian national identity.1 It was a splendid speech that made me marvel at the genius of speechwriters in the service of the Mayor.

Less than a year passed when, on 16 April 1983, reading Le Monde, I learned about the passing away of Gyula Illyés. I had purchased the paper on the Place de la République sometime early in the afternoon, and walked on for a while before I took a look at it. There, on the very first page, was the shocking news that the great Hungarian poet was no more. My shock was twofold. First, of course, was the shock of grief – Illyés had looked so fit and destined for a long life that I never dreamed he would depart so soon. Secondly, I was shocked by the prominence the news was given. It was difficult to comprehend what the name of a Hungarian poet was doing among the headlines of a leading global daily, even one whose weekly literary supplement, Le Monde des Livres, had always been of high quality, well-informed, and in many ways definitive. I believe – more so in hindsight than I did at the time – that the pride of place, the homage was intended not so much for the poet, dramatist and novelist as for the spiritual phenomenon or, quite simply, the phenomenon that Illyés was, the figure who had come to emblematise, and indeed represent, the other Hungary as opposed to the officially promoted image of the country.

More likely than not, what led up to the article in Le Monde was a visit to Hungary by President François Mitterrand the previous year. Perhaps the most remarkable moment of this trip came when the President shared a private breakfast with Gyula Illyés, an event he obviously regarded as being of the same rank as his official commitments.

Mitterrand knew well that symbolic places and gestures possess a power to shape history that is every bit as potent as open violence or conventional politics. An heir to the spirit of the Treaty of Trianon, Mitterrand lent an open ear to the man who spoke in the voice of Hungarians within and beyond the national borders. His conclusion, which he presumably shared with Illyés over breakfast but refrained from uttering in public for another ten years, was that the Treaty of Trianon had been unjust, but that revising its outcome now – i.e., in 1991 – would be just as unfair.

There are two public places in Paris named after eminent Hungarians, both of them musicians. Some twenty years before the dedication of Square Béla-Bartók, a square in the 10th arrondissement had been designated as Place Franz-Liszt. On 29 April 2011, a public area in Budapest was named after the King of rock, Elvis Presley, on the initiative of Mayor István Tarlós. The official explanation recalled how the King, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show on a Sunday night on 6 January 1957, urged his audience – estimated to number 30 to 35 million viewers – to make donations to the Hungarian cause. Elvis’s career started out in 1954, and by all reckoning this date must be seen as the inception of rock’s global supremacy. In other words, the King’s rise to become the fulcrum of 20th-century music roughly coincided with the Hungarian Revolution. The Elvis Presley Park is located in the 2nd district of Budapest near Margit Bridge, although the vegetation is not yet comparable to that of Square Béla-Bartók in Paris.


Touring Italy, on 4 January 1947, Gyula Illyés made the following entry in his diary: “Ungaretti after I recited the poem yesterday: ‘What I heard from Bartók in music is what I heard from Illyés in the rhythm of his poem.’2 Illyés’s poem Bartók, a cornerstone of the poet’s oeuvre, appeared in 1956. Large-scale in conception, Bartók evidently – and intentionally – harks back to its 19th-century counterpart, Mihály Vörösmarty’s poem To Ferencz Liszt from 1841. Each poet invokes a renowned ambassador of Hungarians to the world in the voice of the people, Vörösmarty occasionally acting as a mouthpiece for not just the people but the nation. Both look to their heroes for assistance, support and guidance.

[H]ave you a cadence for the ailing land / to set to strings that play in the marrow?, Vörösmarty inquires rhetorically before he goes on to elaborate, in the second stanza, his reasons for invoking the help of Liszt, whom he sees as a Renowned musician, freeman of the world / and yet our kinsmanCenturies old, life-loads of fate and sin / have paralysed and overborne us; / dispirited, the race lived on the chain…3 Vörösmarty paints an apocalyptic picture of his country in distress, but he hopes that new life for dead desires, sick yearning may come through the agency of a musician known and recognised throughout the world. The poet expects from Liszt a song and earth-shattering sound, to be set by the renowned musician […] on strings that play in the marrow. In this poetic vision, then, music has power, because the souls of the ancestors, upon hearing the song take to wings off the resounding or concerted strings, return to stir new life to descendants, and ultimately, to waken Love of Fatherland which holds the present in its embrace, / and at the same time takes the time at hand /and in the past a fine remembrance.

It is not until the third stanza that the narrator of Illyés’s Bartók addresses the stoic, stem musician, true Magyar.4 This is where the poet places the most obvious hint to Vörösmarty’s To Ferencz Liszt, by putting in inverted commas the adjective hírhedett in order to neutralise the semantic change the word underwent over the span of a century from “renowned” to “notorious”, and therefore to pre-empt a pejorative interpretation. In the opening two lines of the poem, he unmistakably identifies the two sides or, if you will, the two camps, as they and, ostensibly allied with the narrator, us. Then, so as to leave no doubt about just who they and us might be, he repeats the opening lines at the beginning of the second stanza: “Harsh discord!” Yes! They think it thus / which brings us solace!

But who are these people for whom Bartók’s music is nothing but “harsh discord”? The poem obviously hints at the Hungarian cultural policy of the 1950s, which sought to displace Bartók from the canon, or at least to downplay his importance therein. By the same token, the poem also alludes to the uncomprehending who have repudiated the Bartók phenomenon ever since he first asserted himself as a composer. On occasion, Bartók himself commented on the ambivalent reception of his music. In 1909, when his Orchestral Suite No. 1 was performed under his own baton in Berlin, he gave the following account to his teacher István Thomán: “The effect was akin to that elicited by the waltz in Budapest: two camps, one booing, the other in standing ovation; called back on stage five times.” On the same day, 3 January, Bartók related the events to Etelka Freund as follows: “The performance had an impact as sensational as that of a bombshell. There was great resistance pitted against slightly even greater enthusiasm; the latter voices forced us to come back on stage five or six times.5

To continue with a more recent example, we might do worse than to cite the words of Imre Kertész as he recalls for his diary a Boulez-Bartók concert held in Budapest in 2011 – or, rather, his own response to the performance.6 “As the concert progressed, gradually it became perfectly clear that Bartók has failed to strike root in Hungarian culture to this day.” But how on earth can such a thing as Bartók’s alleged “rootlessness” become apparent at a philharmonic concert? Moreover, Kertész follows up on this abrupt contention by an equally abrupt theory that draws on it when he declares, “He is nourished by Hungarian roots and has remained a stranger in Hungary.” We are dealing with two assertions in one sentence here. The first is something that Bartók himself disseminated and is the generally accepted view, albeit not one without controversy. The second proposition, however, needs a demonstration. Kertész considers Bartók’s position to be an emblematic pattern: “All I mean to say by that is that everyone around here who sells modern truths in a modern tongue must be an outcast.”7 Yet Bartók has always had a loyal following. In 1937, Attila József invited Flóra Kozmutza to a Bartók concert.Whether this gesture came naturally to him or he simply wanted to impress his date, he certainly bragged about his ability to get hold of two tickets.8 Illyés also recalls, in one of his journal entries from those days, having run into Attila József at the Vigadó following another Bartók concert (relations between the two poets were chilly at the time).9

In his grand Bartók poem, written in 1955, Illyés does make reference to the concert hall, as early as in the second stanza: …let there be no peace, no gaiety / in gilded, lofty far and delicate, closed-off concert halls, / until in woe-darkened hearts! This outcry is followed by a poetic description of Bartók’s music that is focused on dissonance, almost always marshalling images of objects as the vehicles of expression: curse-clatter of splintering glass crashing to the ground / the screen of rasp / wedged in the teeth / of buzzing saw or steel grating crashing against stone. Sometimes, though, the sound sources are not material so much as human, as in woeful battle-cry or simply cry.

The Bartók of Illyés’s poem draws on folk music for inspiration to create a dissonant, discordant music whereby the voice of the people speaks in majesty. Transmuted into a cry, this music rises from great depths and aims at great heights. [W]as it ordained by law, that from the depth / of the people’s soul, whither you descended / through the trumpet, the as yet mine-shaft throat / of this pit, you should send up the cry / into this frigid-rigid giant hail whose soft-lights myriad candles are? The word nép occurs five times in the poem (the English equivalent, people, four times in Claire Lashley’s translation). It is certainly a key word here that signifies both the locus of origin and a point of return for the great musician.

Like the narrator, the artist belongs to us, the people. It is only through his mediation that we mortals can achieve that much-desired harmony, the true order. Yet the most important key word here is of course music. At first, the poem keeps shunning this vital word, only to repeat it twice in groups of three in the ninth, penultimate stanza: music, music, music. This reiteration is followed by a string of participles, sometimes purposely oxymoronic, that enumerate the possible impacts of music – presumably on Hungarians, or the people: setting them free […] praying with blasphemy […] sacrificing with sacrilege, wounding to cure, […] lifting worthy listeners to a better world. The age out of which Bartókian music can point the way is ineffably dismal.10 The 20th century is nothing but punishment, Sándor Márai writes in his diary in1950, haili ng the new year. Illyés gives us a rather similar situation report on our age: Picasso’s two-nosed women, / six-legged stallions / alone could have keened abroad / galloping, neighed out /what we have borne, we men.


But how is it that Bartók’s music can aid us? The poem speaks about two kinds of music: light, even frivolous music whose soothing melodies[…] insult my grief; the other, Bartókian music. This ambivalent effect of music was something that Plato recognised as well. The Socrates of The Republic argues that music can bring about welcome order but “if [man] carries on the softening and soothing process, in the next stage he begins to melt and waste, until he has wasted away his spirit and cut out the sinews of his soul; and he becomes a feeble warrior”. In Illyés, falsely sweet songslight- tuned Zerkovicz [sic], and grind-organ arpeggios are juxtaposed to genuine music. These two types of music work in two very different ways: in the vocabulary of the poem, one covers something, while the other reveals something. For troubles grow when they are covered, declares the seventh stanza in a line that has become an oft-cited maxim. It is in direct opposition to this act of covering that the poem goes on to address Bartók, in his capacity of musician and healerYou do us honour by revealing what is revealed to you. Here, Illyés employs much the same binary opposites that Heidegger talks about when he contrasts idle chatter to the logos or genuine utterance in his Being and Time. Chatter veils the essential and thus distances us radically from it. The truth of the logos, according to the philosopher, lies in its ability “to take out of hiddenness (Verborgenheit), to uncover (entdecken)”. Of course, the subject of Heidegger’s inquiry is speech or the logos, while Illyés’s poem is concerned with music. However, for Illyés, music has a voice, as evidenced by the title of another one of his poems. Indeed, the utterance-like quality of music is also emphasised in the poem: speaking to us as equals […] What different words are these! Human, not sham.

The great musician reveals to us the good, the bad, virtue and sin, all the while speaking to us as equals. The way Bartók’s music works, as contemplated in this poem, is akin to how Aristotle’s phobos (fear) and eleos (pity) ultimately lead to catharsisBehold the guidon: by speaking out the horror is dissolved – or, in the last stanza: and how strange, how wholesome is the salve you give: / the plaintive call, / the lament which would spring from us, / but cannot spring, / for we are born to dumb stillness of heart. Elaborating on the meaning of eleos, Hans-Georg Gadamer suggests that “the German word ‘Jammer’ (misery) is a good equivalent because it too refers not merely to an inner state but to its manifestation”.


In his monumental poem, Illyés gives us an image of Bartók that is deeply personal yet drawn with firm contours. The Bartók presented to the reader is a true Magyar who comes from the people and returns to the people, and whose dissonant music is capable of revelation (or uncovering a miracle) by shunning falsely sweet songs (which veil or cover the truth), ultimately to lift us up into a better world after much anguish and woe.

The Bartók Memorial House in Csalán utca, where Bartók lived from 1926 to 1940, has an exhibition on the second floor with the composer’s furniture on display. With a few exceptions, all the pieces are in the folk style and were crafted by the cabinet-maker Gyula Gugyi Péntek, whom Bartók got to know on his first research trip to Transylvania. Illyés’s own house in Tihany is also full of original peasant furniture. Bartók had colourfully painted chairs with a straight upright back which yield little to considerations of comfort. In the Csalán utca house, such a chair stands next to Bartók’s Bösendorfer, too – instead of a piano stool as one might expect. While the idea of pairing the concert grand with a rustic chair presumably did not originate from Bartók but from the designer of the exhibition, the association is nevertheless ingenious in that it points to the coexistence of ethnographic tradition and classical heritage in Bartók’s music.

In a letter to his mother, dated September 1903, from Gmunden, Germany, Bartók writes that “every man, upon having reached adulthood, must determine the ideal cause for which he shall strive so that he has a guidance for all his endeavour and actions. As for me, I have decided to serve a single cause at all times, in all areas of life, and by all the means available to me: the cause of the Hungarian nation and the Hungarian fatherland”.11 Looking at Bartók’s career on the whole it will become readily apparent that his pursuits followed three distinct paths, as performing artist, composer and, starting from 1907, as collector and scholar of folk music. His career as pianist took off in 1899 and continued without interruption until he emigrated to America. It was also as pianist that he took up his position, in1906, at the Piano Department of the Music Academy, where he was appointed to teach the instrument. It goes without saying that, of all these pursuits, composing music always occupied a central place throughout his career, although folk music, in which he nourished apassionate interest, was just as important to him as the two other vocations. In 1937, when Thomas Mann paid him a visit at home, Bartók did not talk to him about his own music – despite the fact that the same year had seen him complete his superb Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion – but played the writer and his wife recordings of folk music instead.12 Even as an émigré in America, at first he continued to focus on folk music research, hardly ever appearing in concert and shelving his composition projects. In those days, having been appointed visiting professor at the University of Columbia, he dedicated all of his time and energy to the temporary task of transcribing and preparing for print music recorded by Milman Parry in Serbia and Croatia.

Without a doubt, the genius of Bartók is primarily manifested in his work as a composer. Although he could rightly lay claim to fame as apianist, he remained but one of the many, and while his significance as a folklorist would be difficult to overestimate, few outside professional circles are really interested in that aspect of his work. In contrast, Bartók is undeniably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, among all the composers of the 20th century. The question then becomes whether folk music – not just of Hungary but of its neighbours – should be regarded as a formative influence for Bartók, or his oeuvre, in the words of József Újfalussy, “essentially unfolded from the great classical traditions as an organic development of universal music history”.13

In constructing the character of Adrian Leverkühn, the great – and by definition fictive – composer of the 20th century as the protagonist of Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann relied heavily on the figure of Arnold Schönberg and his atonal method of composition. We know from the Origins of Doctor Faustus that Mann, during his American tenure, frequently consulted Theodor Adorno and Schönberg himself to lend the greatest possible credibility to the character of Leverkühn. Interestingly, Bartók never entered his vision; perhaps he did not even realise Bartók was also living in the United States at the time.

In a 1931 lecture on The Influence of Folk Music on Recent Composed Music, Bartók makes very clear distinctions among trends in modern composition based on the realisation that rural folk music – which he considered aesthetically superior to urban popular music – can influence modern composers in several different ways. The composer may simply borrow folk themes and conceive an accompaniment to them, or use them as a sort of epigraph or, thirdly – and here Stravinsky comes to mind – invent a theme on his own whose character follows the spirit of folk music. That said, the significance of folk music as a thematic resource is relative, albeit it is certainly vital in one single respect: folk music is essentially tonal in character, and therefore as quotation or allusion it will be incompatible with the context of atonal or dodecaphonic composition.

A fourth possibility, and the one the mature composer embraced in his ars poetica, is to draw on both sources simultaneously. “What really matters is not the source of the theme”, Bartók argues, “but the method brought to its treatment. [] The act of shaping the theme is the act of creation itself, the true test of talent. This is why it is possible to say that incorporating folk music will not yield any significant artistic merit unless, being shaped on the hands of a gifted composer, it is transmuted into the higher order of composed music while shaping that music in its turn.14 At the beginning of his lecture, Bartók enumerates composers he regards as great formative talents who made use of folk themes in their work. The list begins with Bach and Beethoven and continues with Chopin, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Dvořak, Grieg and Smetana.

In Bartók’s own evolution as a composer, the direct inspiration of folk music evident in his early works gradually gives way to the compositions universally regarded as the pinnacle of his oeuvre, although most of these continue to bear the mark of folk music as well. Both the Concerto and the Piano Concerto No. III – two great works from Bartók’s American years – incorporate a Hungarian melody within the classicist structure. The fourth movement of the Concerto for Orchestra features a modified quotation of the melody of Szép vagy, gyönyörű vagy Magyarország (“You are so beautiful, so wonderful, Hungary” – actually a song from a 1922 operetta), while the third movement of the Piano Concerto offers a variation of a Hungarian folk dance tune. As Ferenc Bónis points out, the lyrics of this folk song precisely reflect Bartók’s state of mind at the time: Jaj Istenem, minek élek, / Ha a semmitől is félek./ Száraz levél megzörrenik, / Bennem a vér meghidegszik (“Oh Lord, why stay alive / When the smallest thing scares me? / A dry leaf stirring / makes my blood curdle”).15


It is really for their distinction as human beings that I mainly came to like and respect the great Hungarian composers”, Illyés writes in 1967. “In my poem on Bartók, too, I strove to focus on the character of the man rather than his qualities as a composer, which I can only judge from the distant perspective of someone outside the musical profession.16

By 1952, when Sándor Márai pointed to Bartók as an example of the artist underestimated in his lifetime but gaining full posthumous recognition,17 Bartók’s music had conclusively conquered concert hall audiences around the world. In the realm of the arts, Bartók is certainly the most widely recognised, most prominent Hungarian.

At the same time, Bartók was the kind of creative person who obviates the need to divorce the artist from the man of daily concerns and public affairs. In him, the homo aestheticus and the homo ethicus converge to the point of being one and the same. Just the way we like it. He draws on folk music for inspiration, from Hungary and from across the border. He rejects totalitarianism, very sharply. He is an icon; the best of the best Hungary can give the world and give itself, as also suggested by Illyés’s poem.

Each nation needs its own “lay saints”, to quote Karl Jaspers, who bear a standard and guide us through the dense, dark forest whose paths we all tread – saints we can hold up as an example to follow, for us and the world at large as we endeavour to shape the image of our nation in the eye of others. That Bartók could have been one of these “lay saints” is an idea that Illyés’s poem essentially addresses. Yet Bartók never became a national icon – the last chance for this to happen came and went in 1955. True enough, we have a public radio station named after him, and every five years a piano competition dedicated to Liszt and Bartók (sometimes to Liszt only) is held in Budapest, and in 1983 Bartók’s portrait was chosen to adorn the 1000-forint bank note – until 1998, when it was replaced by King Matthias. Yet the composer has failed to generate a genuine cult.

Why should that be the case? Probably because the very notion of music has changed since 1955. What used to belong together – literature, the fine arts, music, all once destined to reveal the hidden – have parted ways since then. What for Bartók was folk-inflected composed music, for Illyés light-tuned Zerkovicz, and grind-organ arpeggios in the poem we have looked at, or, for an older example, the wind instrument music that entertains the tuberculosis patients but elicits scorn from Settembrini in The Magic Mountain – all these versions of light music have been gradually superseded, since the emergence of Elvis, by a style of music that grew out of rock to engulf the entire world in its sound that both exploits and defines technology; the kind of music that has come to be recognised as being valid as fine art and on a par with revelatory literature. Indeed, the vanguard of Hungarian literature today, with the most sophisticated writers and poets among them, routinely reach for this sound as a point of reference for their own works.The musical taste that reigns supreme in our age often amalgamates, or at least hopes to amalgamate, folk with jazz or even classical music.This is the tendency that transformed the dulcimerist Miklós Lukács, who in 2011 was honoured with the Aegon Co-Award on the nomination of Péter Esterházy, from a classical musician into a major proponent of Hungarian ethno-jazz or, working its effect the other way round, led Bartók’s contemporary Aladár Rácz, away from “urban composed music” performed by the gipsy orchestra towards Bach and Stravinsky. The official launch of Ferenc Temesi’s recent novel about Bartók, with the eponymous title,18 was preceded by a stage performance of Lukács himself, the avant-garde jazz saxophonist Mihály Dresch, and Ádám Török’s Mini trio (self-proclaimed as “the best known and most successful proponent of progressive rock-blues in Hungary”), as if the cardinal virtue of Bartók, as opposed to other composers, lay in its ability to mesh with this new musical ethos that has been legitimised by the nation’s authors; as if this could be just what we needed to have Bartók salvaged and rescued for us.

More than ever in this day and age of ours, when everything is suffused with irony, we are in dire need of examples we can follow – authentic, credible personalities who accomplished things of greatness, whom we can look up to and emulate. Bartók can hardly be expected to be one of them anymore. At first sight, that leaves us with a no-name Megastar. Or perhaps with something else, too: a Hungary that is so beautiful, so wonderful – a pastiche in Bartók, to be sure, but heartfelt praise once the irony connecting the disfigured with the ideal is reversed. And we could certainly do worse than be left with the wisdom of Illyés in the central dictum of his poem: For troubles grow when they are covered.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel


1 Gyula Illyés took a rather similar view of Bartók’s personality. “To me, Bartók equals triumphant passion”, he wrote in February 1973. “To the end of his life, he remained the passionate Hungarian who, as an admirer of Kossuth in his youth, had fervently desired to call attention to that to which he devoted his life.” Gyula Illyés, Naplójegyzetek 1973–74 [Journal Entries 1973–1974], Budapest, Szépirodalmi, 1990, p. 57.

2 Gyula Illyés, Naplójegyzetek 1946–1960, [Journal Entries 1946–1960], Budapest, Szépirodalmi, 1987, p. 167.

3 This and all subsequent quotations of the works of Vörösmarty are from the translation by Alan Dixon. (Translator’s note.)

4 This and all subsequent quotations of the works of Illyés are from the translation by Claire Lashley. (Translator’s note.)

5 Bartók Béla levelei [Béla Bartók’s Letters], ed. János Demény, Budapest, Művelt Nép, 1951, p. 87.

6 Imre Kertész, Mentés másként [Salvage in a Different Way]Budapest, Magvető, 2011, p. 182.

7 Op. cit., p. 129.

8 Mrs Gyula Illyés, József Attila utolsó hónapjairól [On the Last Months of the Life of Attila József], BudapestSzépirodalmi, 1987, pp. 117–118.

9 Op. cit., p. 118.

10 Sándor Márai, A teljes Napló 1950–51 [The Complete Journal 1950–1951]Budapest, Helikon, 2009, p. 7.

11 Quoted by József Újfalussy in “Bartók Béla”. In Bence Szabolcsi–Aladár Tóth, Zenei lexicon [Encyclopaedia of Music], BudapestZeneműkiadó, 1965, p. 159.

12 Letter of Thomas Mann to János Demény. Published by Dr Géza Kovách in Nyugati Jelen, April 2003, pp. 26–27.

13 Újfalussy, op. cit., p. 166.

14 Béla Bartók, Mi a népzene? [What is folk music?]

15 Ferenc Bónis, Ötvenegy kommentár Bartók amerikai élet-képeihez [Fifty-One Commentaries to Bartók’s American Anecdotal Pictures], Hitel, September 2006, pp. 63–64.

16 Gyula Illyés, A költő felel [The Poet Answers], p. 265.

17 Sándor Márai, A teljes Napló 1952–1953 [The Complete Journal 1952–1953]Budapest, Helikon, 2009.

18 Ferenc Temesi, Bartók, Budapest, Alexandra, 2012.

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