December 1898: A young man of 17 travels to Vienna for an audition. He has worked the piano for years and written a few compositions: a string quartet, a piano quartet, a few melodies for piano and voice. He is nervous, certainly. Vienna – the musical center of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. But all goes well, he is accepted at the conservatory and he even is awarded a scholarship by the emperor. But the young man decides otherwise. Bela Bartok prefers to study close to home, in Budapest, where in 1875 the Royal Academy of National Hungarian Music has been inaugurated, in the wake of a national awakening in the multi-ethnic empire. The name of its director is Franz Liszt.
In 1933 Zoltan Kodaly wrote a symphonic poem called “The Dances of Galanta”. Galanta is a small town in what is today Slovakia. It used to be part of Hungary, and Kodaly spent several years here when he was a young. A well-known gypsy band stimulated the boy’s interest in music and gave him a first idea of harmony and melody. “The Dances of Galanta”, written to mark the 80th anniversary of the Philharmonic Society Orchestra in Budapest, take up material form 18th-century verbunkos dances, and became Kodaly’s most popular work.
It took a minute until I understood: R. Sch. Hommage à R. Sch. Robert Schumann. It was late at night, I was tired and my last intellectual effort of the day dealt with the 10th anniversary of the Japanese music festival Viola Space in 2002. One of the pieces performed there was György “Hommage à R. Sch.”, composed in 1990 for clarinet, viola and piano, Op.15/d. Schumann was an avid reader of Romantic books, like those written by the German novelists Jean Paul and E. T. A. Richter. Kurtag, a contemporary Hungarian composer, wrote this piece as a reverence to Schumann, the fictive persons Eusebius, Florestan and Master Raro, two of them being used by Schumann as pen names, and the Kapellmeister Kreisler that gave Schumann’s “Kreisleriana” its name.
Pompous, clear-cut, irritating, frightening, oppressive, siege mentality, bunker atmosphere, reinforced concrete, hard, sharp – the aesthetics of Hitler and Stalin. Those were my associations when I listened to Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (BB 123, SZ. 116) for the first time, more than two years ago. A brutal piece, a fascinating piece, one that I have grown fond of over time.