The expression “most Hungarian” is a stupid one, but somehow this is what comes to mind when mentioning Bartók’s Concerto. Yet he wrote it 7000 km from Hungary, in his voluntary exile, and there is not a single folk song quotation in it, even though it is in English, which refers to a Western European baroque form, even though his music is completely universal and, if you like, international.
In spite of all that. It’s not homesickness or despair or pain that this music transmits to me. What the sounds outline is a picture of a perfect Hungary that never existed, but which Bartók nevertheless made an inner reality. Of his personal homeland.
The crickets and frogs in the Elegy (3rd Movement) may have been roosting at Saranac Lake in the US, where Bartók composed his piece, but the melody of that Szekler lament in the movement still unmistakably places this magical night on the other side of the ocean. In the 4th Movement, the quotation of “You are beautiful, you are wonderful, Hungary” is not, in my opinion, a protagonist, merely a scenery element, yet it adds a Carpathian Basin watermark to a movement that is bustling with world upheaval and cataclysm. Just as the accents of the second movement’s playful couplets unmistakably echo the weight formulae of Hungarian folk dance music – either way, this cosmopolitan symphony speaks Hungarian.
And it makes me smile just to know that this Hungarian language is understood all over the world. Ady, Attila József, Kosztolányi did not have the privilege of these two together: the beautiful Hungarian language and the world at large that understands it. Bartók did – but it’s his personal tragedy that only after his death. Today, however, the Concerto is undoubtedly the most performed and recorded Hungarian piece in the world, which speaks more eloquently than any far-fetched Hungarianism or “Hungaricum” about a great man and about us: our language, our homeland. Listen to it, withhold and learn. For there is something to learn and someone to learn it from.
Author: Máté Hámori