Hungary Torn

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Hungary Torn, performed on May 2, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

The consequences of the rise of fascism in the 1930s and the Second World War have continued to command our attention, despite the passage of time. The reasons are largely obvious. During the war, millions of civilians were systematically selected by racial criteria, brutalized, and murdered. The destruction of the population and culture of the Jews of Europe was the result of fascism (particularly Nazism) and the war. The German initiative and widespread European complicity stand as reminders of a specifically modern barbarism. It revealed how hollow was the character of what was once understood as progress. The perpetration of violence and hate against innocent men, women, and children was the work of civilized, literate individuals living in an advanced industrial civilization. Terror, death, and dehumanization were justified by highly educated individuals, ranging from jurists to scholars, artists, university professors, and musicians. Dissent and resistance were minimal.

In recent decades attention has been given to what happened to musicians who suffered, died, and were persecuted. There have been many studies of emigration and exile. There has been also a systematic excavation of the music of composers who died in the concentration camps. The names Viktor Ullmann and Erwin Schulhoff have now become somewhat familiar to concert goers and performers.

The focus of these investigations has not only been on victims, but on patterns of collaboration. It is odd that some cases quickly became quite well known—as in the examples of Hans Pfitzner, Richard Strauss, Walter Gieseking, and Wilhelm Furtwängler—while equally egregious cases were left in relative obscurity and led to no consequences in the post-war years—as in the cases of Karl Böhm and Carl Orff.

However, as the above list indicates, the primary focus has been on events in German-speaking Europe. Tonight’s concert goes beyond that frame, to Hungary and its history between the wars and during the Second World War. For most Americans, Hungarian history (with the exception of the Revolution of 1956) is less known. The Hungary that emerged from World War I was not only broken away from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire in its post-1867 legal incarnation, but it did not include all Hungarian-speaking peoples. Like Germany, a reduced Hungary felt betrayed by what were regarded as punitive peace settlements, particularly the Treaty of Trianon of 1920.

By the late 1930s, in order to appease Nazi Germany, Hungary had passed its own restrictive laws against Jews. In the interwar period, Hungary witnessed its own brand of fascism in the form of the Arrow Cross movement. In 1940, the Hungarian government became allied with the Axis powers. In 1944, German troops occupied Hungary and the Arrow Cross took control. This led to the rapid deportation of Hungary’s Jews and mass killings, as well as the heroic efforts at rescue by the legendary Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

In 1918, Hungary’s capital, Budapest, was legendary for its high percentage of Jewish inhabitants. (It still boasts the largest Jewish population of any city in central Europe outside of Russia.) The percentage of the population in 1918 that was Jewish reached 23%, inspiring German-speaking anti-Semites (German was the city’s second language until 1945) to dub the city “Juda-pest,” the “Jewish plague.” Yet Hungarian Jews, particularly in Budapest, assimilated with relative ease within Hungarian culture and society in a manner comparable to the German Jewish experience before 1914. Their contributions to science, art, and culture were disproportionately high.

For tonight’s concert, the young musician and scholar Péter Bársony has unearthed from the archives music by four Hungarian composers who suffered in this history. Three of them perished in the war. One, Ödön Pártos, emigrated to Palestine where he played a major role in the development of the musical life of Israel. And it should be noted that after 1945, Hungarian Jewry continued to contribute to the nation’s musical culture, as the post-war careers of Leó Weiner, György Ligeti, and György Kurtág, Hungary’s greatest living composer, suggest.

Most concerts of music by victims of the Holocaust become memorials. The ASO wanted to honor the music of these lesser-known victims by placing it in a concert format that went beyond the status of a eulogy for the composers as victims. For that reason, we have chosen to end the concert with a great unknown work by perhaps the least-known figure within the legendary triumvirate of Hungarian composers of the 20th century. That triumvirate consisted of Béla Bartók, Zoltän Kodály, and Ernő Dohnányi. Bartók emigrated to America in 1940. He was a staunch opponent of fascism and resented the attempt during the 1930s to appropriate his path-breaking ethnographic work on folk music and his uses of folk sources in his own music on behalf of a racialist nationalism which he, a true patriot, did not share. Kodály remained in Budapest, sought to protect Jewish colleagues, and was arrested by the Gestapo, but lived to become Communist Hungary’s most celebrated composer and a pioneer in music pedagogy.

Dohnányi, the oldest of the three, suffered from a mix of bad luck and poor judgment. He stayed in Budapest until late 1944, when the city became a war zone. He was photographed shaking hands with the notorious head of the Arrow Cross movement. He concertized during the war in Germany. But he was truly a man of little political sense. He opposed anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 1930s; but he wished to remain as long as he could in his homeland as a practicing artist, despite the politics.

After the war, Dohnányi went through a trying de-Nazification investigation. He was not only a truly gifted composer but a great pianist and conductor. However, his reputation was damaged and he was forced to leave Europe. After a sojourn in Argentina, he relocated in 1949 to the University of Florida in Tallahassee, where he worked as a teacher until his death in 1960. Ironically, he died just as his career as a pianist was enjoying a renascence as the result of his remarkable recordings of the late Beethoven sonatas. But his standing as a composer still awaits its proper recognition. Over the years, the ASO has pioneered in this effort, performing in concert his two symphonies and his Konzertstück for cello and orchestra, and recording his Harp Concertino with ASO’s own principal harpist, Sara Cutler.

The placing of Dohnányi’s magnificent Mass as the final work on tonight’s program is intended to return the music of those who were victims to its proper context—as part of a noble 20th-century tradition of high art music within Hungary, a country with a keen national sensibility, and a Catholic majority, as well as a significant Calvinist minority. The Mass, composed in 1930, also points out the vulnerability of traditional culture, religion, and communal feelings of national solidarity when faced with the aggressive, reductive, and cruel politics of prejudice and xenophobia, and with the rejection of democratic practices that secure freedom and dissent and which protect us from the tyranny of the majority and of a single ideology.

One might have hoped that these dangers would in the 21st century be merely matters of historical memory. But apparently the lessons of history have not yet been learned quite as well as we might wish in contemporary Europe, including in the new democracies that came into being after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War.