Music Divided

Bartok's Legacy in Cold War Culture
By Danielle Fosler-Lussier

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24965-3

Chapter One

Bart��k's Concerto for Orchestra and the Demise of Hungary's "Third Road"

The years immediately after the conclusion of the Second World War were turbulent ones in Hungary. Occupation by the Soviet army and food shortages made people's everyday lives difficult, but the end of hostilities also brought the hope of establishing a democracy and renewing concert life. This was a moment of great openness, when all political and musical possibilities could be discussed frankly and their validity debated. The events of this period present a rare opportunity to glimpse Hungarian musicians' ideas about their musical future just before their choices were restricted by the increasingly severe policies of the Communist regime that came to power in 1948. That Hungary would follow the Soviet road, politically or musically, was by no means a foregone conclusion: only the passage of time and the gradual accumulation and exercise of political power made it seem that way in retrospect. This early and chaotic postwar period is worth our attention, for here, through music and words about music, the historical voices of Hungarian composers point the way to a musical "road not taken," a road that existed in the minds of Hungarian intellectuals but would not be realized.

After the "liberation" of Hungary by the Red Army in 1945, most Hungarians had no idea that new assaults on their freedom were soon to follow. Even as late as 1946 and 1947, Hungarians, and especially leftist Hungarians, had good reason to feel optimistic about the future of their new "People's Democracy," as the East Bloc states were then known. During these early years the Soviet Union allowed the People's Democracies considerable independence as national entities separate from the Soviet Union. It seemed likely that Hungary would pursue socialism in its own way: M��ty��s R��kosi, the secretary general of the Hungarian Communist Party, stated in 1946 that the party would embrace a "Socialism born on Hungarian soil and adapted to Hungarian conditions." The idea that Hungary's path should be neither wholly Eastern European nor wholly Western European had circulated among Hungarian intellectuals for years; since this position advocated a third, unique alternative, it was often referred to as Hungary's "third road." In a 1945 article, the Hungarian writer Istv��n Bib�� defined the third road as follows: "Anyone who wants to turn Hungary into a Soviet member state is a traitor; anyone who wants to restore the Habsburg [monarchy] in Hungary is a traitor; but anyone who wants to present Hungary with the false dichotomy that it may choose only one of these two is a traitor twice over, because between the two there lies a third road, the only correct road: the possibility of a democratic, independent, free Hungary that practices a balanced but radical program of reform." The idea that Hungarians could negotiate a path between the great powers of the Soviet and Western European empires guided those who sought to reestablish Hungarian cultural life after the upheavals of war. To the leftists who wanted to gain control over the state and its resources, the third road meant a gradual rather than a revolutionary approach to socialism, and this strategy helped the party win support among intellectuals, including many of Hungary's composers. Although the Communists' consolidation of power was already beginning to affect government and industry by 1947, it had relatively little effect on cultural life at first, leaving musicians free to compose as they wished and to argue about what new music should sound like in a new society.

Particularly heated debate surrounded the arrival of B��la Bart��k's Concerto for Orchestra, first performed in Hungary on 22 April 1947. Bart��k had died in New York City in 1945, after five years of exile; during the war and the turmoil that followed, his countrymen had no opportunity to hear the music he had composed in the United States. When the late works were finally performed in Budapest, Hungarian musicians were taken aback: the style of this music differed dramatically from what they had anticipated. In a review of the concerto, S��ndor Jemnitz uneasily commented, "This work leaves no one indifferent: it seizes and shakes its listeners, but they cannot make heads or tails of it, despite the greatness of the impression they received."

Some musicians who revered Bart��k's modernist music saw the concerto as a surprising simplification of his style. As the composer and critic Endre Szerv��nszky described it, "Quite a few appraised the work's easy accessibility as chasing after success, as giving in to the dollar, and there were some who explained the multiplicity of styles in the concerto as the exhaustion of Bart��k's creative energy." Several critics questioned whether Bart��k had compromised his artistic integrity; one even called the concerto "the selling out of the spirit of modern music." Even some musicians who praised the concerto out of loyalty to Bart��k still acknowledged that the piece represented a certain softening of the composer's style, one that might be forgivable on the part of a dying composer but almost certainly revealed an unfortunate turn away from the progressive musical values of the 1920s and 1930s.

Others, however, spoke favorably of the concerto's easy accessibility and its communicative power. Endre Szerv��nszky, for instance, wrote: "In our opinion, Bart��k, who is one of the most powerful musical innovators of the recent history of music, showed the path ahead in this work too. The slogan of the work could be this: `Out from the coldly lit world of the laboratory-out among the people!' ... In easily intelligible, melodious language, sometimes perhaps in conventional harmonic and formal expression, but always in a sincere, pure tone, he communicates his deeply human message." Coming from Szerv��nszky, himself a composer who sympathized profoundly with the aesthetic goals of modern music articulated by Bart��k and others, the description of the Concerto for Orchestra as music's emergence out of a cold, impersonal laboratory might have seemed surprising. Nonetheless, like several other composers of his generation, Szerv��nszky believed that socialism might enhance musical life by providing greater access to music for a wider variety of people. Thus, in his article, written for a Communist newspaper, he celebrated the concerto as an important step toward art music that might communicate intelligibly to the broadest possible audience. (Neither Szerv��nszky nor any other socialist critic mentioned the apparent parodistic reference in the concerto's fourth movement to Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, although Szerv��nszky did mention that the concerto contained humorous moments that evoked laughter. Perhaps the critics sidestepped this issue to avoid suggesting that the concerto itself could be a critique of socialist music.)

These positive and negative responses to the concerto did not correspond precisely to their authors' political affiliations; they reflected a complicated mix of aesthetic, personal, and political loyalties. Even though one might be tempted to presume that most Communists would share the agenda of making music more accessible, there was in fact no agreement among Communists about how to judge the concerto. Although some praised the piece, others, like the composer P��l Kadosa, continued to express dissatisfaction with it because it seemed to refute the premises of the modern music they held dear. Each of these positions was perceived by its proponents as springing from a deep loyalty to Bart��k: the pro-concerto position from a personal loyalty to Bart��k that transcended any particular style or technique, and the anti-concerto position from a more specific loyalty to Bart��k's modernist music of the 1920s. Kadosa in particular remained faithful to Bart��k's modernism even as he espoused Communist politics; the involuted melodies and rhythmic complexity characteristic of the middle of Bart��k's career also resonate in several of Kadosa's postwar works, such as his 1948 Capriccio Symphony.

Over the next few years, the more favorable interpretation of Bart��k's concerto continued to be a viable position in public music criticism; indeed, glowing praise of the late works seemed a more or less officially sanctioned opinion. The modernist grumblings about Bart��k's late works, on the other hand, gradually disappeared from view. This change reflected not a sudden shift in aesthetic principles, but the altered political atmosphere in which critical writings were produced and published. Between 1948 and 1950 those who cherished modernist styles would be compelled either to reevaluate and defend their opinions or to withdraw into silence.


The most immediate impetus behind these changes was the Soviet Communist Party's notorious resolution on music. On 10 February 1948, following a series of hearings convened by the leading cultural ideologist, Andrei Zhdanov, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party issued a statement intended to serve as a blueprint for the development of music both in the Soviet Union and throughout the East Bloc. The resolution's stated purpose was to denounce the opera The Great Friendship by Vano Muradeli, but it reached much further than that, chastising several Soviet composers and presenting criteria for the creation of music that was appropriate to the development of socialist societies. This was the fourth and last in a series of cultural reforms, collectively known as the Zhdanovshchina, led by Zhdanov in various branches of the arts after the war.

The decree declared that Muradeli's opera was discordant and unmelodious, that it failed to incorporate folk and popular idioms, and that it neglected to follow the forms of classic opera. Muradeli's opera, according to the Central Committee, was thus characteristic of a more general trend toward formalism in the works of leading Soviet composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, and Aram Khachaturian:

The characteristic marks of this music are the negation of the basic principles of classical music: the cult of atonality, the dissonance and discord supposedly expressive of "progress" and "novelty" in the development of musical form, the rejection of such a vital principle of musical composition as melody, and enthusiasm for confused, neuropathological combinations which transform music into cacophony, into a chaotic medley of sounds. This music reeks strongly of the odor of the contemporary, modernistic, bourgeois music of Europe and America which reflects the decay of bourgeois culture, the total negation, the impasse of musical art.

Formalism, according to the resolution, was also marked by a lack of attention to the composition of music in vocal genres, which it imputed to composers' scorn for the art of melody. Referring to the 1936 condemnation of Shostakovich that had appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda, the resolution made it clear that insufficient progress had been made in music since that time and demanded that composers abandon the use of formalist techniques. The committee's closing statement indicated that organizational measures would soon be taken for the improvement of this unacceptable musical situation.

The Central Committee's stated aim of ensuring that music develop "in the direction of realism" made more explicit the philosophical outlook that stood behind all the accusations against the Soviet composers. The Soviet regime articulated the fundamental principles of socialist realism as narodnost' ("peopleness"), klassovost' ("classness"), and partiinost' ("partyness")-in other words, art should be of the people, support the cause of the oppressed and revolutionary social class, and identify with the Communist Party. These three principles would continue to form the foundations of art criticism in the East Bloc even after the death of Stalin in 1953.14 The charge of formalism in music, for example, was primarily an extension of the idea that music must exhibit narodnost', a vague equivalent of Volkst��mlichkeit or "folksiness." Because music with no clear topical or referential content could appeal only to the narrow class trained to enjoy it, the party's official position favored opera, simpler songs, and other genres that might be more easily understood by more people. Thus, Zhdanov and his colleagues dismissed music in which the primary interest was the abstract play of sound and form in favor of music with an explicit plot or easy-to-follow tunes, as well as a text that could easily be censored. As we will see, even Hungarians who embraced socialism were not quick to align themselves with the musical values espoused by the Central Committee, but these values did eventually come to be enforced in Hungary.

The full text of the Central Committee's resolution on music was published in the Hungarian press a week after it was issued in the Soviet Union. Composers and critics alike wondered to what extent the resolution would apply to people living outside the Soviet Union but within the Soviet sphere of influence. Szerv��nszky remarked that the resolution brought wholly unfamiliar problems to the attention of Hungarian artists:

The Soviet Communist Party's harsh criticism of Soviet music has stirred up Hungarian musical public opinion to an extraordinary extent.... The primary thing that is entirely unusual for the Hungarian public is that in the Soviet Union artistic problems are on the agenda of the Communist Party. We must clarify for our readers that in the socialist state cultural problems, and thus music, are matters of public interest. Cultural factors possess just as important a social function as the problems of politics or economics. Thus, the current intervention into musical life is understandable.

That Szerv��nszky felt the need to explain this aspect of the resolution to his readers indicates that, as he stated, the kind of intervention practiced by the Soviet Communist Party was upsetting to many Hungarians. Though censorship had been practiced in prewar Hungary, this kind of wide-ranging official rebuke was shocking to many Hungarian composers; they expressed concerns about artistic freedom and wondered fearfully whether the Soviet resolution would apply to them. Some also worried specifically about what the resolution implied for their national tradition, particularly for Bart��k.

Communist music critics in Hungary tried to allay these fears, insisting that as long as art remained connected with the folk, it would not run afoul of Communist principles. Several interpreted the resolution as favorable to Bart��k-for Bart��k's music featured folk melodies and classical forms and could therefore serve as a model for the kind of populism the Soviet Communist Party sought to achieve. Szerv��nszky, for instance, came to Bart��k's defense, saying that "in Bart��k's music ... we constantly perceive the formal principles of Bach and Beethoven." The Hungarian composer Andr��s Mih��ly, too, spoke in Bart��k's favor: he explained that Bart��k was different from other modernists because he had "turn[ed] back from the cold emptiness of the unbounded freedom of fantasy toward the warm, human, voluntary boundaries of communal language." Lajos Vargyas, a former student of Zolt��n Kod��ly, maintained that Bart��k and Kod��ly firmly espoused the very same aesthetic principles as those advocated by the Central Committee, and that their music was therefore already compatible with the resolution's demands, far superior to any decadent Western European music. Vargyas's article was something of a preemptive strike: his claim that Hungarian composers were musically and ideologically superior to those of Western Europe supported an argument that Hungarian musical life did not need to be rebuilt on the model of Soviet music. The implication of these essays and others like them was that the humanity, folksiness, and classicism of Bart��k's music would surely shelter it from criticism under the Soviet guidelines.

Nationalism played a key role in these interpretations of the Soviet resolution. Although Hungarian Communists regarded the Soviet Union as more experienced in political socialism, most had no reason to believe in its cultural superiority. On the contrary, they continued to prize their own musical traditions above all others. Mih��ly went so far as to speculate that since the best Soviet composers had been criticized as formalists, and since Bart��k seemed to fulfill the party's criteria for populist music, perhaps the vanguard of socialist music would arise not in the Soviet Union but in Hungary. He explained that the creation of music appropriate to a socialist society was not a question of mere goodwill or talent, such as that of Shostakovich or Prokofiev, but a matter of real genius. He then went on to ask, "Is it certain that this creative musical genius will appear on Soviet soil? According to the lessons of history, absolutely not." For Mih��ly, there was no reason to believe that the Soviet tradition would prove any more fertile than the Hungarian tradition of Bart��k and Kod��ly.

The young music critic J��zsef Ujfalussy also saw Bart��k's legacy as a musical force that would have more than just local importance. Ujfalussy explained that "thanks to the work of the two great artists [Bart��k and Kod��ly], new Hungarian musical production has found in Hungarian and Eastern European folk music a firm foundation for the cultivation of art music of the highest quality that slowly will conquer the entire world...." Ujfalussy's triumphal imagery expressed a dream that was cherished by many Hungarian musicians during this otherwise demoralizing period: that Hungarian music-the tradition of Bart��k and Kod��ly-would emerge as a model for, or even the basis of, a new international socialist music tradition. This hope for the future of Bart��k's music was intimately bound up with the hope that Hungary would be able to follow a third road, a path between Eastern and Western European cultural powers. Mih��ly's and Ujfalussy's arguments suggest that just as Hungarians planned to follow their own unique path to political socialism, they also intended to follow their own path to socialist music, the path indicated by Bart��k in his late works.


Excerpted from Music Dividedby Danielle Fosler-Lussier Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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