Hungarian nationalism in Liverpool

A coincidence makes me want to scream, but I was on my way home alone and so thought better of it. I screamed internally, and filtered this through some texts.

I had left a concert and was walking downhill to the bus stop. The routes to my bus stops vary, but I decided to swerve the barbarism of a Saturday night in Liverpool, going down Brownlow Hill towards Lime Street Station, a relatively unpeopled route. I would then cross to St George’s Hall and go further downhill via William Brown Street. The bus stop I’d chosen was on Victoria Street near the Birkenhead (officially ‘Queensway’) Tunnel.

Although I had spent the evening listening to music in the Leggate Theatre of the University of Liverpool’s Victoria Museum (the building designed by Alfred Waterhouse that gave rise to the idea of the ‘Redbrick University’), I immediately plugged in my iPod. The piece I had chosen for my journey home was Bartók’s Cantata Profana (A kilenc csodaszarvas; The 9 Enchanted Stags) (1930), a relatively short but powerful work for chorus, soloists and orchestra. This choice may not have been all that random; amongst the LPs I had bought earlier in the day in a basement vinyl store on Bold Street was a set of Bartók’s Piano Concertos (No. 1, 1926; No. 2, 1930-1; No. 3, 1945) and Rhapsody Op. 1 (1904) in the legendary recording from the late 1950s by Géza Anda, Ferenc Fricsay and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. A Hungarian cultural document if ever there was one, with the exception of the accompanying German orchestra. The vinyl store had opened a couple of years ago but I had never ventured down. It was only at the instigation of a friend of a friend who was visiting the city and who wanted to browse the retro clothes shop sharing the same premises that I ended up there at all. In any case, it was only until recently that I had started to buy vinyl, after the person I live with acquired one of those portable record players that have a vintage appearance but in which USBs can be used.

The requirements and challenges of Cantata Profana‘s scoring mean it is seldom performed, and similarly there are few recordings; by far the most impressive, though, is Pierre Boulez’s with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with the tenor John Aler and baritone John Tomlinson. Cantata Profana‘s difficulties lie in the polyphony of the choral writing, and in the example at least of the tenor solo a vocal style pushed to the limit of its tessitura. Singing in the original Hungarian heightens such challenges, which must place even the very best amateur symphonic choirs somewhat outside their German and Italian comfort zones. Bartók is no less demanding on his large orchestral forces – instrumentally this music is far from an easy ride, especially for the brass. Rhythmic syncopations and harmonic density combine to create a sheer mass of sound that, in this recording at least, is awesome. The subject matter as well as the style is Hungarian, a simple parable of rural youth but couched in a highly evolved modernist language that bears the unmistakable signature of its composer.

Hungarian/Bartók: impossible to wrench the one from the other. Arguably Hungarian and Modernism are natural bedfellows too: from Liszt (yes, Liszt: he made it all happen by establishing Budapest’s Academy of Music) and Bartók to Ligeti, Eötvös, and Kurtág, Hungary has been the bedrock for the advancement of music for quite some time.

The ‘night music’ episodes across Bartók’s oeuvre are especially characteristic with regard to the question of his signature. ‘I devoted myself with especial love to conducting the slow movements of Bartók’s masterworks’ Fricsay is quoted in an essay on the conductor included in the Piano Concertos recording:

These movements evoke the darkness which we can only sense but cannot know. Ominous, bodily or ghostly shadows emerge for brief moments. Hallucinations afflict man in his isolation. This is music of despair, and dread of what is to come. The darkness of the world’s mysterious night is captured in sound for ever.

I took the path marked out in the grass rather than the paved version as it was a large area to traverse and I didn’t want to waste time. I walked along a desire path, an unofficial cut created by the repeated tramping of pedestrians who refuse to follow the preordained route. It was dry, hard mud, almost as regular as the pavement. When does a desire path cease being such? Should we desire otherwise, mark out our own way through the terrain, subverting subversion? There’s never anything truly desirous about desire paths, formed as they are by the socially conservative impulse to give authority a taste of its own medicine. Desire paths end up controlling others as much as the authorities control us. They should be singular but end up meeting authority on its own terms, only at more peculiar angles. A truly singular desire path, on the other hand (on the other foot), would seek to form impressions on untrodden grass each and every time, pedestrians zigzagging space in defiance of the linear.

Thoughts about desire paths and the Hungarian language jostled for attention as Cantata Profana streamed down my ears. Not anything specific about Hungarian, it has to be said. I don’t speak the language, knowing few of its words and even less about its grammar. It just occurred to me – it always does, actually – listening to Cantata Profana how important it is that the text is sung in Hungarian. The language lends itself to Bartók’s sound world, his approach to rhythm inextricable from the patterns and emphases of his mother tongue. (Bartók of course undertook ethnographic research on the musical culture of his own nation. A photograph of the composer surrounded by villagers as he operates a recording device is often reproduced to confirm the influence of non-classical sources on the language of classical music in the twentieth century.)

And so, for me at least, the Hungarian language remains the great unknown. But Bartók opens the door for us, even in his purely instrumental writing. Hungarians, as well as fluent Hungarian speakers, might elucidate Bartók’s String Quartets in ways monoglots can only imagine: something to do with accent and attack, vowel sounds detectable in particular sonorities. It is unlike any language (Bartók’s music and his mother tongue). It’s as if it has been transplanted from elsewhere, somehow at odds with its European context. (The same is said about Finnish.) All this tempts considerations about national identity: Was Bartók a nationalist? I have never sought to find out, avoiding the moment that changes everything when you are forced to recognise something unpalatable about the cultural figure you revere. In any case, I have always assumed that his intellectual and artistic respect for the Hungarian language would transcend crude forms of nationalism. His music – art in its entirety – seems to suggest that if we are rooted, we are so in the language and forms that hold the promise of equal respect for all languages. Yet, as Paul Griffiths writes in the liner notes to Boulez’s Deutsche Grammophon recording: [Bartók’s] whole life as a musician – as composer, pianist, and folklorist – was dedicated to the pursuit of the authentic, the natural, the unsullied: hence, for instance, his enthusiasm for the modal tunes he found in remote villages and not for the “debased” music of the towns.’ This puts a rather different spin on any interpretation of that infamous of urban parables The Miraculous Mandarin (1919), Bartók’s most popular work and one in which the image of the city is far from unsullied. What counts for ‘authentic’ and ‘natural’ in this seedy urban setting is its irredeemable criminality. They just can’t help themselves, it’s all their fault. Ironically, the composer mined possibly his richest seam at thoughts of such a fallen world: The Miraculous Mandarin sits alongside Stravinsky’s Rite as one of the twentieth century’s masterworks.

The composer who produced The Miraculous Mandarin and Cantata Profana also penned Kossuth (1903), a symphonic poem depicting the exploits of the leader of Hungarian independence. Paradoxically, Bartók’s language in this overtly nationalist work reflects the kind of cosmopolitanism rooted in the cultural traditions of Central European cities: namely that of Richard Strauss, whose influence on Kossuth‘s post-Romantic style is impossible to deny. But this music is not the most sophisticated example of the composer’s output. It seems Bartók had not yet discovered his own idiom at the time he was clearly reflecting on what it meant to be Hungarian.

I know Kossuth but rarely listen to it. It may have something to do with the convenience of the iPod and the levels of laziness this device encourages around uploading other recordings from your collection, but Cantata Profana and The Wooden Prince, along with Four Orchestral Pieces, the Concerto for Orchestra, and the String Quartets, have pride of place. Out of all the works listed here, Cantata Profana is accessed more often than the others: this is likely to do with its duration, concision, palette of moods and colours, rhythmic vitality and lyrical fluency. All of this in under twenty minutes. Bartók for the bus.

I neared Lime Street Station. Lord Nelson Street, which runs uphill from the Station, is narrow and tight, inevitably awash with taxis and tourists. For the most part (or at least on one side) the street’s pre-twentieth century origins remain intact. A budget hotel and offices for Network Rail, on the left, are architectural excrescences that ruin the balance of the street. A once handsomely proportioned thoroughfare has been skewed by developments whose elevations fail to run flush with the pavement. I approached Trafalgar Warehouse, lying somewhere in the middle. The hotel opposite – its abject ugliness, the way in which the architects have attempted to relieve a purely functional exterior constructed from unattractive materials by setting it at a fussy angle to the street – overwhelms the nineteenth century building’s expansive dimensions. Trafalgar Warehouse contains valuable lessons in how to merge the functional with the aesthetic, as even a short walk around Liverpool will prove across many examples of the language of warehouse architecture.

I have walked up and down Lord Nelson Street many times but not regularly enough to notice small additions to any of its buildings. This time I noticed. Located next to the main entrance of Trafalgar Warehouse was the following:







ON 14-15 APRIL 1856.





A sharp intake of breath as I read, stunned, Cantata Profana continuing to play. The urge to scream overwhelmed me which, as I said earlier, I had to suppress. The plaque must have been unveiled only recently, as the year indicates. (I am writing this at the end of March 2017, in fact on the very day British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 and Britain’s exit from the European Union.) I’d heard nothing in the media about the ceremony for this plaque, which is surprising given the uniqueness of the individual and occasion being commemorated. Why Liverpool? Kossuth was speaking in Liverpool seven years after the fight for Hungarian independence, which means in all likelihood he was engaged on some sort of speaking tour during which he would have related his picaresque experiences to an audience who might have considered him a celebrity. But ‘impassioned speeches’ implies (or we may reliably infer) that his appearance was ideological, at the very least polemical. Kossuth’s visit to Liverpool is the kind of charged event given passing reference in the memoirs of famous writers, an incidental moment in the intellectual and cultural life of a city whose significance grows as history lurches on.

In Liverpool, the most recent Pevsner Architectural Guide to the city, Joseph Sharples notes in relation to Lord Nelson Street the ‘early C19 terrace, and at Nos. 17-19 the former Socialist Hall of Science, c. 1840, subsequently used as a concert hall’ (Yale University Press, 2004). ‘Socialist Hall of Science’ is a bit of a mouthful for the stag and hen weekend crowd, and so the building’s current owners have opted instead for ‘Trafalgar Warehouse’, a name more redolent of NYC lofts than the dubious back passageway adjacent to Liverpool’s rail terminus. Still, even the vodka-soaked hordes cannot erase through their aggressive jollity the tide of history lapping at their bloodstained heels. The ambience of Lord Nelson Street sets the spectral compass ticking frenetically like the eyelids of revellers who have indulged in way too much nitrous oxide for their own good. The present is in abeyance, fended off by the ghosts of Kossuth and Socialist orators of time past.

Cantata Profana was drawing to an end as I stood transfixed by the plaque, imagining the concert hall pulsing to the insistent rhythms of Hungary’s national hero making his impassioned case for independence. And then the hubbub afterwards as the mesmerised crowd spilled into the bulging artery of Lord Nelson Street with its incessant comings-and-goings, darting into the dense maze of a city not yet voided by air war and postwar planners. That was a long time to come. What was to come of Kossuth? Aside from getting wasted in Liverpool’s public houses, that is… (Only a venerable Liverpool lock-in could serve as a fitting toast to a figure whose name in time would invoke myth as well as history.) Did the city fathers pass comment on the presence in their midst of this clarion call for another nation’s sovereignty? Occasions of this kind must have been fairly frequent in those days, when the only assurance of success for a world-historical cause in the absence of today’s media saturation was to take to the road and speak directly to the people. (Once upon a time there was a people of which to speak and to whom one could speak as one. Since then capitalism has done its fissiparous work.) What motivated these early Scousers to attend that evening at the Socialist Hall of Science? As a global port city, Liverpool was certainly ethnically diverse, but against its dominant image as a refuge for the Irish and Jews, I have never heard mention of any Hungarian community settling on the banks of the Mersey. Still, until recently a Hungarian consulate nestled quietly on Rodney Street in an elegant townhouse. Hungarian Scousers?

Was an invested interest in the future of Hungary as an independent nation even necessary to entice revolutionaries (or zealots) of other kinds? Revolutionary desire is contagious. Undoubtedly Kossuth’s words rung like clashing cymbals in the ears of those hungry for an alternative world. Perhaps a smattering of fascists were amongst the crowd in the concert hall that evening; Scouse families who, given time and favourable historical conditions, would flood St George’s Plateau and William Brown Street in the following century as members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Different century, different nationalisms. But who can legislate for the manifold ways in which passion is channelled? Great orators are dangerous; Kossuth must have electrified Liverpool’s leaden air.

The soft, understated notes on the timpani that end Cantata Profana sounded as I crossed Lime Street to St George’s Hall. But my body resounded to a different energy, one in which fear and enthralment mingled in the shadow of an unanticipated event. Coincidence is a singular event, the dynamic force by which the body is arrested by collisions of time and space. Each and every time we encounter the coincidental, such coordinates are reconfigured. Lord Nelson Street is uncanny. I had traipsed across a portal, and the dead were yearning for me to join them.



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