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Here you will find an unpublished book review by the personality focus of this website, Christian M. Newman
Rachel Beckles Willson: Ligeti, Kurtag, and Hungarian Music during the Cold War. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: New York 2007. Print. 282 pages.
Reviewed by Christian M. Newman
Given the ordering of information in the title, a reader may be surprised that this expansive, yet circumscribed work by Professor Beckles Wilson is less a focus on any one individual, or contribution. More so this book offers an historical recounting of the greater Cold War-era Hungarian musical culture, and its entanglement within local and international political, and social events from the onset of the Cold War to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Beckles Wilson interestingly allows the products of her primary research to largely guide, or contribute to the narrative, as opposed to beginning with a specific point of interest regarding the life, or output of each composer. This ultimately results in an interesting presentation of the content, which initially emphasizes large-scale regional, and global developments during the period. After several chapters of preliminary historical context, our author shifts the account gradually towards a more personal contextualization of the larger narrative through the examination of the life experiences, and musical output of the two named Hungarian musical figures, Györgi Ligeti and Györgi Kurtag. Yet the tone, and general breadth of information throughout suggest the focus of this work is largely on the broader interaction between occupying and occupied cultures, political influence, and individual psychology on the musical output of composers under Soviet occupation in Hungary, an aspect that seems eloquently highlighted by the author’s focus on verifiable and limited information from primary sources.
Beckles Willson is a Professor of Music with the Humanities and Arts Research Centre as well as Reader in the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, and due to her expertise in historiography, was funded by the University of Bristol and the Arts and Humanities Research Board of the United Kingdom to undertake the major archival research in Budapest that is cited in this work (1). Our author examines Ligeti, and Kurtag’s development as artists respectively outside of, and within Soviet-controlled Hungary to reveal how the Soviet occupation inspired “change and reaction” as the radical ideas of these two composers and their contemporaries were legitimized, or denied performance based on criteria from the “ingrained habits” of pre-war musical culture (3). In broad terms, the author aims to convey a purely historical depiction outlining the origins of musical “activities and arguments”, and how they may be connected to localized and international political, and cultural situations, while perhaps unsuccessfully avoiding any specific interpretation of these facts and circumstances, a singular, unfortunate aspect of the work that may obscure the focus at points (3, 233). Beckles Wilson’s illustration reveals the position of these composers within the continuation of “a pervasive trend in [20th Century] Hungarian thought” in the manner set forth by Kodaly, and Bartok (3, 205). Subsequently this narrative defines how this postwar generation embodied by Ligeti and Kurtag displayed distinct traits, among them an aesthetic quality described as one of longing for, and separation from an idealized “elsewhere” (3, 205, 221). Ligeti’s life as an émigré outside of Hungary after 1956 may have inspired some of these observed qualities of “missed consonance” (178) and the sense of eluded satisfaction in his music (178-79). Conversely Kurtag’s position as a state-sanctioned composer, and one who was simultaneously viewed by many as a figure of resistance to the occupation, may have likely inspired his public silence yet involvement in so many significant “institutions and their narratives”, along with his aesthetic of concealed sensuality and theological narrative throughout numerous works (3).
Beckles Willson first clearly defines the origins of the complex circumstances within Hungary at the time of its absorption as a Soviet Satellite state. Appropriately defining the history of Hungary after 1920 is the first task of this narrative since at that time, this nation had experienced extremes in social and political change that would lead to the tension in defining a national style under the restrictions of Soviet-imposed “Social realism” and the related attempts to define the qualities of a national identity and a “folk” authenticity (13). Prior to the revolts of 1956, The ingrained habits of the conservative members of Hungarian musical society from the prewar period were taken as means of assessment regarding the value of new works submitted for review- a requirement for any work that would receive public performance; such institutional censorship led not only to repression and strict control of the arts, but to resentment among artists and the public on a wide scale (24-25).
Beckles Willson illustrates the means through which the Soviet government exuded control within its satellite nations; not only was the Hungarian musical output in the early 1950s increasingly entangled in contests of political dominance, but Moscow was increasingly exercising a covert influence by replacing many Hungarian party officials with others imported from inside Russia (30-31). Within the requirements and guidelines from the state-appointed committee for censorship of the arts, Ligeti composed and refined his first works, which were often denied public performance; consequently, “Ligeti-just as many others- [began] practicing a self-censorship that he had integrated into his working practice” (41). Both Ligeti and Kurtag composed cantatas in 1949 that promoted the views of the Soviet government, which seems an obvious function of large-scale cantatas for chorus and orchestra in Cold War Eastern Europe; yet the requirement that art and music must “bolster the regime” also extended to instrumental music, which was a subject of much heated discussion particularly regarding its state-sanctioned and authentic use of “Hungarian” elements such as pentatony (50-53). From these points, one can appreciate the specific efforts by the Soviet occupying government to directly affect the creation of products by the Hungarian artists and musicians under its control, and its failed attempts to define the Hungarian’s own national music in terms of an aesthetic “otherness” (54).
The qualities of longing, and “absence” that would define the music of both Ligeti and Kurtag are observed early in the works completed during each composer’s training at the Liszt Academy; in Ligeti’s work, he often evoked a sense of eluded resolution (68). This theme of “disillusion” as well as “a gentle critique of…idealized” concepts of romantic and personal fulfillment, are made the more evident in his deceptive harmonic resolutions, and strong avoidance of seemingly compulsory resolutions as is observed in his song, “A Merchant Came With Giant Birds” (68). Other examples from the period reveal this same increasing tendency to evade a more consonant and easily defined resolution, which Beckles Willson defines through examples such as the song “Night”; this piece utilizes a harmonic motion in which all voices sound natural tones that appear as white keys on the piano, followed by an extremely chromatic shift to a five-note chord in flats that would appear as a black-note chord (72-73). This unsettling motion coupled with the text, “infinite wilderness,” already reveals early in his career one of his main aesthetic traits of unfulfilled longing, ‘awareness of a vast separation’, and of being “elsewhere” and distant from an object or place of comfort (73).
Given these circumstances it seems clear why Ligeti had chosen to leave Hungary following the violent uprising of 1956 (79-80). The Soviet Union continued to exude influence over the statements and works of the numerous noted composers and artists within its sphere of influence, which seemed for a time to validate his flight; yet in the following five years (and perhaps somewhat bitterly for Ligeti), modern Western music was deemed a permissible art form for public performance, and began to impact the practice of composers and audiences within Hungary (80). Although more risqué works were given limited performances, there was a growing interest in more unique and “honest” styles of music, ie.”formalist music” that could be promoted in order to illustrate the ‘new’ State’s embrace of diversity (81). Kurtag experienced a nervous collapse from witnessing the uprising and subsequent clampdown by Soviet forces, and had a serious realization as to the “real nature of the Soviet Union” during this period (84-85). There is speculation that he was able to ‘reconstruct his psyche’ during a time of study with Stockhausen and Messaien in the following three years, and after this especially, his unique compositional traits became clearer and more concise (85). Ligeti meanwhile was also compelled to construct a new persona through statements declaring the “loathsomeness of Hungary” in order to purge the geist of his homeland from his immediate consciousness (89). Beckles WIllson illustrates the great lengths to which Ligeti went to disavow the principles of social realism, and critique the cowardly manner in which composers would cater to the demands of the regime while accepting whatever token rewards were offered; this discussion brings to the fore Ligeti’s concern that an original path forward (in terms of his compositional style) would undoubtedly prove difficult, since an overemphasis on accessibility had distorted the role of the composer and disinterested the general public as well as the music connoisseur (90). Thus the discussion of progressive possibilities for Hungarian music would be framed within the context of accessibility and social realism as defined by the Soviet Union, and the ingrained habits of Budapest’s composers towards “Hungarian” qualities had “clambered beyond epigonism” (90).
Ligeti and Kurtag are further juxtaposed by Beckles Willson as two embodiments of the same quality of longing in the later chapters. Ligeti is presented as a characterization of this longing in which he experienced a profound sense of “in-between-ness” along with a sense of being “imprisoned within Hungarian culture” (117). His 1959 work, Apparitions, is defined as a representation of sounds broadcast via radio from Hungary that in spite of their clear identity “remain other-worldy to [Ligeti]” (117). Only by the end of the1960s in works like Continuum is there a sense of “a more settled understanding” that reflects a response “to a new found stability” (119). Kurtag however is presented as an object of longing in relation to his personality traits of secrecy, and self-doubt; this longing character that was found throughout his music, along with his evasion of public interviews regarding his work for many the first decades of his career draw some parallel between his situation and several noted fanatical statements of the artist Csontvary (126). Beckles Willson speculates with the support of much circumstantial and ethnographic evidence, that like Csontvary who claimed to have received a divine message, Kurtag shared this sense of a “mystical madness” in relating his “prophetic mission” (126-27). Ultimately this suggests that Kurtag feared a similar fate to that of Csontvary who worked in obscurity only to be publically ridiculed for his works and conceptual approach at his only major gallery showing; this connection is, however, somewhat invalidated by the fact that Kurtag was achieving a significant national, although not international, eminensce early in his career (126).
1968 was a significant year for reforms including massive improvements in relations with the West and internal investments, which created a higher standard of living within Hungary, at least by Easter European standards (128-29). Modern music and folk revivalism each benefited from performers’ increased freedom to travel, although this began to have noticeable negative, or perhaps, destructive consequences for the formerly self-contained musical life in Budapest, at least in terms of authentic preservation of folk and regional musical elements (128-131). Kurtag is defined in this time period as a national figure who had gained a significant presence and eminence within Hungary by virtue of his somewhat inflated international acclaim (137). Kurtag’s rise within the Soviet system of control was also facilitated by his exploration, and utilization of materials that “differed from the mainstream political policy, but that were nonetheless underwritten by the state” (139). This is especially evident in his work Splinters op. 6c which makes reference to religious content derived from the poetry of Pilzinsky; this controversial poet’s works had been banned by the Kremlin for its challenges to state sanctioning of churches and religious leaders, but also was controversial “because it also transformed death from being a source of terror and horror to something that may be welcome[d]” (144). Kurtag continued to explore concepts that would convey an “extraordinary sense of presence,” again illuminating one aspect of his “elsewhere-ness” in such works as his later collection, Twelve Microludes, as well as s sense of “musical mysticism” that was at odds with the aims of the regime through its lack of clear form or “dramatic teleology” (162).
It was during the mid and late 1970s that Ligeti began to make contact with Hungary once again, yet he had identified himself with the west at this point for so long that he found reconnection, and reaffirmation of his Hungarian roots had become impossible (164-167). His projection of an “elsewhere” in the form of cosmopolitan musical styles ranging from Gypsy, Romanian, and Jewish traditional musics that had surrounded him since his childhood became increasingly esoteric, even as many of his works from this period include Hungarian folk elements and aspects of the Magyar language; this is viewed in Beckles Wilson’s depiction as a reaction to his perceived rejection by the culture in Hungary (165-66). Perhaps he eludes to some failure to reconnect to his homeland as he explains that the folk elements used in works such as his opera Le Grand Macabre were “impossible, imaginary, unrelated to any nation” (165). Such statements are congruent with his self-construction in interviews from this period, which even further underscores his need to construct an idealized home or place of origin in response to his sense of being disconnected, embodying an isolation, and distance from a place of belonging.
Beckles Willson is careful to illustrate the changing and isolated position occupied by Kurtag near the end of the Soviet regime. As the dissolution of the Soviet system became inevitable, numerous printed discourses attacking the Eastern Bloc and its ideologies and social constraints were found particularly in more liberal Hungary (197-99). Strangely Kurtag was not so much associated with rebellion against the regime at the end of the 1970s, but since he had become so celebrated within the Soviet Bloc, he was challenged by younger generations of musicians as a “monolith” put in a high place by the state (199). While it is problematic to define Kurtag’s near religious admiration for the Russian texts he chose to set during this time, the theme he presents through not only these, but other works such as the Attila Jozsef Fragments is one of “redemption [that] may be attained by bowing down beneath knowledge,” suggesting that perhaps the way forward for Hungary following the collapse of Soviet Russia would be found through humility in admitting failures during the Cold War period, as well as self-reflection (215).
Overall this work successfully accomplish its many stated goals, yet some aspects, particularly in the later discussion, obscure the thesis, and clarity of form for the work. While our author has primarily defined and illustrated her main points for the majority of the six chapters, the final section of the last, titled, “epilog,” introduces a lengthy and somewhat disconnected discussion of Hungarian opera in the latter half of the 20th Century (232-35). This comparatively- specific discussion is related to the broader narrative as an aspect that defines a tradition within post-war Hungarian opera; this aspect – a quality of longing, and a sense of the impossibility of “returning home”- may ultimately prove an unsatisfying one to return to so late in the text, particularly for the reader who may have hoped to attain a more thorough understanding of the social context, the fellow artists, students, and individual settings in which these two artists worked, and lived through this single volume (233).
Although much of the work has seemingly proffered argumentative and analytical interpretation, particularly through her interpretation of the deeper intentions behind each composers’ documented statements, Beckles Wilson confusingly seems to divorce herself from any deeper interpretive responsibility as she explains that “historians of music…are under the spell of precisely the music making present” and that the reader has “listened, questioned, and listened again [which is] the best that [one] can do” (233). This strangely passive statement unfortunately serves to undermine many of the previous clear declarative statements about the meaning and context of the works used as illustration, along with the historical evidence and personal statements discussed throughout the book; this unfortunately creates a comparatively weak note for the conclusion and numerous other points in the narrative in which Beckles Willson inserts such antithetical statements. One such prominent similar spot can also be observed in the final pages of the introduction, in which Beckles Willson explains that the epilog includes arguments that “have their own ephemerality” and she lets them “’present-lose’ themselves” rather than directing a narrative in an argumentative fashion typically expected of the author (9).
This work outlines historical context for the introductory chapters 1 and 2, while gradually introducing the individual characters, Ligeti and Kurtag as smaller players within this greater national circumstance. This effectively defines their relationship to the controlling influence of the Soviet principles of social realism while opening up the discussion to issues of localized “ingrained habit” as a means of self-censorship. Ligeti’s flight from Hungary is defined by Beckles Willson as an action that paralleled Kurtag’s silence and refusal to make public statements either in support of, or in resistance to the occupation. Thus these two composers are presented as opposing sides to the same social and personal context. While this book primarily relates a detailed and thorough examination of the international political climate surrounding the works and lives of these two composers, the narrative overall gives appropriate attention to the social and political circumstances that compelled the individual behavior of these composers along with their contemporaries. This work is not focused on the more contemporary contributions of each composer, that is, those works created following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this sense this work is different from many accounts of the music and lives of these composers by delving into the lesser known and more difficult-to-research aspects of the influence of the Soviet occupation and the period of severe constraints on their work between 1949 and 1968. This approach allows Beckles Willson to construct a viewpoint of their work that illustrates their place within the continuation of Hungarian musical tradition and practice in the 20th Century and also defines the origins of their projected aesthetic qualities- “elsewhere-ness” and deep longing- found in so many of their compositions.
This book is an essential read for those who may wish to explore the inspiration for the compositions these men completed during the Cold War period, and for music historians who wish to contextualize the latter works of these composers in terms of the overarching influence of the tumultuous 20th Century, particularly following the rise of the Soviet Union. While it does not provide a complete historical overview of the individual events that created the Soviet satellite states in 1949, as one example, nor does it offer a complete insight into the detailed lives of the aforementioned composers, it does provide summaries of the historical events, and details significant to each individual circumstance. In any eventuality it would be of great benefit for both laypersons and musicians unfamiliar with this time period to explore further in-depth histories of the Soviet occupation of Hungary and Central Europe in order to gain a more complete understanding of these events outside of the comparatively narrow summary provided by Beckles Willson. This is not to suggest a failing on her part because this book, which is comparatively brief to address such a wide-scope of material, is not meant to provide such a complex historical summary but is instead correctly focused on development of its own statements regarding the influence of the Soviet Union and international political climates on the individual works of each composer. Beckles Willson accomplishes her stated intentions of defining the influence of the 20th Century geopolitics and localized ingrained habits of the Hungarian musical community on Ligeti and Kurtag, while defining their aesthetic qualities as continuations of an overarching trend in Hungarian thought.