23 September 2018

"I Love Helvetia So Deeply That I Cannot Forget Kolozsvár" – On the Hungarian Composer Sándor Veress

The Museum of Music History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) is the first venue in Hungary to have curated and hosted a commemorative exhibition of Sándor Veress (1907 Kolozsvár–1992 Bern), one of the foremost Hungarian composers of our time. Veress’s work, comprising definitive contributions to folk music research and music pedagogy in addition to his vital input as a composer, had been consigned to “oblivion” in Hungary for decades, along with that of many fellow artists, scholars and scientists the writers, László Cs. Szabó and Sándor Márai come to mind – who decided to emigrate in 1949, as a dictatorial regime emulating the Soviet one became established in Hungary. Even though most of the émigrés at the time thought of their departure from the homeland as a provisional decision pending future developments, the international political arrangement that emerged in the wake of the Second World War refuted these hopes conclusively, and forced abroad the enduring absence of these emissaries of Hungarian culture.

In the case of Sándor Veress, over eighty years of age by the time the Iron Curtain was lifted, this meant a lifelong, permanent break: he no longer had a chance to return to his homeland. Although in the second half of his life, for 42 years, he called Bern his home, his musical mother tongue always remained Hungarian, as he often maintained. It is in this context that one should interpret his confession of allegiance, alluding to Kelemen Mikes*, which he addressed to his hometown and his native country in 1975, after 25 years in emigration, in a letter to Antal Molnár.

It is a near-impossible enterprise (but one for which this exhibition certainly provides ample support) to comprehensively document all the unbreakable ties linking Veress to his former home, the memory of which he made a conscious and ceaseless effort to cherish, as attested by the volumes on his bookshelf.

Even while severely ill, he followed the events of the Temesvár massacre with keen interest, and mourned the victims from the depth of his heart. Finally, his fidelity to the homeland unique in its fervour even among his émigré contemporaries is demonstrated by the fact that he insisted on “being part of the Hungarian emigration” to the end of his life. Nevertheless, this didn’t prevent him from applying, politically aware as he was, for naturalisation through his host country and finally receiving this status after a humiliatingly long process in 1991, early enough to die as a Swiss citizen.

The exhibition at hand focused on presenting the work of Sándor Veress in a holistic light, as the oeuvre of a “composer, educator and researcher”.

As a disciple, later colleague and spiritual heir of Bartók and Kodály, Veress embraced as his lifetime model the same intellectual programme that his masters cultivated in the early 20th century. Having studied composition under Kodály from 1925 to 1930, Veress became a composer in his own right, and continued to avow composition as his prime vocation to the end of his life. His second calling was research of folk music – which he first answered at the tender age of 23, in 1930, when he began to collect folk music from Moldavia. Veress took pains to preserve and carry on with the unified programme of his life work in Switzerland after emigrating there in 1949. As a researcher of folk music he may have been permanently severed from the opportunity of working in the field, but by introducing the curricular subject of Musikethnologie as a professor at the University of Bern, he established a platform from which to familiarise Western students with the achievements of Hungarian folk music research and, particularly, with the work of Bartók, Kodály and Lajtha. His third major professional field was that of a practicing music educator, to which he remained equally committed to the end of his life. Having started his career as a music teacher in Budapest, Veress had the honour of being appointed, at the age of 36 in 1943, as Kodály’s successor in the chair of composition at the Music Academy in Budapest. Up until 1948, he taught a number of students some of whom would later achieve international fame, such as György Ligeti and György Kurtág. Other notable figures in Hungarian music who also studied composition under Veress include the folk music researcher Bálint Sárosi, the choir masters István Párkai and Lajos Vass, as well as József Újfalussy, who went on to become a well-known representative of Hungarian musicology as professor of music aesthetics at the Academy. (Just as importantly, he was elected president of the Sándor Veress Society, formed in 1997.)

As of 1950, Veress resumed his academic career as professor of composition and music theory at the Bern Conservatory, where he promoted composition – formerly a minor at that school – to the status of a proper major, and incorporated the Kodály method in the music theory curriculum there.

The appreciation of Veress’s work in Hungary, including by Kodály and Bartók themselves, clearly proves that, as early as in the 1940s, he was considered among the most highly recognised proponents of Hungarian music as composer, scholar and educator.

This early success story came to an abrupt end in 1949, as the Iron Curtain fell, while Veress was in Rome overseeing the premier performances of his dance play Térszili Katicza under the direction of the internationally renowned choreographer Aurél Milloss. During his sojourn in Rome, Veress followed the news from home with riveted attention and trepidation, fatefully deterred by the Rajk trial and other instances of horrendous political abuse. These events served to accelerate plans he had nurtured for years. In November 1949, he finally resolved not to return to Hungary and to seek a freer climate in which to give full rein to his intellectual endeavours. He was not alone in this decision. Several prominent figures of art and science in Hungary at the time, including writers, musicians, artists, scholars and scientists, all chose to emigrate.

One of my main objectives in curating this exhibition was to portray Veress’s ties to Bartók and Kodály, which grew ever more intimate and expansive over the years. Veress used the German term Granitfundament as a metaphor to describe the deep intellectual-spiritual foundations he received from his masters. He studied piano under Bartók from 1930 to 1932, after he had completed his studies in composition with Kodály, voluntarily extended to five years beyond the four years mandated by the Academy. In fact, Veress had already earned his degree in piano as a student of Emánuel Hegyi, but he wanted to perfect his knowledge of the instrument under Bartók’s tutelage. Yet during the summer of 1930, before reporting to Bartók in September, he made the bold decision to travel to Moldavia on a tour of collecting local folk music in a field he knew had been virtually uncharted. His trip and its proceedings came to define his later relations with Bartók in a decisive way. Walking in the footsteps of Péter Pál Domokos, who had visited Moldavia in 1929, Veress became the first to make phonograph recordings of Moldavian folk music, winning accolades from both Bartók and Kodály. It was his hard-earned merits as a researcher that prompted Bartók to offer him the position of personal assistant at the Academy. Meeting Bartók twice a week in his new capacity, Veress forged a fruitful working relationship with his master which lasted until 1940, when Bartók moved to America. How truly intimate this relationship was is shown by the mutual respect they felt for each other: the veneration of the master and the latter’s appreciation of his young disciple, as evidenced by their correspondence on display at the exhibition. This correspondence began with a letter by Veress from London in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, in which he asks Bartók whether in principle he considers it better advised to return to Hungary or to emigrate.

Bartók’s reply has since become a staple of Bartók literature concerning the composer’s views on the matter of emigration.

Other Bartók documents also attest to his high opinion of Veress. For example, his letter from 1935, also on display at the exhibition, to László Rásonyi, concerning plans of researching Turkish folk music, in which he recommends for the job Veress, then 28 years of age, whom he describes as “one of the finest composers around, a good pianist, and well-versed in the collection of folk songs”. It is clear from this recommendation that the former relationship between student and master had evolved into one of mutual professional respect. Veress’s collaboration with Kodály, which was relatively uninterrupted for a long time, was also documented at the exhibition. As for his contact with Bartók, it lasted for about a decade, from 1930 to 1940, and never truly came to an end until Bartók’s death in 1945. By contrast, his contact with Kodály essentially proved a lifelong affair, except for the hiatus of several decades after his emigration, when even mere correspondence by regular mail would have entailed grave consequences under the watchful eyes of political censors. Throughout his life, Veress had nothing but the deepest admiration for Kodály, his mentor, and continued to feel a need, even years after completing his studies, to solicit Kodály’s opinion on his own recent work. As their surviving correspondence shows, Veress repeatedly asked Kodály to listen to his new compositions at his convenience. This living relationship deepened when, after Bartók had left Hungary for good in 1940, handing over his academic projects in folk music research to Kodály, the latter also “inherited” Veress as his assistant, who remained active in this position under Kodály for eight more years, until 1948. Their correspondence amply touches on this aspect of their working relationship. It is instructive in this regard to recall the changes in the form of address Veress used over the years. In the 1930s and 1940s, he addressed Kodály as “My Venerable Professor”, switching to “My Dear Professor” in his letters sent from Switzerland in the 1960s. Indeed, in later days, Kodály himself would address him as “My Dear Friend”, although he often reverted to the more colloquial form “Dear Veress”.

Sándor Veress wrote a number of historically authentic studies and essays about both Bartók and Kodály. Already during his years in Hungary, in the 1940s, he considered it incumbent upon him to interpret and disseminate the work of his two masters, publishing several important articles on the subject in Ethnographia and other professional journals. Later, living in Switzerland, he remained convinced that representing and promoting Hungarian music culture constituted a vital part of his calling. This conviction led him to produce a wide range and generically diverse body of professional literature, mainly on the works of Bartók and Kodály. The approximately one hundred writings and speeches authored by him that are known to me most of them inspired by commemorative events, concerts and anniversary celebrations – have vitally enriched our resources on Bartók and Kodály in both Hungarian and in foreign languages with fresh and colourful insights solidly grounded in rigorous scholarship. In this regard, special mention must be made of Sándor Veress’s teaching work as professor at the Universityof Bern, from 1968 to 1977. His tenure provided him with the opportunity to introduce Musikethnologie as an independent subject in its own right for the first time in the history of that institution, and to use that opening as a means to offer in-depth discussions of the results of ethnomusical research in Hungary.

As a composer, especially in his Hungarian period from the early works in 1930 to 1949, Veress unambiguously displayed a stylistic loyalty to Bartók and Kodály. Like his masters, he regarded Hungarian folk music as his musical mother tongue, as demonstrated by his folk song arrangements and embodied as an integral part of his arsenal of expressive tools. While the influence of folk music sources varied in a degree depending on the actual composition and genre he had at hand, the very direct symbiosis with and deeply personal attachment to folk music is clearly evident throughout his work.

Veress’s ambitions as a concert pianist represent a different strain in his career. As mentioned previously, Bartók considered him “a good pianist”. In fact, Veress was an excellent pianist in his own right, who performed not only his own compositions at home and abroad, but also works by Bartók, Kodály and, occasionally, by other Hungarian contemporaries. From 1938 to 1944, he also toured in duo with Sándor Végh, the preeminent violinist, another native of Kolozsvár, who had led his own string quartet in performing Veress’s first two string quartets at the most important venues for new music, such as the Internationale Gesellschaft der neue Musik, and was instrumental in drawing attention to Bartók’s own quartets during these same years.

Veress dedicated not only his string quartets but also his violin concerto to Végh, with whom he appeared in a series of memorable concerts performing new Hungarian music from London to the Netherlands, to Budapest and Transylvania. Already living in Switzerland, during the 1950s, Veress made it a point to perform his own works before concert audiences, including the premiere of his Piano Concerto and performing one of the two solo parts of his Hommage à Paul Klee: Fantasies for Two Pianos and Strings. Although Végh himself resided in Switzerland in the 1950s and 1960s, their new circumstances forced the two friends to give up the idea of resuming tours as a duo. The history of the close collaboration between the two artists ended triumphantly in 1962, when Veress secured Végh’s quartet to perform the premiere of his Concerto for string quartet and orchestra, dedicated to Paul Sacher, in Basel – certainly a daunting task of interpretation.

As of November 1949 Veress made Switzerland his new home. The new cultural and linguistic environment compelled him to open a new chapter in each field of his professional activities, but in the fresh air of freedom he acclimatised to the new opportunities and European musical styles so rapidly that he made the transition smoothly, virtually without any fits and starts – or so it seemed in hindsight. His own words, as can be read at the exhibition, shed a sharper light on the process:

Switzerland helped me a great deal to liberate myself from the inner circle of the Hungarian school. Here, I was able to devote massive energies to finding ways to make dodecaphony truly useful for my own style and purposes, rather than just as a purely orthodox technique in my arsenal.


Indeed Veress mastered the
then current trends and styles in Western music as early as during his first years in Switzerland, while naturally tailoring those influences to the requisites of his own personality.

The exhibition features a number of items documenting my own collaboration with Sándor Veress in Bern. They include a copy of the wonderful Klee album, published for the artist’s commemorative exhibition in Bern, which was a gift to me from Veress as a souvenir by which to remember our working together on a volume of folk songs collected by him in Moldavia. The way that I first started researching the work of Veress may also be considered as a sort of relic of history. It was a genuine intellectual discovery, in the original sense of the term, since during my studies of music in the 1960s not once had I heard about the enormous importance of Veress as a scholar and creative artist – certainly not from my professors or any other contemporary source available to me at the time. Then, as my studies began to focus more and more on the music history of the period preceding and directly following the Second World War, I realised of course that Veress had in fact been recognised, already in the 1940s, as a foremost representative of the generation of disciples and intellectual heirs of Bartók and Kodály, and not just by the two great masters but also by the highest echelons of academia. By the time I graduated with a degree in music history in the 1960s, I no longer had a chance to learn about what should have been his deservedly lofty position in the canon: Veress’s name by then was surrounded by profound silence. Much later, in 1980, having won a grant for inter-university cooperation, I managed to get in touch with Veress personally, with the aim of preparing the ground for a Hungarian volume of essays on his oeuvre. During the three weeks I spent in Bern, Veress introduced me to his works, and later provided vital professional guidance for Olga Szalay and myself as we readied an edition of his collection of Moldavian folk music ready for print. This volume was published in Budapest in 1989 as an instalment in the new volume of Népköltési gyűjtemény, a prestigious series documenting folk texts and music. This first-hand contact triggered a number of publications and concerts starting in the 1980s, securing, as it were, intellectual rehabilitation for the undeservedly “forgotten” émigré scholar and composer. The documents dedicated by Veress on display at the exhibition attest to our fruitful work relationship.

The exhibition devoted separate display cabinets to presenting Veress’s work as educator. While he was the erudite, scholarly type as a composer, his dignity of bearing and profound knowledge went hand in hand with a certain charming, playfully intimate attitude toward his students. The most talented among them, such as György Ligeti and György Kurtág, won Veress’s highest appreciation, as he often mentioned in various public utterances. Each of these two composers gave a heartfelt surprise gift to their master in a special number of Schweitzerische Musikzeitung dedicated to Veress on the occasion of his 75th birthday. Ligeti supplied a drawing for the cover of the renowned journal which depicted strange animal-like figures with limbs and wings. Kurtág approached the task from a very different angle: he proffered the score of a fanfare salutation which was included as a supplement. It is just as important to mention Heinz Holliger, one of Veress’s best-known students, who joined other Swiss disciples of the master in their celebration. Concert audiences in Budapest had for decades been familiar with Holliger, both as oboist and conductor, and also as one of the few artists who have felt an obligation, since the days Veress was still alive, to perform his compositions on concert stages, in his composer’s homeland and at prestigious music festivals around Western Europe. Indeed, we have Holliger and a growing handful of excellent Swiss, German, Austrian as well as Hungarian artists to thank for the opportunity, since the 1980s, for new generations to partake in the very special experience afforded by Veress’s music.

Sándor Veress’s career as a teacher commenced with his tenure at the Music Academy in Budapest (1943–1948), and continued with his appointment to teach music theory at the Conservatory of Bern in the 1950s, and later with his professorship at Bern University. His astonishing, colourful graphic analyses of works of music, his own publications in music pedagogy, and his plans for seminars in music theory all bear witness to the scholarly credentials of an uncommonly demanding educator.

The documents of Veress’s input as ethnomusicologist formed a separate section of the exhibition, featuring photographs he took himself on locations of his tour of Moldavia in 1930, several hand-written records of folk songs, analytical tables and diary entries. Also on display was the composer’s library collection of contemporary literature on the history of the Csángó, an ancient ethnic Hungarian group in Moldavia. Veress’s publications in folk music were represented by a rich selection of writings from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the 1989 volume of collected Moldavian folk music mentioned before.

From the composer’s last years, we included the poster of the author’s evening in Bern on his 85th birthday. Unfortunately, the composer was unable to attend this event, and passed away a few weeks later, on 4 March 1992. When learning of his serious illness, György Kurtág responded by composing his piece (op. 32) entitled Lebenslauf (Life Course). At the time, it had become pretty clear that the work would be regarded as a tribute to a past master.

The exhibition concluded with the opportunity to view a film for television. To this day the only film portrait of Veress in Hungarian, rather than being commissioned by an institution, was the personal project of Károly Bulla, a director for Hungarian television, owing in no small part to an exceptional circumstance. Through his family ties, Bulla had the opportunity to meet Sándor Veress in 1981, at the Bartók Centennial in Ferrara. Bulla subsequently asked his superiors for permission to make a detour to Bern to shoot footage with Veress during his assignment to the Oberhausen Film Festival. His manager, György Czigány, recognised the historic nature of the project, and gave the green light. In this way, Bulla, who had been aware of the émigré composer’s work also in his capacity as a member of András Fodor’s circle of friends, asked him for consent to the shooting. Remembering their meeting in Ferrara, Veress gave his consent despite the fact that the request had officially been made by the state-run Hungarian Television.

Shot and directed by Károly Bulla in the Bern studio of the 76-year-old composer, the film was the first, and to date the only, Hungarian-language portrait of Sándor Veress made for television. Although it was aired by Hungarian Television as part of its late night programming, it remained virtually unknown even among music professionals. When this exhibition raised the idea of acquainting visitors with the film the Museum of Music History ordered the film from the archives of Hungarian Television, hence creating the opportunity for a work shot 35 years ago to fulfil its original intended purpose a generation later, as part of an exhibition on the 25th anniversary of the composer’s death. A coda to the exhibition, through the power of live speech and Veress’s eloquent command of his native Hungarian, the portrait film served to create an intimate atmosphere in which all visitors could relate to a towering figure of 20th-century musical science after half a century of forced obscurity.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

 

(The exhibition was open at the Museum of Music History from 2 November 2017 to 10 April 2018.)

 

* Hungarian writer (1690–1761) who followed the Transylvanian Prince Ferenc Rákóczy II in his exile after the failure of the struggle for independence in 1703–1711.






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