One of our recent additions to our Music list is Nicolò Palazzetti’s Béla Bartók in Italy: The Politics of Myth-Making, which examines the reputation of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) as an antifascist hero and beacon of freedom. In today’s post, Dr. Palazzetti comments on the composer’s reception during the interwar and wartime period in Italy and his enduring legacy.
Béla Bartók in Italy: The Politics of Myth-Making investigates the emergence of the moral and political reputation of the great Hungarian musician. Béla Bartók (1881-1945) is famed for his pioneering ethnomusicological research on Central European and Balkan folklore and for his wondrous compositional output. Personally, the pieces I love the most are the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (that I discovered when I was twelve thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s horror cult film The Shining) and the one-act symbolist opera Bluebeard’s Castle (that I saw for the first time at La Scala when I was a teenager). However, following his premature death in 1945, Bartók has also been recognised for his outstanding moral fortitude in resisting the totalitarian violence that so powerfully marked his generation: Bartók fled an increasingly Nazified Europe in October 1940 by embarking on the steamship Excalibur, one of the last civilian ocean liners still in service from Lisbon to New York City at the beginning of the war. He died five years later, far from his homeland, after a long illness and period of unsettlement. While his posthumous reputation was controversial during the early Cold War period – especially in some avant-garde circles and, for polar opposite reasons, in Stalinist Hungary – Bartók’s canonisation proved to be a successful process in Western democracies and, later, in socialist states.
The grandiose celebrations for the reburial of Bartók’s remains in Budapest in 1988 eventually constituted a posthumous and ecumenical homage to Bartók ‘martyrdom’, which was patriotically exploited by a declining and, so to speak, repentant communist regime. The Italian communist newspaper L’Unità compared the return of Bartók’s body to his native country to the 1978 restitution of the Crown of Saint Stephen from the United States: like the hallowed coronation crown, Bartók was a key part of the Hungarian identity. Bartók’s coffin was anachronistically transported across the Atlantic by ocean liner (the Queen Elizabeth 2) and then through Europe by motorcade – a tangible sign of the eminent position now occupied by this world-renowned Hungarian artist. Perceived as inextricably Hungarian and European, Bartók was eulogised in the regime’s media as an anti-fascist, as an advocate of minority rights and the brotherhood of peoples and as a posthumous victim of Stalinist policies. Bartók abandoned wartime Europe on a moral basis and if the body of such an uncompromising humanitarian was now coming back, it had to be because the continent had become, once again, politically and morally righteous.
In my book, in fact, I contend that Bartók’s legacy is informed by a complex process of myth-making. The immaculate image of Bartók has been generally undisputed since its emergence during the 1940s, and has largely persisted in Bartók biography to this day. In the meantime, Bartók’s music has not disappeared from view; far from it. Rather, it has often been used as an over-signified totem, as a substitution for his seldom political pronouncements, especially on the public stage. Several academic articles that appeared at the turn of the twenty-first century began to add nuance to this oversimplified portrayal of the composer. Bartók demonstrated his genuine and rigorous antifascist beliefs in a number of letters and deeds (as evidenced by his final choice of self-imposed exile), but a certain ambiguity of his political persona during his lifetime was reasonably open to contrasting interpretations by opposite factions.
The reception of Bartók’s music in Italy during the first half of the twentieth century represents an excellent case study for addressing these issues, particularly as this context has been neglected in some of the most widely disseminated studies of the composer. Bartók was highly appreciated in fascist Italy, as demonstrated by the numerous performances and broadcasts of his modernist masterpieces and piano works (the latter were eventually included in the new syllabi of Italian conservatoires in the 1930s). What is more, the world premiere of Bartók’s expressionist ballet The Miraculous Mandarin took place at La Scala, Milan in 1942. In this sense, my book takes up two challenges. First, to explain the interwar success of a composer – later acknowledged as an anti-fascist hero – in a country in which fascist ideology was flourishing. Secondly, to throw light on patterns of continuity and transformation between Bartók’s earlier interwar success in Italy and his post-war idolisation, paying particular attention to the often-overlooked cultural life of the wartime period. I argue that by elucidating the process of Bartókian myth-making in Italy, we can engage in broader considerations at a transnational level on fascist modernism, cultural diplomacy and forms of cultural resistance. As a result, while focusing primarily on this Italian angle of research, in my book I comment upon the international politics of Bartók’s reception – chiefly with reference to Germany, France, Hungary and the United States.
As a final note, I should mention that Ludwig van Beethoven in fact provided a paragon of self-sacrifice for a higher moral or political idea and indirectly shaped Bartók’s identity. This heroic, Beethovenian dimension of Bartók’s 1940 exile was emphasised by the Hungarian composer himself in his private letters. The case of Beethoven also shows that the reconstruction of the wider politics of myth-making is germane to the analysis of the Bartók myth. What is at stake in this book is not simply the emergence of the Bartók cult – or a useless quest for Bartók’s personal flaws (if any) – but the relation of this particular hero myth to the social myths of the twentieth century and the collective and national imaginaries of which they reference.
NICOLÒ PALAZZETTI is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Music and Theatre at Sapienza University of Rome. Prior to join Sapienza, Palazzetti worked as a Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham, UK and as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Strasbourg, France. He obtained his PhD in 2017 at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.