I’m spending four days in Budapest attending concerts in the Cafe Budapest Festival 2017.
This post, the last in the series, documents a trip to Bartok’s Memorial House, some time spent in Parliament Square, and a Hungarian taxi driver’s experience of working in the UK.
Read the other posts in the series here.
There’s a bittersweet feeling to the last day of any trip. I love it. Always have.
The last is the day when you’re in the zone. Everything is within arms’ reach. You feel at home wherever it is you’ve spent the past few days. The middle class glamour of another international airport awaits, but before then you’ve got to exit your hotel room – your cave for the duration – and go it alone for a few hours. You’re in limbo. Your mind is set free. You’re able to focus on anything and everything.
I made a beeline for composer Bela Bartok’s ‘Memorial House’ mid-morning. It’s an adventure in comparison to the local trips I’ve made on foot and on the Metro. This trip demands I take a bus, the Number 11 from Batthyany ter (I can say this out loud now). The clean odourless bendy bus silently ventures out past tired buildings, gaudy back-lit signs for tanning booths and grey apartment buildings. Soon, we’re climbing up a steep tree-lined hill where things have suddenly become a lot more sedate. Predictably, I get off at the wrong stop and end-up having to walk back down the hill, along windy roads.
It’s all a little eery, walking down slightly decaying pavements with tufts of grass sprouting from cracks in the Tarmac. Apart from the occasional dog-walker, the neighbourhood is silent, like a film set for a dystopian mini-series.
Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra
This eeriness might have something to do with me listening to Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Written after he’d left Hungary and moved to the US during the second World War, stylistically the work harks back to romantic roots but pimps it at the same time – the essential characteristics of post-romanticism in classical music. But what Prokofiev did well, Bartok does better. The Concerto for Orchestra, while not representative of the period Bartok lived in the house in Csalán Road (1932-1940), still possesses a mysteriousness and longing about it I associate with my perceptions of a nationalist composer displaced by war (just listen to the wistful solos in the clarinet in the first movement). It is a brilliant work, his most popular and well-known too. Rich, descriptive, and evocative throughout with moments of great beauty and fierce pride. In this work Bartok seems to employ much of the language of Schoenberg and Richard Strauss at the same time as paying homage to Tchaikovsky. There’s a bit of Shostakovich in there too heard in the spikey scoring, and undoubtedly a lot of Kodaly in the soaring passionate melodies.
But Bartok goes further. He seems to be able twist the knife in the melody far better than Shostakovich could even at his most angry. There’s a realism to Bartok’s writing which elevates him above Shostakovich. In Shostakovich we witness a battle; in Bartok we are a part of it.
Then there are those moments when he’s able to convey elegance, beauty and menace all in the same melody. The fourth movement intermezzo is a great example. Marvellously efficient writing. Reassuring and terrifying at the same time.
The music casts a cautious air over my surroundings. There is an implicit permission us tourists take for granted amongst the predictable destinations in the centre of a city. Venture outside of those invisible boundaries into the places where the locals live and the permission falls away. That’s when the smiling and nodding at strangers in a bid to gain acceptance suddenly becomes important and, on occasions, a little maniacal and ultimately counter-productive. What I do know for sure is that people walking up hills generally won’t bother looking up so you don’t need to worry about them – they’re concentrating their energies getting up the hill.
Bartok’s Memorial House
Bartok’s Memorial House isn’t your usual kind of museum. Once you’ve pressed the call button the lock is released and the gate slowly swings open. Climb the steep steps up towards the front door (now part of the renovated exterior) and you’ll be greeted by museum staff like you’re the distant relative on his backpacking travels they’ve reluctantly agreed to accommodate. It’s not a frosty welcome by any means. There’s a charm about the place rooted in a pride for an important national figure and his legacy.
Once inside I’m advised that I can’t take pictures and that my guide will accompany me throughout the house. At first this feels a little full-on for my liking. Being forced into a one to one relationship I didn’t seek out makes me feel a little trapped. But, as it turns out the guide, offers me a full-on resource for Bartok’s life. It seems almost impossible to imagine there will ever be an appetite or a willingness to open-up the doors of present-day composers when they’ve died. I’m not sure whether that’s a shame or a relief.
Most of the time on the visit is spent in Bartok’s study, living quarters (now a recital room) on the first and second floors, and in the attic conversion opened for public visits ten years ago.
There are three Bosendorfer pianos, Bartok’s furniture, the phonograph and portable typewriter he took with him across Hungary to capture and then transcribe an astonishing 1300 folk songs, plus the various items he collected along the way too. He seemed to have a fondness for ceramic bowls it seems, liked to store his rolling tobacco in a clog, and possessed a remarkable fork-like inkpen for drawing out ledger lines.
The most surprising exhibit is one of Bartok’s half-smoked cigarettes. The composer was a heavy smoker which presumably conitrbuted to his diagnosis of leukeamia. The cigarette was discovered on the sound-board of one of the Bosendorfers, abandoned, forgotten about and extinguished before it did any damage. Now on display there is a creepy edge to it.
These like the many photographs which line the alarmed rooms (don’t lean too far beyond the roped off areas because highly sensitive alarms will go off and tear your ear drums) are items which make Bartok real. A man with a strong jaw, a steely stare and puritanical aspirations. The pictures also show a demonstrative man, one who loved his children and adored his own parents.
Back in the centre of the city I crammed in a quick visit to the Parliament building.
An American chap at breakfast today had commented how he reckoned the Houses of Parliament in London was ‘much better’. Personally, don’t see it. Hungary’s Parliament building is cleaner, easier to get close to, and fronted by a large expanse of public space. In front of it two soldiers walk around the bottom of a flagpole at the top of which flies a Hungarian flag. They could have just put the flagpole their and be done with it, but to have people guarding it says something about what Hungary achieved in 1989.
At one corner of the square a statue to Imre Nagy stands on a steep footbridge looking towards Parliament Square. The man who tried to bring down the Soviet power in Hungary in 1956 failed and in 1958 was tried by Kruschev in a secret court and buried face down in an unmarked grave near to where his was shot. His statue depicts a kindly man in stark contrast to the ignominious demise he suffered. The statue’s position and the struggle climbing it is a chilling metaphor.
Waiting for my taxi to arrive at the hotel, I crack on with the last tasks, selecting and editing the pictures I’ve taken on my half-day sightseeing jaunt and uploading them to the blog. Photographs, unlike podcast interviews or anything I’ve written, aren’t difficult to look over during the ‘edit’. I accept some stuff will look a little flat; I know there’ll be some stuff that works; there’ll also be things which surprise.
It’s the pictures of the soldiers in the square which really resonate: military uniforms are always so very well designed with long sweeping lines which flatter, mask and exaggerate. I’m also impressed how well the Panasonic LUMIX handles in daylight.
I work fast and complete the upload just as my taxi pulls into the car park and two new faces both with laptops, cameras and an earnest look on their faces settle themselves down at the bar. They could be the next people on the Festival press trip, just checked in to their hotel and catching-up on the to-do list in a bid to meet fast-approaching deadlines.
It is the ultimate bittersweet moment, a clear sign that your time working on this is over and there are others now doing the same thing. It’s a moment which extinguishes any hint of self-importance: you’re not the only one on this merry-go-round and that what had quickly felt like home is nothing more than a transitory space.
Commemorations, wide roads, and the EU
In the last frenetic moments of the trip – a taxi ride during the slow-moving yet polite orderliness of the Budapest rush-hour – my driver asks me whether I’ve enjoyed my stay in Budapest and what my impressions are of the city.
I comment on its cleanliness, it’s calmness and the fact that I haven’t seen a single person angry. He explains that the wide roads I’ve complimented him on we’re in fact constructed at a point in time when the preferred method of transport was horse and cart and “they needed more space than the cars do now”. What that means now of course is that Pest benefits from multiple carriageways in both directions.
He tells me about the Revolution commemorations this coming weekend, how people will be celebrating but how it’s only really important for the older generation who remember the events of 1956. “I was only born in the year it happened. It is seven out of ten important for me to remember. What is difficult for us is not knowing the truth about it. There are so many different stories told about it. No-one knows for sure.”
As I eat the two apples I pilfered from breakfast he responds to my question about the UK voting to leave the EU. He explains how he thinks it will mean fewer opportunities for the young people of Hungary of the kind he took up in 2003. He explains how he spent 8 years working as a lorry driver in the UK while his wife worked as an English teacher in Manchester. “When my granddaughter was born in Budapest, I wanted us to go home – I didn’t want to stay in the UK any longer.” What attracted him in the first place? “We could earn more in the UK than we could in Hungary. They were offering us more and we were able to go there. Why wouldn’t we?” I compliment him on his excellent English. He says he learnt it by listening, “although I found the Scottish accent very difficult – I didn’t understand anything of what they were saying.”
We shake hands at the airport. He encourages me to visit Budapest again. I love these opportunities. They still feel like privileges. I want to do more of them.