Your first thought might be that I remember Béla Bartók at Halloween because of his opera Bluebeard’s Castle. That’s not it, although I did see a Long Beach Opera some years ago, eerily staged outdoors at the John Anson Ford Theatre. It’s certainly appropriate fare for Halloween and Long Beach Opera’s ever-inventive artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek might do well with an October run, complete with Haunted House and a trick-or-treat fundraising campaign. But I digress…

Let me connect the dots on Halloween and Bartók in the stream of my thoughts. Traveling in Central Europe this past summer, we visited two landmarks on the beautiful tree-lined Andrássy Boulevard in Budapest:

  • #22 Andrássy, the exquisite Hungarian State Opera House. Here Bartók is honored with a bust in the lobby for his painstaking work traveling in the Carpathian basin, then the Kingdom of Hungary, to document Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian and Bulgarian folk music. Listen to a 1940 recording of Bartók’s Hungarian Folk Tunes. Bartók is the pianist and Joseph Sziget is the violinist. Bartók’s work was curtailed at the onset of World War I. He later traveled to Moldavia, Wallachia and as far as Algeria and Turkey to collect folk music.
  • #60 Andrássy, the House of Terror museum

A very lovely-looking-from-the-outside house in a genteel neighborhood, #60 served as the headquarters of two of Hungary’s darkest regimes –- the Arrow Cross (Nazi-occupied Hungary’s version of the Gestapo) and ÁVO/ÁVH (communist Hungary’s secret police.) The museum is a high-tech, conceptual attempt to document the atrocities endured by Hungary during the 20th century and is a powerful experience of the terrors that came with Hungary’s “double occupation,” first by the Nazis, and then the Soviets. (The grainy footage both of the Nazis goose-stepping down Andrássy Boulevard in 1944 and of Soviet tanks rolling down the same street as they withdrew in 1990/91 is chilling.)

As an arts lover, I was particularly struck by the section in the museum that tells of Soviet efforts to pry the Hungarian peasants away from their old-fashioned farming lifestyles and deeply held Hungarian traditions. This included – and here, for me, the dots connect – stripping Hungarian folk music out of their lives. Children and youths were taught Communist songs praising Mother Russia and were encouraged and rewarded for reporting siblings, parents, friends and neighbors for perceived disloyalty to the Soviet regime, often with dire consequences.

That constitutes almost 50 years of repression – that’s a whole generation – and deliberate, systematic stamping out of the centuries-long, rich musical and cultural heritage of the Hungarian (Magyar) people. To put it into context, many of the beautiful buildings in Budapest were constructed, and indeed Andrássy Boulevard itself was laid out, for millennial celebrations of the arrival of Magyars in Europe in 896. Today, that’s more than 1,100+ years of Magyar tradition along the banks of the Danube!

Halloween – fright – House of Terror – folk music – this vital articulation of the Hungarian identity preserved by Bartók. If he had not done this important work in the early 20th century, the Magyar folk music tradition may have been completely erased. Music is such a powerful expression of the soul of a people that it is unthinkably terrifying to me that it could be eradicated intentionally. But, of course, it is because of this power that the attempt was made.

Our trip to Central Europe was to attend the wedding of a nephew. As a surprise, his wonderful Hungarian bride invited a local troupe of Hungarian folk dancers and musicians – singer, violin, bass and accordion – to perform at the wedding. With all that we had learned of Hungarian history during the trip, it was an incredibly moving experience.

So, it’s a windy road, but on Halloween, I think of, and honor, the work of Belá Bartók and of all who preserve the cultural heritage of a people for future generations.

Other somewhat related dots in the spectrum of my thoughts:

  • This year, the musical world celebrates the 100th anniversary of the great Sir George Solti. Born in Budapest on October 21, 1912, Solti said, “I was lucky to have grown up in Hungary, a country that lives and breathes music. Historically it has always had a passionate belief in the power of music as a celebration of life.” He graduated from the Liszt Academy in Budapest where Bartók taught.
  • LACO’s November 10 & 11 concert, Beethoven’s Second premieres a Violin Concerto that composer/conductor Benjamin Wallfisch has written for Tereza Stanislav. Benjamin is the grandson of Anita Lasker Wallfisch, a cellist who survived Auschwitz by virtue of playing in the women’s orchestra in the camp. Benjamin Wallfisch talks about his heritage in an interview with the The Jewish Journal. Anita Lasker Wallfisch told her story to The Guardian in 2005.
  • For LACO’s December 8 & 9 concerts Rhapsody in Blue LACO music director Jeffrey Kahane has chosen a program that features Americana. He play/conducts Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and leads Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite and John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony. I’ll listen with new appreciation for the distinctive American sound and all it signifies.