Areopagus Volume LXIII

published2 months ago
16 min read

Areopagus Volume LXIII

Welcome one and all to the sixty third volume of the Areopagus. Autumn is here at last, and I can think of few better messages with which to start this new season than that of Among the Rocks, a short poem by the inimitable Robert Browning:

Oh, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth,
This autumn morning! How he sets his bones
To bask i’ the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.
That is the doctrine, simple, ancient, true;
Such is life’s trial, as old earth smiles and knows.
If you loved only what were worth your love,
Love were clear gain, and wholly well for you:
Make the low nature better by your throes!
Give earth yourself, go up for gain above!

Stirring verse... but on with the show! I was fortunate enough to visit Budapest recently, the capital of Hungary and a city caught in the cultural cross-winds of Europe. Inspired by my surroundings and the rich history of this land, I have decided that today's volume of the Areopagus will be dedicated to Hungary — or, as the people here call it, Magyarország. Gyerünk!

I - Classical Music

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

Béla Bartók (1936)

Performed by the New York Philharmonic
Panorama of Selmecbánya by Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka (1902)

Hungary has been home to a wealth of magnificent composers and musicians, foremost and most famous among them Franz Liszt. Second to him, perhaps, is Béla Bartók. He was born in 1881 as a boy he understood music before he understood words; he started playing piano at the age of three. By 1903 he had graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest and was beginning to make a name for himself. But more important than any of his teachers or early successes was Zoltán Kodály, a fellow student one year his junior, with whom Bartók struck up a lifelong friendship. They travelled all around Hungary together, listening to, studying, and collating the folk music of their native land at a time when industrialisation was threatening its centuries-old existence.

In the 21st century we are lucky enough to have recordings of almost everything, and access to such music is easy and quick thanks to the internet. Once upon a time this was not so — you could only hear music if it was performed live, and to hear folk tunes you had to get out into the countryside. Hence the journeys of Bartók, who used phonographs — then a new and exciting technology — to record and preserve the songs of the Hungarian people. Without his hard work, and that of other ethnomusicologists, much of this rich heritage would have been lost.

This study of folk music, which operates according to different rules than classical western music, radically influenced Bartók's later work, as he started to explore and compose in novel, exciting, and perplexing ways. His willingness to experiment, and to look for inspiration in unusual places, was a vital influence on composers throughout the 20th century. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was written in 1936 and has been one of his most popular works ever since. I suspect you will immediately hear just how different this sounds compared to "normal" classical music; some of you may also recognise it from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

The end of Bartók's life was rather melancholy. A staunch anti-fascist, he had refused to perform in Germany ever since the Nazis first came to power in 1933. In 1940, with the outbreak of the Second World War and an ever-darkening political situation, he fled to America. There he died five years later, never fully at home and never to see his beloved Hungary again. But he lives on through the loving work that has brought the music of his homeland to millions around the world.

II - Historical Figure


The Father of Hungarian History

Between the Alps and the Carpathian Mountains there is a huge and fertile plain known as the Pannonian Basin, watered by the Danube and Sava rivers. For hundreds of years people had been fighting over this land, but in the late 9th century the Hungarians arrived from the great Pontic Steppe in the east. Over the course of a century they conquered this plain, settling there and eventually creating the Kingdom of Hungary under Saint Stephen — the director ancestor of the modern nation.

But much of what we know about this sequence of events, sometimes called the Hungarian Conquest, comes from a single source: the Gesta Hungarorum, meaning "Deeds of the Hungarians" in Latin, which was written at some point in the early 13th century. Who wrote it? A mysterious scholar who worked in the court of King Béla III. We only know the initial of his first name: P. Otherwise the facts of his life and identity, despite endless speculation and research, remain shrouded in doubt. And so he has come to be known simply as Anonymus. The capital of Hungary was Esztergom at that time, and there you can still see the remains of the Medieval palace and castle from which King Béla ruled and among whose chambers Anonymus must have once have been working. This aura of intrigue, combined with his importance in preserving the story of Hungary's creation, is what has made him a figure of such enduring fascination. Consider the sculpture by Miklós Ligeti, pictured above. Who knew Medieval scholars could look so cool?

There is something rather moving about the idea of this nameless writer working tirelessly to collate and preserve the history of his country, much as Bartók did for music. It cannot have been easy rifling through the confused and conflicting accounts in existing manuscripts, attempting to sort out fact from fiction and legend from truth. We know he was familiar with the stories that had been passed on verbally from one generation to the next ever since the Conquest, for in the Gesta Hungarorum he refers to "the gabbling rhymes of minstrels and the spurious tales of peasants". Still, we must treat Anonymus' work with caution, for he was part of a Medieval literary tradition in which myths were inevitably mingled with reality and, as Livy once said, people were happy to write about events which "posterity would find more praiseworthy than credible".

It is something of a miracle that his chronicle survived, for there is only one Medieval copy of Anonymus' work. This manuscript turned up in the Viennese Imperial Library in the 17th century and once people realised its importance they studied, translated, and published it. There are other European accounts of the Hungarians at that time, but Anonymus' manuscript is the oldest history about Hungarians written by a Hungarian. You can see why he is so important then, both because of what he actually wrote and because he also represents the birth of Hungarian history.

But, more broadly, the story of Anonymus is significant because it reminds us just how fragile history can be, and the extent to which our understanding of the past relies on the sole accounts of writers like him. Anonymus embodies the thousands of nameless and forgotten scholars who have worked in times of war and plague, persecution and catastrophe, to safeguard our collective history. Think, for example, of the scribes who worked for Charlemagne in the Dark Ages, scrupulously copying out (by hand, of course!) the books and scrolls of Ancient Rome and Greece, which have long since perished themselves. We owe a great deal to these anonymous scholars, all around the world. Without them our history books would be empty and we would know ourselves less well.

III - Painting

Finding the Body of King Louis II

Bertalan Székely (1860)

This painting is a good example of why we should be wary of focussing on "style" too much when talking about art. Upon seeing it for the first time, if you are familiar with art history, then you may ask yourself: is this an Academic painting? Well, it certainly seems to have the same mixture of near-photorealistic detail, balance between idealism and realism, and carefully orchestrated composition that defined much art in Europe's academies throughout the 19th century. And, of course, most Academic art portrayed scenes from history or mythology — suitably noble and grand topics for the grand and noble painter. It was precisely against this sort of thing that the Impressionists and their ilk would eventually rebel.

But none of this is surprising, for Bertalan Székely (1835-1910) was a thoroughly Academic artist: he studied at the University of Fine Arts in Vienna and then spent time at academies in Dresden and Munich, before touring Europe to hone his craft. Székely later became one of the first teachers at the new academy in Budapest and enjoyed a long career of commissions to paint murals in museums, opera houses, theatres, and town halls. In other words, Székely was not an artistic rebel. He learned the "proper way" to paint according to Academic principles and Finding the Body of King Louis II, which was his first major work, says as much.

And yet there is something else going on here. The scene has a quiet but very real emotional intensity, what with the highly expressive faces of the figures involved and the colossal cloudbank rolling in overhead. Academic Art can often feel rather staged and artificial; Székely has certainly composed his scene with great care, but there is an atmospheric edge here, partly because of the darker colours, that gives it more bite than most Academic paintings. Add to the mix that this portrays an important moment in Hungarian history and, suddenly, it feels like we might have a work of Romanticism on our hands. Which is it, then, Academic or Romantic? Or is it both? Perhaps, in the end, it doesn't matter, for if we cleave too closely to preconceived ideas about "style" then we shall fail to actually look at this painting on its own terms.

So, what are we looking at? The Battle of Mohács, fought in August of 1529, saw King Louis II of Hungary lead his army against the Ottomans, then ruled by Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottoman Empire was at its zenith, rapidly expanding through the Balkans (and elsewhere in the world), and this was something like a last stand for freedom. But the Hungarian army was completely overwhelmed and almost entirely destroyed in just two hours by the far superior Ottoman forces. Though Louis survived the fighting he fell from his horse into a stream and, because of the weight of his armour, drowned. Suleiman is reported to have shown remorse upon seeing the body of the young king — Louis was only twenty years old.

Székely's masterful use of chiaroscuro — the contrast of light and shadow — draws our eyes first to Louis, dressed in white and looking almost like a saint, before following his arm and then continuing up to the mournful faces looking down on him. The myriad details of the vegetation and earth are balanced against the emptiness and simplicity of the skyscape, while the array of figures, bushes, birds are all organised into a perfect but unnoticable system of proportion; it just feels right. Notice, for example, that Louis is slightly off-centre. There is something innately visually pleasing about all this — that's the strange magic of art. And here it has all been used in service of Székely's scene: a dark moment in Hungarian history, then, for after the Battle of Mohács the Ottomans took control of vast swathes of the country and were not finally expelled until 1699. This is defeat rather than triumph, and tragedy rather than victory, all made to feel so perfectly cinematic, readibly conceivable, and emotionally evocative — Romantic or Academic or otherwise, Székely has given us something to remember.

IV - Architecture

Vajdahunyad Castle

Architectural Theme Park

This castle is rather confusing. Why? Because there is an extraordinary mixture of architecture here: Romanesque, Early Gothic, Flamboyant Gothic, High Renaissance, and Baroque. Such architectural palimpsests are not entirely unusual, for plenty of buildings have been built and rebuilt and extended and remodelled down the centuries, but there's something different about Vajdahunyad. All the stonework, from all the different eras, is in suspiciously good condition. And the whole place seems almost too good to be true — mixed architecture is one thing, but a perfect mixture showcasing all the best design elements of the different eras? That's unheard of.

My initial confusion was resolved when I learned about the history of Vajdahunyad Castle. It was built in 1896 for the Millennial Exhibition, an event organised to celebrate one thousand years since the Hungarian Conquest — there is a statue of our friend Anonymus in the grounds. The very purpose of this castle was to be a procession of Hungarian architecture, and so its designer chose to combine elements of different buildings from around the country and across the centuries. You will see parts of the Gothic Corvin Castle (now in Romania), the Baroque Esterhazy Palace, and a Romanesque abbey from the village of Ják all forged into one. The original version was built from wood, but it proved so popular that they decided to build it properly (by which I mean with stone and mortar) and changed its name from the original and rather revealing Történelmi Épületcsoport — Historical Buildings Complex. Such are the facts of this curiously eclectic site on the edge of the City Park in Budapest.

Vajdahunyad Castle is rather like an architectural themepark, a carefree and joyous journey cobbled together for our study and amusement. Steeply gabled turrets, flowing window tracery, Romanesque arcades, glaring Renaissance satyrs, stained glass windows, painted vaults, frescos, spires, domes, and cloisters... this is a wonderland of surprises. You can travel all around Hungary and throughout its history in just a few minutes. This seems to me a wonderful way of teaching history, and there are many other countries with rich architectural heritage that might benefit from creating something similar. In doing so there is an obvious danger of making something kitsch or simply ridiculous; Ignác Alpár, the architect of Vajdahunyad Castle, offers a model for how to do this sort of thing tastefully.

But tourists wander through Vajdahunyad without knowing that this place is, in some sense, a deception. It looks like a real castle but it is not. And yet it is a real building, of course. Perhaps you can see where I am going with this: what makes a building "real", and is there anything wrong with buildings that aren't "real"? Whatever the answer to that question, there is a certain humility to borrowing from the best of the past, and not thinking of ourselves with so much hubris that we feel a need to be "original" and to create something better. Inauthentic or not, it is clear that people like Vajdahunyad Castle, this remarkable celebration of Hungarian architectural history, and what more can buildings aspire to than adulation?

V - Language


This is not so much about rhetoric as language, because few countries have a language quite so interesting as Hungarian. In Europe most languages fall into one of three categories: Romance, Germanic, or Slavic. Learn one language from any of those families and you can get by in another country with the same linguistic heritage. But once you cross the border into Hungary none of those other languages will help you, neither French nor German nor Swedish nor Serbian — because Hungarian is wholly unrelated to the languages of its neighbouring countries. Let me show you what I mean. Here is a poem by the great Sándor Petőfi, Hungary's national poet. Whereas you might expect to at least understand a handful of words in a French or German poem, I will be surprised if you know what any of this means (unless you are Hungarian or you speak it, of course!)

Mit nekem te zordon Kárpátoknak
Fenyvesekkel vadregényes tája!
Tán csodállak, ámde nem szeretlek,
S képzetem hegyvölgyedet nem járja.
Lenn az alföld tengersík vidékin
Ott vagyok honn, ott az én világom;
Börtönéből szabadúlt sas lelkem,
Ha a rónák végtelenjét látom

How did this happen? Well, Hungarian actually emerged in Siberia and then made its way through the Ural Mountains, where it came under the influence of the Turkic Onoğurs, and thence among the migrating conquerors of whom Anonymus wrote. It is unlike most other European languages because its origins lie in a totally different place; it isn't Germanic, Romance, or Slavic, but Uralic. They originally wrote it with symbols that look rather like runes, but under King Stephen the Hungarians adopted the Latin alphabet used elsewhere in Europe. Still, Hungarian isn't the only Uralic language spoken in Europe — Estonian and Finnish are also part of the same family. But a map of the Uralic languages will give you some sense of just how isolated Hungarian is, and the genuine oddity of its presence in Central Europe.

Now, there are many more things one might say about Hungarian and its manifold idiosyncracies, but I shall mention just one: Hungary is the only European country to use a naming system in which the family name comes first, as it is in Japan, China, or South Korea. So where I have written about Béla Bartók, a Hungarian would write of Bartók Béla. Curious. By way of conclusion I ought to mention that the autoglossonym for Hungarian is magyar.

(An autoglossonym is the name of a language in that language itself. Delightful word, no?)

VI - Writing

Prize-Winning Principles

You have perhaps heard of the Pulitzer Prizes, which are among the most prestigious awards for literature, music, and journalism in the USA. They were created in 1917 at Columbia University according to the will of Joseph Pulitzer, who had died in 1911. Born as József in Hungary in 1847, he arrived in America at the age of seventeen, having been recruited to fight in the Civil War. But from obscure beginnings he rose to the very top: Joseph Pulitzer became a powerful newspaper baron who competed with William Randolph Hearst (now best-remembered as the basis of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane) for media supremacy. He also served as the congressman for New York, for the Democratic Party, and became a leading voice in American politics and culture as a whole.

Pulitzer was evidently an extraordinary man and a deep thinker. He spoke about journalism with a sense of purpose and principle which, I think, most of us would hope modern media moguls share. Pulitzer believed the press should be non-partisan, for example:

We will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong...

And, even more than that, he saw free and honest media as crucial to the success of a fair and democratic society:

Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mold the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalism of future generations.

Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. Powerful words that people ought to remember, especially in the age of the internet. And, finally, Pulitzer's approach to his newpapers is applicable to all forms of writing, whether we are newspaper barons or solo writers:

Every issue of the paper presents an opportunity and a duty to say something courageous and true; to rise above the mediocre and conventional; to say something that will command the respect of the intelligent, the educated, the independent part of the community; to rise above fear of partisanship and fear of popular prejudice. I would rather have one article a day of this sort; and these ten or twenty lines might readily represent a whole day's hard work in the way of concentrated, intense thinking and revision, polish of style, weighing of words.

Every single issue presents an opportunity and a duty to say something courageous and true. Pulitzer spoke with passion, eloquence, and sparkling clarity of vision; his words demand to be remembered. This is not the place to assess how far Pulitzer's papers actually accorded with his stated principles; suffice to say, for now, they are certainly worthy of reflection.

VII - The Seven Plinth

Mighty Magyars

Even if you are not a fan of football, the sport is so popular that you will most likely be familiar with some its famous names: the likes of Pelé, Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi. And, perhaps, when we think of nations with rich footballing heritage it is places like Brazil, Argentina, Italy, and Germany that come to mind. But what if I told you that Hungary was once the world's greatest football team?

Well, it's true. Known universally as the "Mighty Magyars" and feared all around the world, the Hungarian national team of the 1950s was unlike anything the sport had known. They revolutionised the game with their tactics and, blessed with a generation of immensely talented players, swept all before them. England were beaten 6-3 at Wembley, which preciptated a national review of how the sport was being run, but when England went to Budapest the following year they were beaten 7-1 in front of more than ninety thousand Hungarian fans.

Over a six year period, starting in 1950, the Mighty Magyars played sixty nine games and lost only once — in the 1954 World Cup Final. Known as the "Miracle of Bern", it saw a group of young West Germans somehow come back from 2-0 down to win 3-2, despite having lost to Hungary 8-3 earlier in the tournament. Still, they were regarded then as the greatest team ever to play football and, statistically speaking, it's true. Among their stars, whether Nándor Hidegkuti or Sándor Kocsis, the brightest was perhaps Ferenc Puskás, who scored 806 goals in 793 games across his career. But the Golden Age could not last, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 brought an abrupt end to the reign of the Mighty Magyars. They went their separate ways, but what the Hungarian national team achieved for those six years has left an indelible mark on the history of football. The best there ever was, the best there will ever be?

Question of the Week

Last week I didn't ask you a question, but we're back in business now. So, hoping to broaden our horizons and help us learn more about the world, I ask you:

What is something you are proud of about your home country? It could be a person, building, work of art, place, moment in history, or anything else.

Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.

Write of Passage are the patrons who support my work, and they never ask me to talk about them.

But I want to mention them briefly, once again, both because of my gratitude for their generosity and because I believe in their mission to change the world by teaching people to write online. I believe in it because making the decision to start writing online is what changed my life. It might just change yours too.

You can consider joining their upcoming cohort here — there's only 24 hours before enrolment closes!

And that's all

It was a blessing to visit Budapest and a delight to write about Hungary for you, my Gentle Readers, and I hope that you have found in my missive things that are interesting, useful, and beautiful. It seems only right to end with one last tribute to Magyarország, and so here is a single, rather striking stanza from a poem by Sándor Petőfi called Föltámadott a tenger.

Eternal heaven bear witness
Before all heaven’s fools:
Though ships bob on the surface
And oceans run beneath us
It is the water rules.

Always remember — though ships bob on the surface it is the water that rules! Exeunt.


The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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