Of the myriad ways to discover the true soul of a nation – through literature, food, art or history – perhaps music provides the most potent medium. Picture Spain and you instantly hear the hypnotic rhythms of flamenco; Italy, the tinkling mandolin; Greece, the seductive bouzouki; France, the street-corner accordion. This music of the people, for the people, developed and shaped over centuries of human endeavour and experience, rarely finds a place in the concert hall in its original form, and yet it has provided the springboard for so many extraordinary orchestral works, particularly during the last century.

When we think of Hungary we hear the firelight flash of the gypsy violin or the silvery tremble of the cimbalom, but it was the composer Béla Bartók who established that this was very much an urban idea of Hungarian folk music. For true authenticity, in 1907 he took an Edison phonograph into the Eastern Carpathian mountains and recorded villagers singing their strangely-metered songs, hearing them bend notes and decorate phrases, or accompany a melody in a distant key. These distinct features would find their way into his own compositions – not least because at the time he was suffering from unrequited love and the sharp dissonances of this earthy music came to represent a stubborn young woman who simply would not be wooed.

© Hungarian Tourism Agency

Bartók’s musical curiosity eventually took him through the Balkans into Turkey and even across the Mediterranean to Algiers, amassing some 7,000 tunes over several years. Some of the results of his studies and manuscripts of his subsequent compositions can be found in the library of the Budapest Music Centre, just one of the venues for the Bartók Spring International Arts Weeks, a new venture launched to mark the 140th anniversary of the composer’s birth and one that aims to become an annual event, attracting music lovers from around the world, when travel resumes.

In this extraordinary year, with the pandemic making arts ventures everywhere examine how best to connect with their audiences, the Bartók Spring will use technology to stream an extensive series of free events, not just from Budapest’s premier venues (and even some of its attractive parks and botanical gardens) but also from concert halls around Europe.

Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will play from the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, in London. Similarly, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists will perform from the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. Riccardo Chailly and the Filarmonica della Scala will stream from Milan, while in Switzerland, René Jacobs joins forces with the Kammerorchester Basel at the Paul Sacher Hall, Basel.

The Kammerorchester Basel
© Lukasz Rajchert

In Budapest, audiences will see performances streamed from the city’s premier music venues, but in future years it is hoped that towns across Hungary will host the festival’s wide variety of concerts and lure music-loving tourists to some of the less visited yet fascinating parts of this historic nation. To whet travellers’ appetites, films showing several beautiful and intriguing areas of the country will precede most of this year’s streamed concerts.

The festival is under the umbrella of Müpa Budapest, one of Hungary's best known cultural institutions and a home for classical, contemporary, popular and world music, jazz and opera, as well as circus, dance, literature and film. Csaba Káel, CEO of Müpa Budapest believes “an extraordinary period requires extraordinary, creative solutions”. He recalls that Bartók is remembered saying that no one can know the world in its entirety, because it is endless in both space and time. “Nonetheless,” he says, “we will make an attempt in this challenging and unusual year to diminish the space and time between some of the most compelling artists in the world and the audience, by connecting Hungarian and European cities on the digital platforms of the Bartók Spring.

While the festival is a celebration of Hungary’s famous son, it is by no means restricted solely to his music, seeking instead to represent Bartók’s spirit, creativity and outlook. On 7th May, for example, Riccardo Chailly and the Filarmonica della Scala will follow Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances with Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale Suite and that ultimate evocation of pagan earthiness, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sim Canetty-Clarke
Sir John Eliot Gardiner will present Bach’s monumental St John Passion on 14th May, while Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Brahms’ sublime Fourth Symphony on 17th May, alongside works by Weber and Villa-Lobos. On 18th May, György Vashegyi, the Orfeo Orchestra and the Purcell Choir will present an evening of Mozart from Müpa. And there is more than classical music in the programme. Each of Hungary’s three largest ballet companies – the Szeged Contemporary Dance Company, Ballet Company of Győr and Ballet Pécs – as well as the Hungarian National Dance Ensemble, will bring a new production to the Arts Weeks. And Budapest Ritmo, opening ears to world music, jazz and electronica, will stream from unusual locations across the city.

That’s not to say that dedicated lovers of Bartók’s music will be short-changed. The Kelemen Quartet, with its new line-up, will perform all of Bartók’s six string quartets across two nights (20th and 23rd May) at Budapest Music Centre. And earlier, on 9th May, young prizewinning artists at the stylish art-nouveau Liszt Academy in Budapest will play a Bartók programme bursting with Hungarian folk influences, including the Allegro barbaro, the Rhapsody no. 2, the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs and the third string quartet.

To close, on 24th May the sleek, contemporary Béla Bartók National Concert Hall at Müpa will host an extraordinarily ambitious project. After playing Bartók’s pivotal Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, conductor Gergely Madaras and the Hungarian National Philharmonic will be joined by the Szeged Contemporary Dance Company to perform a ballet by choreographer Tamás Juronics, danced to Bartók’s final masterpiece, his Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1943 when Bartók was living in the United States, ill, tormented by homesickness and worried over the fate of his homeland in war-torn Europe. He had not been able to compose for three years, but then, in hospital, he was approached with a commission for a symphonic work. It is said that he wrote all his nightmares, pain and bitterness into the work and yet his rediscovered zeal for composition imbued it with a shining optimism. Bartók himself appears as a character in the ballet, sharing the stage with figures from his operas and ballets such as Bluebeard, the Miraculous Mandarin and the Wooden Prince.

In the words of Müpa’s Csaba Káel: “Bartók was not only one of the greatest Hungarian composers of the 20th century, but also someone whose influence on Hungary’s image of itself has been very important. The 2021 Bartók anniversary is a great opportunity to show that we can overcome difficulties with invention and creativity. We intend to gradually turn the festival into a nationwide event series, to make Hungary an even more attractive destination for international tourism. This year we consider it important to show the world, digitally, as much of the beauty and cultural riches of Hungary as possible. It is also very much our hope that next year will allow us to meet lovers of culture in person to enjoy the Bartók Spring International Arts Weeks.”

The Bartók Spring International Arts Weeks will take place from the 7th to the 24th of May: click here to find out more.

This article was sponsored by Wavemaker Hungary