Late Romanticism. The Transition Period.
Western Reaction at the Turn of the Century

The romantic-national tendency, however, was pushed into the background after 1880. We can observe how the national tendency of the romantic school changed and deteriorated in this period, into the works of salon composers, into the trashy genre of stylish “Hungarian fantasies”, “Gipsy arrangements”, etc. The initiative was taken over from the exhausted romantic generation by the new “school” – Late Romantic, that was again nurtured – only more one-sidedly and more exclusively than its predecessors – by foreign musical tendencies. From the great romantic programme, the union of Europe and Hungary, it recognized only the {80.} “European culture” and not the Hungarian foundation. In consequence the duality of Hungarian musical life became more and more pronounced, and the antagonism between the urban public, the imitators of the West, and the provincials, the cultivators of Gipsy music fatally deepened and turned into the unhealthy and dangerous alternative of “culture or Hungary”. Such an alternative could only result in deceiving the country with the opium of semi-education on the one hand and superficial nationalism on the other.

The decisive step in the field of musical orientation was taken by the establishment of great musical institutions. The Academy of Music was opened in Budapest in 1875, with Franz Liszt as its President and Ferenc Erkel as Director. This institution has been the centre of Hungarian musical education ever since, and together with the Philharmonic Society (since 1853) and the Opera House of Budapest (since 1884) the workshop of Hungarian artistic interpretation. Several highly talented masters, composers and pedagogues of German origin or German culture worked there at that time, and they played a decisive role in the musical education of the new Hungarian generation. On the other hand Josef Joachim, Hans Richter, Arthur Nikisch, Leopold Auer, natives of Hungary, worked at the same time as leading pedagogues in foreign countries. Robert Volkmann (1815–83) was working from 1858 onwards in Pest and he also supported the contemporary romantic tendencies with his work as a composer. His successor, Hans Koessler worked at the Academy of Music from 1882 onwards and enjoyed great authority as first-class pedagogue; David Popper taught at the Academy of Music from the year 1886, and Victor Herzfeld from 1888. These composers and pedagogues were educated by German Romanticism and their activity introduced into Hungary not only an advanced professional ability, but at the same time, the music and the cult of contemporary German masters as well. The Hungarian public that in the first half of the century had responded to Italian and French opera music, was completely dominated now, at the time of Koessler and his circle, by German musical tendencies. In their wake, or together with them, an academic tendency of Late Romanticism began to appear, played a dominant role around 1900, and created a deep gulf between the {81.} academic composers of German culture and the more and more dilettant epigones of the Hungarian romantic tendency. It is interesting to note that this dangerous duality in Hungarian musical life, the divergence of folk music and composed music that could have been eliminated only by the genius of a great personality, was already recognized by Richard Wagner, undoubtedly under the impressions he received in Pest (his letter of August 8, 1863 to Kornél Ábrányi). This crisis became more and more acute. The school of Volkmann consisted of several reputed musicians, among them Gyula J. Major and Mór Vavrinecz (both of them composers of stage and symphonic works). They were joined by two of Liszt’s pupils, Count Géza Zichy (stage and piano compositions) and Henrik Gobbi, and by one of Mosonyi’s pupils, János Végh (piano and chamber-music compositions, songs). We will discuss Koessler’s pupils later on. At the same time, in the last third of the nineteenth century, a prospering tendency of German inspiration and Late Romanticism was to be found also in other spheres of culture. In church music Mátyás Engeszer and Gyula Beliczay (the composer also of two symphonies: 1835–93) adapted the formal tradition of German Romanticism. Károly Goldmark, a native of Keszthely who settled in Vienna, and who was the most popular opera composer at the end of the century (1830–1915), followed in the steps of contemporary Viennese masters in his colourful and effective stage, symphonic and chamber music (The Queen of Sheba 1875, Merlin 1886, etc., 7 overtures, 2 violin concertos). Ödön Mihalovich, for more than three decades the director of the Academy of Music (1842–1929), composed his stage works under Wagner’s influence (Eliana, Toldi 1893). Jenő Hubay, his successor at the Academy of Music as director, and founder of the world famous Hungarian violin school and chamber-music practice (1858–1937) followed in his works (operas, symphonies, violin compositions) the style of the French and German instrumental musical culture of the nineteenth century, in particular of Massenet and Vieuxtemps.

Koessler’s school, the generation growing up around 1900, was approaching the genuine Hungarian style more conspicuously and was more inclined to accept reform tendencies. Ernst von Dohnányi, one of the best piano artists of his time (1877–1960), a representative {82.} of refined lyricism also in his compositions, was a follower of the German masters of Romanticism, but at the same time he often used Hungarian colours (symphony, orchestral suits, Ruralia Hungarica 1924, stage, choir, chamber and piano music). Dohnányi’s art demonstrated best that the refined tradition of Viennese Romanticism coming from abroad to Hungary, could find new colours and come to new life within the intimate framework of chamber music. But the old frames had to be filled not only by new colours, it was more and more necessary to fill them with new contents as well. This was accomplished in a more definite way by the adaptation of the Hungarian musical language, and partly even of folk music, in the works of Dohnányi’s younger contemporaries: in the orchestral and chamber music compositions of Leó Weiner (1885–1960) and Aladár Radó, who died in 1914 during the First World War. Weiner was the most important representative of classical chamber-music culture in the first half of the twentieth century. His influence was directly felt in the works of the younger generation. (Csongor and Tünde 1915, Carnival, Toldi, orchestral works, piano-concertino, string quartets and divertimentos.)

The gulf between the generations after 1900 was widening, but neither was there unity between the members of the older generation. At the close of the century, around the time of the Hungarian “millennium” (1896), it could be seen that not only the members of the older musical generation but also highly cultured writers and men of public life, professionals and amateurs alike, were aware of a dangerous vacuum under the brilliant surface of life. They spoke of “Hungarian music crouching in the dust”, and thought of the future of Hungarian music with apparent pessimism. Now, at the beginning of the twentieth century, this pessimism was felt more by the younger generation, and while the older composers (Árpád Szendy, Béla Szabados, Ede Poldini) were still absorbed in the delightful national traditions of the last century, the members of the younger generation, even the ones who were educated in French and German musical culture, or who settled abroad, having lost their faith in the romantic pathos, were to a greater extent interested in the problems of a more modern Hungarian musical idiom. They realized that these problems were not {83.} only unsolved, but could not be solved. (Albert Siklós, Emil Ábrányi Jr., Tivadar Szántó, Ervin Lendvai, Jenő Zádor and others.)

The members of the younger musical generation around 1905 were becoming conscious of the fact that the triumph of the great romantic artists of the last century belonged to the past, and that it had presented a transitory solution only. The problems were more profound and more complicated than could be seen at the time, in the great prosperity of the national era, and with the feverish enthusiasm of the pioneers. It is not enough to praise the nation without knowing its capabilities; it is not enough to profess faith in the people without knowing its development, its traditions and its aspirations. Is it not an illusion to assume that there is “a Hungarian Brahms”, “a Hungarian Wagner”, although we do not even know how far the music of Brahms and Wagner reaches beyond Budapest.

What is it that lives hidden in the people, unknown to us up till now, if everything we create remains restricted to a narrow circle of society with no profound effect and not a wide echo?