Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 September 2011
Mixed reception: an introduction
With the premiere of his ambitious symphonic poem Kossuth (1903) in Budapest on 13 January 1904, twenty-two-year-old Béla Bartók seemed to have instantly achieved the status of a national icon. For weeks to come critics in no less than seventeen publications would echo the applause that had brought Bartók to the stage some dozen times.
Yet such unbridled enthusiasm hardly typified Bartók's reception in Hungary during his lifetime. For most of his career he was as frequently castigated by Hungarians as embraced. Even more painfully, Hungary's most prestigious musical organizations, the Opera and the Philharmonic Society, often simply ignored him. As was the case with a number of composers of his generation, a troubled relationship with the public was almost guaranteed by Bartók's allegiance to the difficult aesthetics of modernism. In Hungary, however, where musical style was often explicitly bound to the expression of magyarság (Hungarianness), the progressive (hence implicitly cosmopolitan) political stance Bartók's music was taken to represent erected further barriers to acceptance. Accordingly, reactions to Bartók's music in Hungary during his lifetime were heavily laced with social criticism, while his reception in Western Europe reflected more generic concerns about modern music. Bartók's Hungarian reception serves to remind us that not only his music, but modernist art in general – despite its appeals to abstraction and universality – carried culturally specific social messages that depended for their decoding on the contexts in which they were received.