Norstedts, 2004. ISBN: 9113013548
Reviewed by Tuva Tod in SBR 2005:2
Kjell Espmark’s Béla Bartók mot Tredje Riket is about the Hungarian composer and musicologist, who championed the musical traditions of cultural minorities in the Second World War. By 1940 he was on the run from the Nazis in Vichy France. The book is a sensitively written, authoritative investigation into Béla Bartók’s state of mind while fleeing the Nazis. The narrative is written in the present tense throughout, which adds immediacy to a historical story – although the story is also valuable as a historical account. Goebbels, the Nazi Minister for Culture, issued lists of “entartete Kunst”, i.e. decadent Jewish art. Bartók responded by declaring “In that case my own music is also decadent and I proclaim that I am a voluntary Jew”. Bartók questioned whether the concept of “entartete Kunst” withstood any rational scrutiny, and was convinced of the absurdity of the idea. Why does Espmark choose this esoteric theme of pitching music against military might – Bartók vs. the Third Reich? Clearly because the Nazis sought to quash the cultures they met in favour of Nazi ideology. Any culture other than Nazism was doomed by definition: it was different. Of course, it is now universally accepted that the hallmark of a country’s civilization is the free expression of its art. Espmark concentrates his efforts on the pivotal figure of Bartók. He is a musicologist researching the music, or “soul” of the oppressed cultures of the Hungarian puszta, Slovakia and Romania. He stands up for the rights of these cultures to uphold their traditions as well as expressing their own individuality. This legacy, recorded meticulously on location in Slovakian villages and elsewhere, is preserved unequivocally in Bartók’s own music. Ultimately this preserves and inspires a bridge between past, present and future. Espmark chronicles both Bartók’s flight from the Nazis as well as his mental battle with the enemy. This is a tour de force, requiring not only a writer’s skills but also those of a social historian, psychologist, music critic, humanist, humorist and satirist. Espmark is an accomplished spokesman for civilized values, as represented here by Bartók. His use of imagery is vivid, with the Nazis shown as a pack of grey wolves, indistinguishable from one another. And, in the account of an execution of a group of hostages in a village church, Espmark eulogizes them with a sense of almost timeless poetry. Espmark’s closely argued, richly orchestrated exploration of Bartók’s mind is almost like a musical chord such as Bartók might have written. The reader comes away with a sense of admiration, both for Bartók the protagonist and Espmark for the way he has written this book.