Around 1906-7, just when the new century was dawning, a generation graduated from the Budapest Academy of Music, founded by Franz Liszt. The most talented and most radical among them were Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and, at the time, Leó Weiner. With them, Hungarian avant-garde music – then termed “art music” – was born. The era urged the emergence of modernism: throughout Europe significant and less consequential composers were seeking new avenues for music – in cafés and bourgeois salons, at World’s Fairs and on ballet stages, and in visions of the future and dreams of the past. It was one of the most exciting chapters in music history. Nowhere on the continent was the flag of the new music unfurled without a struggle, but the “imperial and royal” conservatism of Hungary presented particularly stony ground for the sowing of fresh ideas. Although the oeuvres of the two most outstanding composers of the nineteenth century, Ferenc Erkel and Franz Liszt, had both in their own ways been created in the spirit of innovation, not only was the reception for the new movement distinctly frosty, the music itself fell on deaf ears. In order to overcome such obstacles, in 1911 a number of partisans established the New Hungarian Music Association (UMZE – Új Magyar Zene Egyesület). Its central figure was Béla Bartók, who retrospectively summed up their motivation for the founding of the group and also the reason for its early disintegration:

The reason for the lack of understanding was, among other things, the fact that the new orchestral works were performed, almost without exception, rather imperfectly. We had neither a sympathetic conductor nor a competent orchestra. When the situation became very fraught, in 1911 some young musicians, including Kodály and myself, formed the New Hungarian Music Association. Our actual purpose was to create an orchestra that might have been capable of performing the latest works of musical art in a satisfactory manner.

Although the evening of Bartók and Kodály’s works presented in March 1910 was met with a generally bemused reception, one positive concerning the establishment of the Association did come out of it – the formation of the Waldbauer String Quartet, and its heroic work in performing the music of the new Hungarian composers. Insufficient support ruling out the organization of a full orchestra, the Association launched its brief career with a more modest programme: a handful of chamber concerts, the first two of which went down in history. Bartók played the piano, the pieces being in part works by his contemporaries, but also compositions from the distant and recent past which had been absent from his early concert repertoire. It is interesting to note that the chairman of the Association was Pongrác Kacsóh, whose name is linked to the most popular Hungarian operetta of the era, John the Valiant (1904), which simultaneously opened a new but also local chapter in the history of the genre. As a music journalist, the versatile Kacsóh devoted his energies to achieving recognition for the Hungarian avant-garde, which did great credit to his short but full career. Progressive commentators welcomed the Association’s foundation – following Bartók’s solo concert of November 1911, one of the great painters of the era, Róbert Berény, published an article in the literary journal West that might well have served as a manifesto for the new art – yet the breakthrough was never achieved and the New Hungarian Music Association withered and died.

This failure weighed heavily on the forward-looking composers and musicians of the twentieth century. An attempt was made to re-establish the Association at the end of the 1930s; the political climate was inauspicious and the endeavour was unsuccessful. Similarly, although the importance of the original nascent movement was periodically highlighted from the late 1960s onwards, UMZE was not revived during the communist era either. It was only after – and partly due to – the change of political regime in 1989 that the charismatic percussionist Zoltán Rácz, the composer László Tihanyi, and the music historian András Wilheim were able to resurrect the UMZE Chamber Ensemble. Refounded in 1997, the Ensemble vowed to perform “the new music”, their name at one and the same time commemorating their predecessors and signifying their demanding and uncompromising standards concerning their choice of repertoire and its performance.

If the lack of success of the first brief period in UMZE’s history has not been repeated, the maintenance and operation of the new UMZE has still been a constant problem for the upholders of its noble tradition. This is despite the fact that as a continuation of the activities of UMZE as an ensemble, in 2006 leading Hungarian musicians (György Ligeti, György Kurtág, András Szőllősy, László Dobszay, Péter Eötvös, Zoltán Jeney, Ferenc Rados, and Miklós Perényi) founded the UMZE Association.

With composer László Vidovszky as chairman from the very beginning, the activities of the revamped UMZE (the association plus the chamber ensemble) are, in spite of perennially scant financial resources, exemplary. In the original spirit of “the new Hungarian music”, UMZE’s mission for over twenty years has been to perform contemporary Hungarian and international works, to revive less established twentieth-century classics, and to direct the attention of future generations to those composers whose oeuvres merit remembrance. In addition, just like its legendary predecessor, today’s UMZE also endeavours to introduce new Hungarian music beyond domestic borders. And the future? The enthusiastic conclusion to that article by the influential painter of Bartók’s portrait, Róbert Berény, is as valid as ever: “Ladies and gentlemen! Join the New Hungarian Music Association! Attend their concerts. Buy your tickets. You’ll see – it will be worth it.”

András Batta
Music historian, former rector of the Liszt Academy