Playbills, with poster advertising Erkel exhibit on the 200th anniversary of his birth
Enjoying theater, presenting history’s unusual events, is taking one to other lands, other eras, other problems. Or are the problems really unusual? Intrigue, jealousy, conspiracy, rape, murder is all too familiar to us here and now. To witness them in historic distance and environment wraps them in the veil of drama and mystery. We are entertained and comforted by the conclusion that there is nothing new under the sun.
The story of Bánk Bán, a 19th century opera of a 13th century intense historic tragedy, was written as a stage play by playwright Katona József, whose (227th) birthday we should celebrate on November 11th. The original play, dealing with basic human feelings involved with, and depicting the murder of Queen Gertrud, wife of King II Endre of Hungary, is presented in five acts.
While the inner struggles with personal and public problems and conflicts of the characters remained the same, the original storyline was modified in various ways before it was turned into an opera in three acts. Egressy Béni, a multi-talented composer, librettist, translator and actor wrote the libretto. In his short life of 37 years, he was more famous as an actor than for his permanent heritage in music and literature. He wrote the music to the “Second Hungarian Anthem”, the Szózat by Vörösmarty Mihály and libretti to three operas of Erkel Ferenc, including Bánk Bán.
The composer of the opera Bánk Bán, Erkel Ferenc, was born on November 7, 1810, at Németgyula. (Wow, we seem to have another birthday coming!) His father, Erkel József, came from a dynasty of educated musicians and was one himself. His marriage to Ruttkay Klára produced 10 children, Ferenc being the oldest surviving, after their firstborn died in infancy.
The boy received his first musical instruction from his father and grandfather. He progressed rapidly with his studies and often participated at the music gatherings of the adults. At age 10, he occasionally played the organ in his father’s lieu, and was 11 when he first played the piano for an audience. Ferenc started his secondary education at Nagyvárad and continued at Pozsony, where he could receive an excellent musical education. He attended the opera regularly, thus he became acquainted with the classics of operatic literature as well as having a chance to hear violinist Bihari János and a concert by Liszt Ferenc. By age 17, he finished his studies, having mastered the basics of composition and becoming a virtuoso on the piano.
Around 1828, accepting an invitation to Kolozsvár, Transylvania (now Cluj, Romania), the young Erkel took a job as piano teacher. This move marked the start of his musical career. His friends and mentors there encouraged him to get acquainted with and utilize Hungarian folk songs in composition. In a few years he became the city’s concert orchestra conductor. He attributed his musical awakening and later success to his years spent at Kolozsvár.
In 1835, he moved to Buda where, as conductor of the Castle Theatrical Group, he soon turned into the most popular leading musical persona of Pest-Buda. The group’s aim was the cultivation of Hungarian dramatic arts and music. Yet, due to the difficult approach to the theater building, they had to close its doors, forcing Erkel to accept an offer to be conductor of the German Theater of Pest.
In 1838, however, after the new Hungarian Theater of Pest opened, he took a position there, securing him full control over orchestra, choir and soloists who came from the Castle Group. His debut with a Bellini opera opened on January 25, 1838. On March 13, an unprecedented flood inundated Pest, leaving the theater closed for a month, imprisoning actors and musicians for several days.
Erkel’s private life came to a significant milestone: he met the accomplished pianist, Adler Adél, daughter of the famed conductor of the Buda Castle Coronation Church, whom he married on August 19, 1839. During their honeymoon to Gyula, together they gave a concert for the benefit of the new county hospital. Their first son, Gyula, was born in 1842, the second, Elek in 1843, the third, László in 1844, followed by seven other offspring.
Encouraged by the success of his first opera, Bátori Mária, a joint venture with Egressy Béni, Erkel commissioned him to write a libretto to Hunyadi László.
The opening of that opera in January 1844 resulted in mixed reviews by the critics but the audience loved it. With that work Erkel raised Hungarian national opera to European ranks.
It was also in 1844 that Erkel won the competition for composing music to Kölcsey Ferenc’s Himnusz, which later became, and to the present day is the National Anthem of Hungary.
Despite his undeniable successes, supporting his growing family became a huge task. He was forced to teach: in 1851 he took a job as musical educator of Archduke Albrecht’s daughters. While Liszt Ferenc conducted Erkel’s Hunyadi-overture in Vienna and scheduled the opera’s performance in Weimar, he never received the material because the composer could not afford the copying expenses. This and many others fell through for this reason.
Erkel often escaped from the crowded apartment in Pest to Gyula and spent most of his summers there. His father died in 1855, his younger brother, József in 1859. He became morose, withdrawn, cold and unfriendly. He could still relax in music, but his love of work diminished. Their marriage deteriorated, and they divorced. Besides music, his only pleasure was chess playing that he enjoyed, well above amateur levels. He founded the chess club whose president he was until his death.
For 17 years he hadn’t composed anything significant. When he awoke from his slumbers, he stepped out with the most valuable of his life’s work, Bánk Bán.
It is a double cultural treasure: the historic drama of Katona József is just as unparalleled in Hungarian literature as Erkel’s opera among historic Magyar music. Librettist Egressy Béni must have finished his work by 1851, since in July of that year he died. The composer finished the orchestration of the opera in October 1860.
Bánk Bán opened on March 19, 1861, with gigantic success. Celebration of the composer equaled a political demonstration and signified the apex of his career.
The rest of the 32 years of his life was a conglomeration of less important compositions, official roles and posts, professional cooperation and deaths in the family, attacks and celebrations, but nothing ever came close to the importance of Bánk Bán. Surrounded by his children, he died in Budapest at age 82, on June 15, 1893.
It took three geniuses to create Bánk Bán: Katona, Egressy and Erkel.
Where is the “triumvirate” in the opus itself?
Let’s examine the storyline. King Endre II is fighting abroad while his queen, Gertrud of Merania lavishly entertains members of the Court, all foreigners. The King’s deputy, Bán (Viceroy) Bánk is touring the poverty-stricken country while the Queen’s brother, Otto is trying to seduce Bánk’s beautiful wife, Melinda. Bán Petur, with a group of Magyar nobles, is plotting a conspiracy against the queen, worried about the fate of the country and the honor of Bánk’s wife. He sends for Bánk, to recruit him for their cause. Bánk arrives but is revolted by the plot to threaten the throne, until he learns about Otto’s advances toward Melinda.
The distraught Bánk prays over his nation and his good name. Tiborc, an old peasant, a vassal of the Bán who had once saved his life in battle, tells Bánk about the desperate poverty of the country caused by the extravagance of the foreigners at Court. When Otto, with the Queen’s approval, tries to seduce Melinda without success, he drugs and rapes her. She staggers to her husband, half insane with shame. He, in his grief curses his own little son, then embraces him and comforts his wife. He asks Tiborc to escort Melinda and the boy to their castle in East Hungary, beyond the Tisza River.
In the throne-room, Bánk calls the Queen to account for plunging the country into poverty and for the honor of his betrayed wife. Gertrud angrily draws a dagger that Bánk wrests from her hand, and in the scuffle, he stabs her fatally.
Tiborc and his charge reach the Tisza River where Melinda, in a fit of insanity, throws herself and her son into the waves.
The King returns, and Bánk admits that he killed the Queen deliberately. They face each other with swords drawn when Tiborc arrives with the corpses of Melinda and the child. The sword drops from Bánk’s grip, and he falls over the bodies of his wife and son. All pray for the repose of the dead.
Both Petur, representing the nobles and Tiborc, the peasants of Hungary, expect help from Bánk who, in the center of events, is riddled with personal problems.
The Triumvirate is without winners.
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.