The “miracle piano” and the Hungarian entrepreneurial spirit

January 22 was designated the Day of Hungarian Culture in 1989. Why January 22? Because it was on that day in 1823 that Ferenc Kölcsey (1790-1838) wrote the final version of his poem “Hymn” (Himnusz), which became the lyrics of the Hungarian national anthem composed by Ferenc Erkel (1810-1893) in 1844.

This year the event was used by employees of cultural organizations, libraries, archives, and related organizations to express their dissatisfaction with the Orbán government’s cultural policies. As we have discussed earlier, education and culture (unless, as the prime minister suggested, sports are part of culture) don’t enjoy governmental support. In fact, with each passing year cultural and educational institutions receive less money. The organizers gathered in front of the National Academy of Sciences, moved on to the Museum of Folklore, from where they went to the ministry of human resources to turn in a petition for higher wages and greater financial resources for education and culture. It was a nice idea, but only a few hundred people showed up. As formerly enthusiastic participants of these demonstrations now believe, too many small demonstrations are actually counterproductive.

The other event that was scheduled to coincide with the Day of Hungarian Culture was the long-awaited public unveiling of the “miracle piano,” a Hungarian invention described by Reuters as a “space-age piano.” A four-man team developed the new piano conceived by Gergely Bogányi, a Hungarian pianist. The piano bears his name. Some experts are enthusiastic about the sound of the “Boganyi” and there seems to be some interest in the Hungarian invention, but no buyer as yet. The piano was financed mostly by money coming from the European Union (New Széchenyi Terv) that gave the developers 217 million forints. The Hungarian National Bank contributed another 60 million. Apparently the four men put 75 million into the project from their own pockets.

Considering the financial involvement of the Hungarian government, it was predictable that Viktor Orbán would deliver a speech in the Ferenc Liszt Academy. In preparation for his arrival the police closed off two whole streets for a day and a half. The prime minister has always been paranoid, but lately his paranoia has become outright pathological.

In the speech he “with due modesty but with pride” pointed out the number of “cultural sanctuaries” that his government either built or renovated. What he neglected to mention was that all of the projects, like the Ferenc Liszt Academy where the gala performance took place, were financed with EU money. He described culture as “the thread that weaves together parts of the nation that drifted to or were torn away to different parts of the globe.” Somehow he must talk about the unification of the nation across borders. A space-age piano is good enough reason.

According to Orbán, “in this miracle piano there is everything that characterizes the Hungarians: ceaseless entrepreneurial spirit, inventiveness, a restlessness of the Hungarian spirit that strives for perfection and is never satisfied with what exists at the present.” I guess all that with “due modesty.”

The Boganyi piano

The Boganyi piano

Most of the speech was the usual fluff, but there were a couple of sentences that were particularly objectionable. He talked about “our greatest scientists, Ede Teller, Jenő Wigner or János Neumann who were born and went to school in Budapest but somehow (valahogy) could not make good use of their knowledge in Hungary.” Somehow? All three were of Jewish background and all three left Hungary in the 1920s. They ended up first in Germany and later, after Hitler’s rise to power, came to the United States. Their reasons for leaving Hungary were diverse, but they were a combination of the anti-Jewish numerus clausus law that severely limited the number of Jewish students in Hungarian universities, the general anti-Semitism prevalent in Hungary, and the superiority of German universities over Hungarian institutions. This constellation of reasons for young people to leave Hungary is not so different today. A lot of Hungarian Jews don’t feel at home in Orbán’s Hungary, and if a bright Hungarian student has the choice, he/she will choose a British, American, or German university over the domestic fare.

It is one thing to build or renovate concert halls, museums, or theaters, and another matter to have a cultural policy that fairly distributes resources among worthy recipients: writers, musicians, filmmakers, and artists. What is going on in Hungary is a “Kulturkampf” that aims at, on the one hand, rewriting the history of all facets of cultural endeavor and, on the other, creating a set of favored contemporary writers and artists. A good example of the latter is the establishment of a new academy of the arts that is now enshrined in the constitution itself. Its members are recruited from a group of artists in sympathy with the current regime and, as a gift for their loyalty, they receive generous annuities. As for the rewriting of the history of Hungarian literature, we have seen many cases where extreme right-wing writers of modest talents are dredged up from the period between the two world wars and elevated to the ranks of the Hungarian literary greats.

Just the other day I heard an incredible story from György Konrád, the well-known writer. He and his family live near Tapolca, a town in Veszprém County. Konrád often visits a small local library named after János Batsányi, a poet and philosopher, who was born in Tapolca in 1763. He was a radical who was an admirer of the French revolution and later of Napoleon, whom he followed to Paris. After the emperor’s fall he was taken back to Vienna and thrown into jail. He is considered to be one of the most radical representatives of the ideas of the Enlightenment in Hungary.

Well, a few days ago Konrád paid a visit to the library and what did he find? The library was renamed the Elemér Vass Library. Elemér Vass was a relatively minor painter about whom few people know anything, while everybody who ever went to high school can recite Batsányi’s warning to the Hungarian nobility:  “Cast your eyes toward Paris!” Perhaps it was the Enlightenment that bothered the local potentates. Hungarian libraries, it seems, are not meant to enlighten but to indoctrinate.

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38 comments

  1. A few years ago, I asked a Budapest friend, well-educated and traveled, about Albert Wass. She had read one or two of his books in high school and thought them good. She saw, knew nothing wrong (anti-semitic) about him. She disregarded what I had to say.

  2. “Considering the financial involvement of the Hungarian government, it was predictable that Viktor Orbán would deliver a speech in the Ferenc Liszt Academy. In preparation for his arrival the police closed off two whole streets for a day and a half. The prime minister has always been paranoid, but lately his paranoia has become outright pathological.”

    More and more Ceausescu-like. Next time they will also fill those streets with wildly applauding crowds, just the way one can see nowadays in North Korea.

  3. “The prime minister has always been paranoid, but lately his paranoia has become outright pathological.”

    He has good reasons to be paranoid. A supermajority of the population hates him by now,

  4. Yeah, Teller, Wigner, Neuman, Szilárd etc., and etc. and etc., ad nauseam.

    “Idegenbe szakadt hazánkfiai valami rejtélyes oknál fogva….” (Hungarian compatriots swept abroad by the tide of history for some mysterious reason).

    And the “Hungarian” entrepreneurial spirit?

    Give me a break.

    For almost a century preceding the Hungarian Holocaust, the “Hungarian” entrepreneurial spirit was virtually entirely “Hungarian Jewish,” which then continued if anything even more magnificiently in emigration abroad, as it continues to this day, quite unabated after several successive generations, in America, Australia, Israel.

    And the modern meaning of “Hungarian Jewish” does not refer at all to the handful of Jews who might have arrived in the Carpathian basin with the Hungarian tribes a millennium ago and then disappeared into the sinkhole of history, but Jewish immigrants into the Kingdom of Hungary from the late 18th century on, principally from Moravia and Galicia, and their descendants.

    Today, the remnant persons of Jewish descent in contemporary Hungary do not seem to be particularly happy with the newly resurgent Christian Nationalist and National Socialist spirit among non-Jewish Hungarians, and with the concomitant increase in open, blatantly public manifestations of antisemitism.

    So it beats me why any able bodied, reasonably smart person of Jewish descent would want to live in Hungary these days, and put up with the obdurate and implacable Jew-hatred of the Hungarian street for even one minute.

    Instead of happily resettling in America, Canada, Australia, Israel or New Zealand, where they would be welcome with open arms to start a new life for themselves and their families.

    A new life virtually free of the curse of antisemitism in the Anglo-Saxon liberal democracies overseas, and entirely free of it in Israel.

    Just as Teller, Wigner, Neuman, Szilárd and many other hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews did in their own time, and with resounding success.

    Beats me.

  5. Teller, Wigner, Neumann and Szilárd were of Jewish decent but they all spoke Hungarian at home (and to each other), they all thought of themselves as Hungarian, most of them married Hungarians, and they were not brought up as Jewish in the religious sense at all. And I would suggest that most people in Hungary who call themselves Jewish, are to this day, rather similar (I was amazed when a woman I knew who was proudly Jewish was also a staunch Catholic!) That is the reason why people are reluctant to leave. And while Hungarian Spectrum readers are convinced that Hungary is a seething bed of anti-semitic nastiness (and there undoubtedly pockets of it,) none of my friends of Jewish decent (and I suspect I have more than you) regard it as a problem that affects them. That sometimes surprises me, but that how it is.

    By the way, Eva made a disparaging remark about Pázman University yesterday – Von Neumann did his maths PhD there (although he was studying Chemical Engineering in Berlin and Zurich as the same time!)

  6. “Nem akarta, hogy Orbán Viktor árulónak állítsa be a Fideszben.” A HVG és M. László Ferenc szerint ezért nem indult Simicska Veszprémben

    According to HVG, Lajos Simicska decided not to participate in the Veszprem by-elections because he didn’t want Orban to position him (ie. Simicska) within Fidesz as a traitor. I actually find this very plausible.

    A mindset cannot be more Stalinist (and of course totalitarian) then when a party member even in his “unjust” death (in Stalinist times both physically and symbolically) professes his love for Stalin and the party.

    Many people just before shot on completely bogus or even unknown charges professed their love for Stalin and said that they were happy to die if that was necessary for the party to succeed and the only thing they were asking is that – although they realize that they had sinned – they be remembered as good communists. Bukharin “realizing” that he was a “traitor” and a “scum” promised the party not to commit suicide because that would hurt the party. Laszlo Rajk just before hanged said that “Long live communism”. The most unbearable thing for a committed Stalinist was that they were being treated as a traitor who hurt the party.

    While I think Lazar, Rogan, Giro-Szasz, Habony etc. are not ideologically committed to Fidesz, Simicska is part of the founding fathers and his identity is inextricably connected to “Fidesz”. I think he literally couldn’t live with the thought that he was the reason why Fidesz lost an election, divided into separate parties etc. This is why I don’t think any possible dischord between Orban and the Simicska media empire will have no political consequences.

    Eric Hobsbawm wrote in his autobiography that the history of the 20th century cannot be understood without understanding/comprehending (if that’s possible) the communist mindset. When mothers immediately left their families if the party assigned them a job in another country or people who were called back to Moscow knowing that they would probably be shot actually travelled to Moscow and got shot. I think the history of post-communist Hungary cannot be understood without understanding of this fidesznik mindest (that of the founding fathers and of the average religious fideszniks). For me this is the fundamental historical conundrum.

  7. To reshape or discard the disabling Hungarian myths, people must process the thoughts and books of Konrad and Moldova.

    Orban invented and shaped a new sad Hungarian world guided by an evil orthodox Christian Zoltan Balogh, a disgraceful graduate of Tubingen.

    This ugly orbanian house of cards can be demolished if Konrad can became really loud and clearly understood:

    http://tiszatajonline.hu/?p=70679

    Konrad’s words will be remembered as final nail in the coffin of this fascist experiment, and herald in a new good reformed enlightened Hungary.

  8. Dear Ms. Balogh, unfortunately you published a photo in your article about the Bogányi piano which describes a completely different piano and a different person behind. If you look it up in the Reuters article which you quote -you ll see and have a chance to replace it, because it is misleading and not correct this way. Please be so kind as to remove the present photo. Thanks in advance. Imre

  9. Since Éva used the German “Kulturkampf” I’ll add another word from our language:
    What Fidesz is doing re the time between the World Wars I’d call “Geschichtsklitterung” – a special kind of history falsification …
    And re the Jewish scientists who got in trouble in the 30s (if they stayed in their homeland Hungary) another example is the mathematician Turan who spent WW2 in a work camp – I’ve written about him before.

    Not too much OT re “being a true member of the party even if it has you executed”:
    There is a famous dystopian novel set in the USA by the thriller writer Lawrence Sanders:

    The tomorrow file

    It brings up clever ideas on language manipulation (following Orwell of course) where “love” is used for money and government members no longer welcome offer themselves for an experiment in brain transplanting …

    What Fidesz is doing right now reminds me of that book – I highly recommend it!

  10. @ Mike Balint

    “Instead of happily resettling in America, Canada…”

    Having grown up in Canada and returning to Hungary for our retirement years…I can tell you that the reason for returning–and of course, it was in pre-Orban years–was the inestimable pleasure of living in one of the loveliest and most comfortable cities in the world. But try telling Fideszniks
    that Budapest–Judapest–was largely built and created by jews and they’ll confess why they hate it. But simply, having been born in Budapest–though I left at the age of 7–one never quite
    loses a certain ‘frissoner d’excitation’ of the European mentality. So with us: we just find North America boring. Of course, the world of the maniacal Orban is more than we have bargained for. And, should he now go about restructuring parts of the city, we may well be looking for
    a mountain hideaway in the Gatineaus.

    Of course the anti-semitism–our neighbor: “what anti-semitism”?–is distasteful. It almost cancels out the great food to be found…So, until the neighbors start plastering yellow stars, and the blood begins to flow, we’ll be hanging on a little longer–

  11. The message: US is open to normalize its relationship with Orban to forget about everything provided that Hungary chooses Sikorsky or Bell helicopters (UT and Textron are both big political donors).

    Big decision, I’m not sure it’s worth for Fidesz (Fidesz’ main goals are to take some money from the deal and remain politically independent from assertive countries), but who knows.

    http://valasz.hu/itthon/uj-gripen-ugy-amit-senki-nem-vett-eszre-colleen-bell-videouzeneteben-108798

  12. Now I wouldn’t want to be in Steinway and sons’ place, that’s for sure.

    I guess this piano will end up like the superstar horse Overdose.

  13. Eva your post does not indicate the estimated cost for the Boganyi piano assuming it goes into production. The standard grand piano used in the USA by serious pianists can cost up to $100,000, so how will it compare? Also not huge numbers of high end pianos are sold each year world wide. The story seems to imply it will be produced in Hungary, but that is less than clear. What information is there on where this new age piano will be produced?

    We should take note of the fact that Yamaha took over Bösendorfer, the Austrian national icon of piano building, along with its estimated $12 million debt. Seiler – another venerable German piano maker – has also declared insolvency. Steinway is now producing some models through the Japanese company Kawai. Steinway has gone even further by offering the entry-level “Essex,” which is produced by Pearl River in China and South Korea.

  14. @HiBoM
    January 22, 2015 at 4:32 am

    Some small points in response to yours:

    1.
    Jewishness is not a matter of religion, but of descent, of tribal belonging. Matrilineal descent is what makes a person officially Jewish according to Jewish religious law, though many people whose father is Jewish, but not their mother, also consider themselves Jewish, even though most Jewish religious denominations or cults would most certainly not accept them as Jewish. Under Jewish law, you are born Jewish, and remain Jewish regardless of your religious persuasion. Conversion is possible, but a difficult row to hoe, and impossible for a secular non-Jewish person without dissembling. Yes, a lot of people of Jewish descent are also Jewish by religion and belong to one or another Jewish denomination or cult, but a hell of a lot more are not religious at all, generally completely secular agnostics or atheists, or on occasion even followers of some other religion. Hence your proudly Jewish, but staunch Catholic friend.

    2.
    I myself hail from a totally secular Hungarian Jewish background, from the Lipótváros-Svábhegy-Rózsadomb triangle in Budapest, so I think that you would probably loose in a contest about which one of us might have more Hungarian Jewish friends and relatives, whether in the past or today.
    😊

    3.
    Yes, for historical reasons most Hungarian Jews still living in Hungary tend to be delusional about the level of their acceptance among non-Jewish Hungarians, and in any case are socialised from the word go to most time not even notice the implacable antisemitism around them any more than they would notice the air they breathe. Metaphorically speaking, when they are spat on, they pull out their handkerchiefs, wipe their face, then casting their eyes upwards to the sky, say it is raining. In that the secular or semi-secular majority among Hungarian Jews were always very different from their Polish or Romanian counterparts, who were Jews first, Poles or Romanians second. In sharp contrast, Hungarian Jews were always Hungarians first, Jews last. The overwhelming gratitude of the non-Jewish Hungarian public for Hungarian Jews being Hungarians first, Jews last, was of course more than eloquently demonstrated not just during the Hungarian Holocaust, but also by the remorseless Jew-hatred of the descendants of the perpetrators on the Hungarian street to this day.

    4.
    With respect, I think that as a non-Jewish person living in Hungary, I don’t really think you can be considered a reliable judge of the level of antisemitism in Hungary, which is unfortunately far more prevalent and widespread than just among some nutters in isolated pockets. Antisemitism is deeply inbred in non-Jewish Hungarians and metaphorically it might be said to come with mother’s milk in Hungarian families, to the point that few and far between are the decent persons able to escape it poisoning their minds. I hasten to add that Hungary is by no means alone in this, and the curse of antisemitism is alive in well in most European nation states to a greater or lesser extent.

    5.
    And yes, I am fully aware why persons of Jewish descent are reluctant to leave contemporary Hungary, despite all. Pretending not to know the reason (or more correctly the variety of reasons) was just a sly rhetorical sleight-of-hand on my part …. Sorry ….

    😊

  15. @petofi
    January 22, 2015 at 7:49 am

    Ah yes, Hungarian food. Particularly the cakes and smallgoods!

    Those I miss, even after so many decades of living on wonderful Israeli/Middle Eastern fare. Which I suppose is healthier than most Hungarian cooking.

    But then who cares about health in the presence of delicious csabai, abált szalonna, lecsó, paprikás krumpli kolbásszal, lángos, lacipecsenye, sólet, meggyes rétes, mákos beigli, flódni or csúsztatott palacsinta?

    😊

  16. “in this miracle piano there is everything that characterizes the Hungarians: ceaseless entrepreneurial spirit, inventiveness, a restlessness of the Hungarian spirit that strives for perfection and is never satisfied with what exists at the present.”

    Has this guy ever visited Hungary? Sorry to inform you, Vikus… the national motto is “haaat, ez van.”

  17. > Istvan, the piano is estimated to cost $240,000.
    “has had a lot interest, but no buyers”

    If nobody buys it they should raise the price to a million dollar.

    According to witnesses, Mr Orban (Vikus Dickus – Thanks Seal) smelled the piano then decided to order one for each of his soccer stadiums. His only request was a sunflower spit bin mounted on top.

  18. Two observations related to Ambassador Bell’s introductory video:

    1. Comments are disabled. I guess that would be customary for such videos, to protect the diplomatic atmosphere.
    2. Sign of the modern times: in the suggestions for contacting the embassy there is a website, a Facebook location and a Twitter location. Snail mail and phone are out of fashion.

  19. Dear Éva

    Petőfi asked if you would be kind enough to forward his email address to me. Your help in this would be much appreciated by both of us.

    Much thanks
    Mike

  20. @gdfxx re Bell’s video on YT

    Originally comments were allowed on this video. I know because I read them about this time yesterday. However, they were pretty ugly, and some of them were simply vile, with lots of anti-American sentiment mixed in with anti-Semitic comments. It was sad and shameful to read. I’m not surprised they decided to disable comments.

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