Márta Sebestyén’s business card includes the title Unesco Artist for Peace. She is also an ambassador of Hungarian culture, and was recently elected ambassador of Hungarian folk song. The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s March concerts in Hungary, to be followed by the ensemble’s tour, will feature original folk music collected by Bartók, alongside the composer’s own pieces; the orchestra is teaming up for the performances with the Kossuth Prize and Liszt Prize winning Márta Sebestyén to present these traditional Hungarian folk songs unaltered. Our conversation with Márta Sebestyén follows.
I understand Béla Bartók has played a key role in your life. I know few others who have felt such attachment to the oeuvres of Bartók and Kodály as you. What is the reason for your special relationship to them?
Márta Sebestyén: They are simply essential, and not just for Hungarian musicians and listeners, but for musicians and listeners the world over. Béla Bartók is the greatest genius of the 20th century; but I must also mention Kodály in the same sentence, for the two of them pursued the same wonderful activity in which I believe I am also following their example: the research and arranging of folk music. The fact that they arranged the musical pieces they collected and discovered in a way that has made them accessible to the masses worldwide is an incredible achievement. Thankfully, in the days of Bartók and Kodály, folk culture was still flourishing, and the two of them were able to explore the entire territory of Hungary at the time, without needing passports, and discover this culture locally. Folk music and the peasant lifestyle had such a profound impact on Bartók that he spent what he said were the ten happiest years of his life immersed in them. He met sincere people, free of any artifice: none of them were, as he said, “little lords with airs about them.” He was initially viewed with some suspicion, as any man coming from the big city and wearing pants was thought to either be a tax collector or some other doubtful character, but when he started talking with the people (speaking, out of respect, Slovak in Slovak villages and Romanian with the Romanians), he soon found common ground and became a friend. Bartók was known as an introvert, but he loosened up in these natural settings. It was the human and musical experiences collected during these encounters that provided inspiration for the resulting musical works.
You are too young to have met Bartók, but I understand you did meet Kodály as a little girl. Perhaps this is part of the reason why you are so remarkable in your approach to folk songs, and your interpretations are so authentic. How closely is this linked to Kodály?
M.S.: I was extremely privileged that my mother, who later became a researcher of folk music, was a student of Zoltán Kodály’s, studying folk music as her main field. She was still enrolled at the Academy when I was born, so I can say that I had my first encounter with Zoltán Kodály while still in the womb. My mother then took me with her to the Liszt Academy several times when I was still little, so I felt truly at home in the building led by Kodály. When I was five, I had the opportunity to offer him greetings on his eightieth birthday on behalf of all the children of Hungary. Mrs. Kati Forrai was my teacher in music preschool, and she recalled how moved Kodály was when he said, “if all the children sing as beautifully as you do, writing all these pieces has been worth it.”
Is this how your career began?
M.S.: I’m sure receiving praise from the prominent composer and teacher provided important encouragement not only for me as a young child, but also for my family and the adults around me. Kodály offered praise only sparingly, but was deeply moved by authentic singing.
You often speak of Bartók’s “pure springs.” Is it this underlying philosophical background that motivated your later decision to commit yourself so deeply to folk music?
M.S.: As a matter of fact, I got swept up in this world as a child already. My mother’s beautiful singing accompanied my entire childhood. And, by the way, she has not given up: now eighty-five, she continues to sing to this day. She holds choir practice for students of hers whom she started teaching to sing in the late fifties. Imagine the kinds of influence on my life! And, thankfully, I also had the physical strength and ability for music and singing. For as long as I can remember, I always believed singing and music to be the strongest methods of self-expression. When I can’t find the words for something, I hum it.
For a long time, the impact of the legacy that Kodály and Bartók imparted on children, that singing is important and liberating, was fading in Hungary. It seems that this realisation is now making a comeback. Would you agree?
M.S.: Yes, I see the same thing. But since our main topic is my performance with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, let me talk about how amazed I was during our last joint tour, when I first saw how this fantastic orchestra, which uses its instruments so masterfully and plays such outstanding music, is able to sing with perfect purity. This was Iván Fischer’s recent innovation. In the piece by Bartók, which generally features a choir, the musicians themselves became the choir, and did so beautifully and with absolute precision. This, too, shows that they are musicians through and through. This was a tremendous human and musical experience for me. And yes, they are also helping to achieve what we talked about a moment ago: ensuring that singing once again be held in high regard.
What are you doing to get ready for the upcoming joint concerts and the tour, where you will sing Hungarian folk songs before the Bartók pieces?
M.S.: Iván Fischer’s idea was to begin the Bartók concert with a performance of the original versions of the same folk songs that would later be played as arranged by Bartók. This selection of 15 Hungarian peasant songs will be accompanied by István Kádár, the BFO’s outstanding violinist – incidentally, Transylvanian by background – and two of his fellow musicians, András Szabó and Zsolt Fejérvári. These are primarily “jump” melodies and bagpipe songs. So the singer would not perform these independently, with improvisation, but in the same way that they were sung in the original place by the woman or man met there. The purpose of this set of folk songs at the beginning of the concert is to give the audience an opportunity to get ready for the atmosphere of classical music to follow. Our experience is that the audience appreciates this little set: they tend to break out in applause when we finish, and often want an encore. The fact that I personally find it very important for me to know and understand the community where these songs come from may be a part of why this portion of the concert is such a hit. I have been to areas where Bartók used to collect folk songs many times, and have experienced the beauty that the performance of each of these songs means. This is when I feel we have both stepped into the same river – except that Bartók did so 100 years earlier.