MIKLÓS MAROS – both a Swedish and a Hungarian identity

Published: 2001-10-01 by Stellan Sagvik

by Hans Wolf (transl. Sven Borei) (Published in Nutida Musik no. 2 1986/87)


Anno 1968 has become a symbol in post-war European history, both for the events in Czechoslovakia and for the student uprisings in western Europe that took the societal debate in new directions for many years after. For the then 25 year old Miklós Maros, 1968 was also a watershed, though of a more personal type - after five years compositional studies at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, he had just been granted a stipend to continue his education in Vienna, only a few hours from his home city but still worlds apart.

Once in Vienna Maros met György Ligeti, twenty years older but a resident since his flight from Hungary during the dark autumn of 1956. When the question of where Maros could continue his studies came up, Ligeti knew the answer Đ travel to Stockholm and Ingvar Lidholm at the Royal College of Music. The advice was followed at once, a decision which would come to mean a change of national identity or perhaps more correctly, an expansion of his old one.

He had only been in Stockholm for six months or so when he was when he was asked by a reporter what his position was on the current hot topics – community involvement, political awareness and Marxism. His answer was: “In Hungary I learned a lot about ideology. But I don’t believe in ideological music. Musicians ought to be musicians, not politicians.”

Students in western Europe at the time would surely have maintained with some success that there was no such thing as ideology-free music. The reason lay in how one defined the word ideology. And Maros’ answer wasn’t only typical of composers who put musicological craftsmanship first, but also of intellectuals from eastern Europe who had totally different experiences with what ideology meant than that of their contemporaries in western Europe.

Miklós was born in Pecs on November 14, 1943, near the close of the societal system that had held sway in Hungary with only minor changes since 1919 when the one-year soviet republic was put down by Admiral Horthy. Hungary’s political independence wasn’t even 25 years old and though its culture was ancient, its language stood apart from the rest of Europe.

His father was Rudolf Maros, a well known composer serving as music teacher in Pecs in 1943. His mother was also a musician and a music teacher. He had one sister. With this background, it is hardly surprising that his home became the scene for what was so important to central European bourgeois culture – ‘House Concerts’.

Miklós played the cello. As a pre-schooler he had to learn folk-music without having a score. This was the folk-music transcribed by Bela Bartók and Zoltán Kodály in a way that lacked parallels in other countries. But he learned to read music early, as well, becoming proficient even before learning ordinary letters. During the first ten years after the war, Hungarian schools emphasised three musical categories – folk songs, revolutionary songs and so-called core songs from the standard repertoire. The last was accepted only to the extent that they could be made to meld with Stalinist ideals as, for example, in Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests. In 1949 Rudolf Maros was appointed Professor of Chamber Music and Instrumentation at the Budapest Conservatory, thus moving the family to a capital city whose music life may have been dominated by a number of excellent musicians such as Otto Klemperer and by guest appearances by such top-musicians as Svyatoslav Richter, but was completely closed off when it came to creativity.

In time, Miklós enrolled in upper secondary school and took parallel courses at the conservatory. This was a transitional period in the wake of the horrible trauma of the 1956 uprising. After the initial reprisals, there were the beginnings of liberalisation. The sonoral and expressive innovations of the Polish school were reflected in the choral music, while some of Bartók’s rejected works were once more played, specifically some of the string quartets. Starting in 1959, Rudolf Maros could attend the Darmstadt courses. The intent was that his son would become a conductor, but when his studies at the conservatory began in earnest there was no conducting course available. Miklós began in composition instead. Now he could learn the basics of his craft, including practice writing in different styles. There exists a student work, a serenade in the classic Vienna style in a sonata form which reveals spirit, as well as a feeling for both form and sound.

The training was indeed traditional, led as it was by Ferenc Szabó. He had played an active role during the soviet republic and lived in Russia between the wars. He also composed both chamber music in the Shostakovitch style and grandiose Stalin cantatas on the joy of labour. In truth, Ingvar Lidholm would be a different mentor.

Lidholm relates that Miklós Maros came to the composition classes in Stockholm with his roots deep in Hungarian culture and his mind filled with Hungarian poetry, but even so fully determined to become Swedish quickly. His classmates included Sven-David Sandström, Per-Gunnar Alldahl, Lars-Erik Rosell and Gunnar Valkare. His teacher’s prime principle was to liberate his pupils from dependence on academies and predecessors. It was necessary to begin afresh, to let oneself be provoked, to learn to sift among contradictions, to see the world from many directions – all assisted by the international compositional elite who were guests at the seminars. In Miklós Maros, Lidholm faced a composition talent supported by more solid knowledge than most, but in greater need of new windows. And Maros insists that Lidholm asked the right questions. Or perhaps it was that they were to so great an extent the free questions.

This did not mean that Maros changed identity as a composer. While it is true that he has written all his mature works in Sweden and for very obvious reasons in very different ways than had he remained in Hungary, he himself has very little understanding for composers who completely change their style. When he arrived in Sweden, his knowledge of Swedish music was limited. He was familiar with a few works by Lars-Erik Larsson, a Hilding Rosenberg symphony and Sven-Erik Bäck’s A Game around a Game. By now he feels that the main lesson he has taken from Swedish music tradition is that it is necessary to express oneself with clarity and penetration. There is nothing to be gained from making the score more complicated by the addition of details that can’t be read or aren’t heard in the sonoral presentation.

Maros hasn’t really ever abandoned his Hungarian heritage. Indeed, instead of weakening over the years, it has come to the fore with increased strength. One example of how two traditions can be blended in one work is found in the short opera Stora Grusharpan (The Great Gravel Harp) based on August Strindberg’s text. Here Maros quotes from one of the small piano pieces he wrote during his secondary school years in Budapest using Hungarian folk-music tonalities, demonstrating that pentatonics and Hungarian denseness can well be married to the Nordic light. Perhaps the clarity with which this is shown is the result of the care Maros has lavished on the counterpoint problematics.

However, it is clearly not enough to move along a Swedish-Hungarian axis when discussing Maros’ music. In reality, once he had completed his Lidholm studies, his compositions quickly became part of the international music community. One example is the choral work called Turba presented at the ISCM Festival in London in 1971, as well as the soprano solo named Descourt (troubadour song) with its middle movement consisting of a slow, stylised czardas (!). The latter was first performed by Dorothy Dorow at the Zagreb Biennial in the same year.

During this period Maros was often called ‘traditionalist’, much to his own displeasure. This in spite of having shown great interest in electronic music, in part as a teacher at EMS. This sound universe can also be traced in instrumental works, such as in the introduction to the Divertimento for wind quintet from 1976 where resting sound levels are entwined or in the upward spiral movement of the separate string voices in Circulation for string orchestra from 1980.

Contemporary Music Concert on December 5 was commissioned by Nomus in 1978 and played in Hungary in 1980. Dedicated to cembalist Helga Ingólsdottir and composer/conductor Páll P. Pállson, the concerto has three movements all played attacca with no other tempo indication than the initial presto possibile. One gets an impression of variation in the musical pulse via the free rhythmization with one result being the creation of the classic solo concerto division into fast-slow-fast. The slow middle movement becomes a resting point for the soloist as well whose role here is more reserved. However, in the outer sections the cembalo is more prominent and includes long cadenzas, at first alone, extremely densely and nearly dance-like repetitive.

The chamber orchestra intrudes in a more peaceful respite (strings, winds and harp) before the cembalo returns with a monologue, this one heavier, more massive and simpler than before. In the last movement, the cembalo sound is raised to a more fragile, airy sound effect in a thematic reprise from the first movement.

The Maros ensemble will play at the concert. With this group, Miklós has been able to realise his dream from his Hungarian life of becoming a conductor, at least periodically. And it being his own ensemble featuring his wife Ilona as soprano soloist has ensured that his own chamber music compositions will have a given place on the repertoire.

No other immigrant group has brought such notice to itself on the Swedish musical scene as has the Hungarian one, arrived at different times and under varied conditions. In part supported by the information that Hungarian folk music supposedly lacks group dances, director Miklós Jansco suggested in his documentary film about Budapest that Hungarians prefer not to travel in herds. Whether that is true or not, Swedish-Hungarian composers have been a heterogeneous group with Maros as one of the true individualists among them.


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