On a freezing cold bright sunny morning in early November 1989 I stood in ‘Hero’s Square’ in the then recently democratised Hungarian capital of Budapest and looked across at the Germanic gothic façade of the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music. An ornately designed, almost vulgar, mid-19 century building that stands on the corner of the famous square, (now called Ferenc Liszt Square). High on its façade there were frescoes of three famous musicians of the area. The first was the founding father of the National Conservatoire, Ferenc Liszt, seated on a throne in the middle of the three, the second, a national composer called Ferenc Erkel, now long forgotten, and the third, an image of a giant moustachioed man called Robert Volkmann.
In 1989 he, like Erkel, was long gone, and long forgotten, along with the music. All three, even though strangers to the Hungarian language, strove to promote Hungarian Nationalist music, either through the use of Magyar themes and rhythms or simply through suggestions in a turn of phrase, or in Erkel’s case subject matter for operas. This basis gave fruition in the following generations and especially with the music of Bartok and Kodaly. I looked and moved on like most tourists do with little interest or knowledge of who the other two men were, even as a musician they meant nothing to me.
That was until a number of years later, 2008 to be precise, I stumbled on a German broadcast of Volkmann’s First Symphony. Compared with the other works around it, Brahms, Schumann and another Romantic, I now forget, it stood out as fresh and different with a uniqueness that was not present in the other ‘warhorses’ being played in that concert. It was at this point that my memory jogged me into remembering that -6 Celsius morning in ‘Hero’s Square’. So this was that moustachio-faced being I saw looking down on a very different world to that that he knew in his day. A man with a German name on a Hungarian building, why was he there and who was he?
Volkmann was born in Germany in 1815, the year of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, and died in 1883 in Budapest a very respected and highly regarded composer of some of the greatest mid-19th century art music of the time. He was a prominent figure in his adopted country of Hungary and was friends with the great and the good of the then musical world. He was a close friend of Johannes Brahms and they spent many hours drinking, eating and smoking, as well as walking the hills of Buda, together. Ferenc Liszt would always perform Volkmann’s Piano Trio No.2 to guests as he felt it was such a great work and Tchaikovsky did a whip around for Volkmann in the 1870’s and made a not inconsiderable sum of money to help Volkmann’s straightened circumstances of the time. He went on to dedicate his Second Symphony to Tchaikovsky and the Moscow Musical Society. His music was so highly regarded at the time, but like so many, suffered neglect immediately after his death.
”Some continue to regard me as a forward looking musician while others want to see in me a member of the old guard. What do you think? All I know is that I want to be neither a progressive nor a conservative, but just myself”.
Volkmann wrote these lines to his friend Edmund Singer in 1864. While the music of his contemporaries such as Wagner, Liszt and Brahms have remained known to concert audiences right up to the present day Volkmann’s output fell into almost total obscurity soon after his death in 1883. The above statement shows the dichotomy he faced. He was praised and damned equally by the ultra conservatives of Brahms’s circle while the same went for the supporters of the “Neu Deutscheschule” of Liszt and Wagner. He was all of these and none of these. His music was just Volkmann. The video below is his Second Piano Trio.
He did not follow convention, in that he never wrote works of great bravura or showmanship, and his output only included one concerto, and that for cello. There are no operas with big hits in it. His music was him and no-one else. Simple, sublime and easily accessible.
He was influenced by the music and sounds around him and his passion for the Hungarians, who considered him one of their own, and in so doing allowed him to reciprocate by taking the Hungarian nationalist music and gypsy music and filtering the very essence of it into a serious art form. Certain fingerprints of this influence are to be felt in his 3rd String Serenade for Cello and Strings, and there is a certain Slavicness about the Second Symphony way before Nationalism in Music became de-rigour of the late 19th century.
This work predates Dvorak’s by a good few years and yet is unmistakably Slavonic in its intent. His five string quartets make for a strong body of well written, very tuneful and appealing works that should in no way be ignored by any self-respecting String Quartet or music follower. The fourth is the one that really stands out for its strength of harmonic design and melodic invention.
His place in the musical world should not be belittled like it has been since his death. His position between Schumann and Brahms should not be underestimated as, without the groundwork of this fine composer, there is no way that Brahms would ever have been as great as he was considered. Volkmann was in an unscripted way Brahms’s tutor and unspoken mentor, musically speaking.
Give his music a try and I defy anyone not to be impressed by the beauty and skill of this great composer. To paraphrase very loosely a saying – greatness is not built on the shoulders of giants but is built on the greatness of those who came before them.