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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Erkel: Bánk bán

09/15/2013 1:00 pm
09/15/2013 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

If there is any one lyric theaterwork that captures the spirit of Hungarian nationalism, that work would have to be Bánk bán ("Lord Bank") by Ferenc Erkel (1810-93). Erkel was primarily a composer of operas, and he drew upon the folk idiom of Hungarian music in much of what he wrote. Erkel completed Bánk bán ("Lord Bánk") in 1852. An earlier nationalist opera of his, Hunyadi László (1844), I broadcast on Sunday, May 31, 1990. Bánk bán, however, is now regarded as Erkel's operatic masterpiece.

In the mid-nineteenth century the Hungarian nation was struggling to achieve independence within the Hapsburg empire. Erkel looked back to the thirteenth century when the German-speaking counts of Tirol made their bid to rule Hungary outright. This imported minority of exploiters became intolerable to the native Hungarian aristocracy. The noble Lord Bánk joined a revolt against the Tiroleans. But the revolt was put down and Lord Bánk was executed for the leadership role he took in the uprising. When Erkel finished the score for Bánk bán it was suppressed by the Austrian censors. The opera had to wait nine years for its first staged production in 1861. By then a more tolerant regime had come to power in Vienna. A few years later the kingdom of Hungary worked out a political compromise or Ausgleich with the Austrian government and so was granted partial autonomy.

Ferenc Erkel composed the Hungarian national anthem. His music for Bánk bán is replete with Magyar-style melody and folk dance. Upon hearing it you'll understand how Johann Strauss acquired the exotic Hungarian flavor he added to his operettas. Yet Bánk bán is a historical tragedy, not a comedic Viennese theatrical entertainment. The language barrier has kept this gorgeous lyric drama from being performed internationally. Who could sing it correctly anywhere outside of Hungary?

In1973 Hungaton, the former state record label, issued Bánk bán as performed by the cast and chorus of the Hungarian State Opera. János Ferencsik conducted the Budapest Philharmonic. I broadcast the old three-LP set twice before long ago on this program, first on Sunday, June 13, 1983 and then again on May 31, 1987. The boxed set of vinyl discs is still in our WWUH classical music record library. The modern commercial Hungaroton label reissued Bánk bán on two compact discs in 1994. It's a pleasure to air "Lord Bánk" again after more than a quarter of a century, today working from my own CD copy.