A not-so-mighty Magyar
An Irishman’s Diary about a lesser-known hero of Hiberno-Hungarian relations
‘Despite Gabor Haenjo’s general neglect, the composer has for decades now been the inspiration behind a trio of Irish classical musicians – the Haenjo Trio (above).
The existence of the Hungarian composer Gabor Haenjo (pronounced “hane-jo”) had somehow escaped me until the arrival of an e-mail about a recital scheduled for the National Concert Hall later this week.
My ignorance seemed all the more remiss because Haenjo’s turbulent life (1884-1963) was intimately entangled with the history of this country’s revolutionary period. But as I’ve since learned, a common theme among his biographers is that he was and remains greatly neglected. And having read the material, I can understand why.
Haenjo’s involvement with Ireland seems to have hinged on the Casement family. As is well known, Roger Casement Snr, the patriot’s father, was a volunteer in the 1848 Hungarian uprising, as such earning the gratitude of Lajos Kossuth, “the father of Hungarian democracy”.
Kossuth’s long life almost spanned the century. So he was over 80 when the composer was born. Nevertheless, circumstances encouraged Haenjo to believe he was Kossuth’s illegitimate son, and later to seek the friendship of Roger Casement Jnr, his supposed father’s co-conspirator.
The story goes that, during Casement’s trip to Germany in 1916, he entrusted Haenjo to bring a certain “parcel” back to Republicans in Dublin. Sadly, however, it’s another common theme of Haenjo’s career that he was not the most reliable of men.
Having been landed by a German U-boat off Greystones, he is said to have become distracted by a local “red-headed beauty”. When he belatedly reached the city, the GPO was already in flames. So, pursued by guilt and the British army, he fled Dublin, his parcel undelivered.
As for Haenjo’s musical career, that appears to have been equally inglorious. When he wasn’t neglected, he was misunderstood, at least as he saw it. The success of other composers pained him deeply and, like many artists, he anaesthetised himself with drink.
Perhaps his quintessential work is a piece called Quartet for Closing Time, Op 58. As the name implies, it was written for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano. But the sad circumstances in which it was first performed decreed that the violin part would not be played, an arrangement now standard.
It was the late 1940s, and Germany’s defeat (Haenjo had written anti-semitic tracts under the pseudonym Schutzgruber) gave him yet another reason to be depressed. He had also recently heard Oliver Messiaen’s masterpiece Quartet for the End of Time, and straightaway recognising its brilliance, “attempted, by exerting certain influences, to have all copies of the work destroyed”.
Failing in this, he instead took to heavy drinking, until friends had him committed to a Swiss sanatorium. And it was while there, in delirium tremens and believing himself a prisoner of war, that he fell in love with his Australian nurse, an amateur violinist. Even in this, it seems, he was deluded. Most commentators believe the nurse was actually Austrian, although she did play violin.
It was for her he wrote the quartet, which critics have called “a dizzy mix of Messiaenesque harmonies and bird song”, with references to drinking ballads and “what he thought was Australian folk music”.
Unfortunately, just before the premiere, the nurse fled, never to be seen again. The three-handed quartet went ahead without her. And the heart-broken composer vowed that, henceforward, the violin part would remain silent, “a memorial to his lost love”.
Haenjo’s is a remarkable story, by any standards: unrecorded (I’ve checked) in music dictionaries or history books. But not the least unusual thing is that, despite his general neglect, the composer has for decades now been the inspiration behind a trio of Irish classical musicians.
They call themselves the Haenjo Trio (a name that sounds oddly familiar, although I can’t think why) and are devoted to excavating his memory. Unusually, it tends to be in their programme notes that all new information about him emerges.
They also do him proud in performances, because it’s a recurring feature of reviews that the group somehow triumphs over what critics continue to insist was the composer’s incompetence. Here’s the late Irish Times man Douglas Sealy writing (with reference to the programme) about a 2001 performance of Haenjo’s “Paganini Variations”: “The sudden end of his love-life and an attack of alopecia may explain if not excuse his shameless appropriations from better-known composers, [but] the result is so grotesquely comic, in the hands of the Haenjo Trio, that it has a certain charm”.
Perhaps it’s just as well that, this Friday at the National Concert, the trio will concentrate on the work of better-known artists. The programme includes Beethoven, Glinka, and the Danish composer Theodor Sick. It is hoped that Haenjo will not be entirely neglected, however, and that hardcore fans can expect at least some new insights into an extraordinary life and oeuvre.