Bakfark with Lute and Tabulature
History has been unkind to medieval secular musicians. Since they were either wandering performers, or entertainers and composers in the employ of nobility including royal courts, most of their work was never recorded. The works as well as the names of many were lost in fires, floods or oblivion, not leaving much for posterity.
Fortunately, we have at least some traces of the works of this Hungarian composer-lutenist who is only marginally medieval, having been born in 1506 or 1507 or, according to some accounts: even in 1526 (…I wish I had a historian to shave some two decades off my age!…)
Data of his life are sketchy at best, often contradictory and confusing. Even the name of Bakfark Bálint had undergone numerous variations; however, his existence and identity remains unchanged beyond any doubt. In Hungarian music-history, he is the first significant composer and instrumentalist who, for centuries, exerted crucial influence upon European musical culture.
Bakfark Bálint was born in Brassó, Hungary (since the Trianon pact of 1919: Brasov, Romania) into a family of Transylvanian Saxon origin. His father, Tamás had been a lutenist but we know nothing certain about Bálint’s teacher. Supposedly, one of his instructors was the Italian Matthias Marigliano who formerly was one of the musicians of Pope Leo X. Becoming orphaned, Bálint was brought up by the Greff family, whose name he later used as his middle name. He studied first at Nagyvárad, later in Buda where he was lutenist at the court of Szapolyai (Zápolya) János, king of Hungary from 1526, and his music-loving wife Isabella Jagiellon. He remained there until 1540, though he probably traveled to Italy during that time. He was enormously influential as a lutenist and renowned as a virtuoso on the instrument. For his services he was raised to nobility by the King.
After the death of Szapolyai in 1540, his widow Isabella had to retreat to Transylvania and Bakfark left her service. Sometime in the 1540s, he traveled to Paris, but finding the position of lutenist to the king filled, he became the musician of the Count Tournon. In the later part of the 1550s, he traveled to Jagiellon, Poland, where he became employed by Isabella’s brother, King Sigismund II Augustus, as a court lutenist. In 1550, in Krakow he married the widow Katarina Narbutovna who gave him two children. From then until 1566, he traveled extensively over Europe, with his fame increasing. While other monarchs attempted to win him away, he remained faithful to his employer in Vilnius (then Poland). There is no mention anywhere about his faithfulness (or lack of it) to his wife: she and their children are simply not mentioned in Bálint’s further life.
In 1553, with the backing of (by then) Cardinal Tournon, Bakfark published the first collection of his works composed for solo lute, named Lute Book of Lyon. In 1566, having advanced to be one of the most revered personages of the court, he published the second volume of his lute tablatures, dedicated to Sigismund Augustus.
In the same year, invited by emperor and Hungarian king Maximilian, he traveled to and spent some time in Vienna. Yet, he spent the longest time of his life at the court of the Polish king with whom he was on closer terms but who did not recognize his nobility.
In 1569, on unclarified fabricated charges he was arrested in Bratislava and kept imprisoned for a short time. The Polish army troops meanwhile ransacked his house and destroyed his possessions. After this, he returned to Transylvania where János Zsigmond, the son of Szapolyai, himself an accomplished lutenist and organist, was the Prince. Bakfark served in his court until the Prince’s death the following year.
In 1571, he moved to Padua, Italy. He died of the plague in Venice on August 15, 1576.
As was common practice of the day, all possessions of plague victims were destroyed by fire, thus most of his manuscripts were lost.
Although Bakfark was a very prolific composer, little of his music was printed, simply because most of it was too difficult for others to play. His surviving works include ten fantasies, seven madrigals, eight chansons and 14 motets, all in polyphonic arrangements for lute alone. He also transcribed vocal motets by several of his contemporaries, for the lute. His works are testimony to his thorough professional grounding, wide informational level and significant talent.
Bakfark was the most celebrated lute virtuoso of his time and he improvised fabulously. He enjoyed the flattering attention and favors of monarchs, poets praised him in poems, legends surrounded him. Three odes by Andreas Tricesius appear in Bakfark’s second tablature book, in which he calls the author the Orpheus of Pannonia and compares him to Arión.
Thanks to the French, German and Flemish publishers, Bakfark’s works became widely recognized. His art was crucial in the upturn of instrumental vs. vocal music in European composition which was theretofore centered on vocal only.
Polish adage preserved his name for posterity: “He reaches for the lute after Bakfark”, characterizing a person starting something without talent and know-how.
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.