Valentin Greff Bakfark

b Kronstadt, Transylvania c 1520-30 - d Padua1576

In former times, the emperors and kings as well as the high ranking aristocratic and ecclesiastical rulers of Europe´s culturally developed nations graced their courts and residences with the best musicians availble. At the same time, the post of court musician was considered the desirable culmination of an artistic career. In the course of this turbulent career, Valentin Greff Bakfark first served the Hungarian and Polish kings, then the Austrian emperor, presumably a French count and archbishop, and, finally, the princes of Transylvania at courts where eminent Italian, German, Dutch and French musicians were active before and after him.
While on his travels, Bakfark is said to have received offers from the French court and the Vatican, which he turned down. He apparently enjoyed exceptional fame and popularity, particularly in Poland, where he was active the longest. Duke Albert of Prussia wrote in 1559: "..He is a musician without equal in his art, and rare is the king who can boast of having someone like this".
After his departure from Poland, the people refused to believe that he had left the country, which gave rise to the legend of his mysterious vanishing. Laudatory poems in his honour have come down to us from Poland and France. Legends were woven around this lutenist up into the 19th century, and he has continued to inspire poets and writers to this day. The Polish saying: "...Nobody plays the lute after Bekwark..." (Koczirz) is still used today.

The lutenist and composer Greff Bakfark was revered and praised in his day, and his name was long remembered by posterity; his creative legacy, however, fell into oblivion. His oeuvre long remained unknown and unperformed, a situation that hardly changed after historians and musicologists began to study his life in the late 19th century, first in Poland and Hungary, and subsequently in Transylvania, France and Austria.
Authentic source material pertaining to Greff Bakfark´s life consisted of little more than a few documents which proved to be incomplete and unreliable, or damaged and barely legible. This gave rise to many misunderstandings, to a host of divergent and erroneous interpretations and contradictory hypotheses. Documents discovered later, as well as new insights into the historical circumstances partly even strengthened the discrepancies. One of the main contentions that have long split scholars and continue to do so today, is the question of Greff Bakfark´s nationality.
Transylvanian authors, for example, never raised any doubts as to the lutenist´s Transylvanian-German origins, and numbered him among the artists "...whose activity burst the narrow limits of the homeland and was acknowledged by the European public..."(Klein). On the other hand, Hungarian biographers had always seen in Bálint Bakfark "...the most brilliant figure in Hungarian music history...", whose works "...rank among the most significant monuments of European lute music..."(Gombosi).
He was "...the leading figure and, for a long time, the only personality of international stature in Hungarian music history...", whereby "...neither the use of the double name nor a possible blood relationship with the Greff family can casts doubts on Bakfark´s Hungarian origins..."(Homolya/Benkö). The Hungarian roots of this Renaissance musician with a European radius of activity are strongly emphasized in all Hungarian publications on Bakfark. Transylvanian scholars feel that "... this insistence is a complex-ridden remnant of the Magyarization program practiced by Hungary in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, under which particularly the ethnic German minority suffered..."(Philippi).
Transylvanian specialists point out that Valentin Greff´s native language was German,"... that he identified himself in surviving documents as a Transylvanian Saxon..."(Klein), and called himself Valentin Greff alias Bakfark. The name Bakfark, the only one on which the Hungarian biographers can base their claims, can be traced to"... no other locality than to Transylvania´s Mühlbach, where it is found between 1595 and 1708 in the variants Bockfarck, Backphardt, Baquart and Backfarck..."(Baumann). "... Not only does such a surname not exist in Hungarian, it is also inconceivable..."(Làszló).
Younger Hungarian musicologists acknowledge the untenability of their elder colleague´s theses. They feel there is hardly any point in further discussing this matter. Research now concentrates increasingly on purely biographical aspects and, above all, on Greff Bakfark´s neglected compositional oeuvre.

Bakfark research profited from the impulses it received on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Bakfark´s death in 1976. New biographical views and insights have since emerged from evidential documents, and new facts discovered. For example, the recent findings have led to the correction of his year of birth. For want of authoritative documents, it had been previously deduced from the epitaph on the tombstone (no longer extant today) in the church of San Lorenzo in Padua which read "...He died in the year of the Lord MDLXXVI on the ides of August. He lived LXIX years...".
The historian Gernot Nussbächer (Kronstadt, Transylvania) questioned the soundness of these assertions, and the famed Bakfark specialist Péter Király (Budapest) even found original clues which suggest that the lutenist was not 69 ("LXIX") years old when he died in1576, but only about 46 or 47. Bakfark also left two autographic notices referring to his native town, in which he identified himself as a "...Transylvanian from the city of Kron..."( autographic entry in a lute album, 1552), and "...Transilvanus Coronensis..."(from a tablature print, 1553). This, however, does not mean that he was necessarily born in Kronstadt. According to the present state of research, we can justifiably claim that in all probability, Greff was born in Kronstadt, Transylvania (today: Brasov, Romania), circa 1530. The year of birth 1507, which had been advanced up to now, must be discarded as erroneous and untenable.
Another aspect of Bakfark´s biography also needs to be revised: the notion of Bakfark as a "... restless adventurer and political spy..."(Teutsch). These epithets are utterly devoid of all documentary evidence. These assumptions were based on one sole passage in a letter in Bakfark´s hand; however, it has since been proven that the artist´s words were misinterpreted. A realistic analysis of Bakfark´s life and of the surviving documents clearly allow us to conclude that earlier claims and speculations about Greff Bakfark´s personality and life lack all factual basis.
The artist held one post for many years at the Polish court, founded a family and purchased property. Each of his previous and subsequent changes of residence and position ensued from events or misfortunes that were beyond his control. Although he travelled extensively , he did so in order to find a publisher for his works. There are also no documents or evidence suggesting that the lutenist was "sycophantic", "excessively ambitious", "envious", "egoistic", "demonic", "impulsively unbridled" and "unpredictable". There is absolutely no foundation for these and similar views frequently encountered in earlier writings on Bakfark from Austria and Hungary as well as from Transylvania.
They result from inadequate source studies, from speculations passed on from author to author, and are undoubtedtly part of the literary legacy of imaginative poets and writers. The extant sources show that the musician obtained a broad humanistic education ,that he entertained good relationships with the people he associated with, had friends who thought highly of him, and that he was both ready to help others and grateful for help received.

The sources availble to us today allow us to sketch the following brief biography of Greff Bakfark. As a child (presumably in 1536) he left Kronstadt in Transylvania for the court of the Hungarian king John Zapolyai, probably in Grosswardein (Nagyvarad or Oradea in Transylvania)and was trained there by a lutenist(apparently Italian)from Buda whose name has not been transmitted. After the king´s death in 1540, he remained in the service of the dowager Queen Isabella. After she was expelled from Buda, she became the ruler of Transylvania in 1541, and took up residency in Weissenburg (later Karlsburg, Transylvania). There Bakfark stayed until 1549, when he was hired by Isabella´s brother, the Polish King Sigismund Augustus II, as court lutenist in Cracow.
Toward 1550, Bakfark married the Lithuanian aristocrat Katharina Narbutovna, who bore him two children. In October 1551, he left the court for several trips which took him first to Königsberg and Danzig, then , via Frankfurt on the Oder and Wittenberg, to Augsburg,where he hoped to find a publisher for his works. But it was not until 1553 that he was able to publish his first lute book in Lyons. In summer 1554, Bakfark returned to the Polish court, rose to become the best paid musician there, and purchased a house in Wilna in 1559, where the king had relocated his court.
He left the royal court unexpectedly in 1565; In October of that year he published a second lute book in Cracow. His next station seems to have been Vienna, where we find him as "Lutinist" at the court of Emperor Maximilian II as of July 1566; there he had a very high salary and enjoyed special privileges. In 1570, however, he left Vienna to enter the service of the Transylvanian Prince Johan Sigismund in Weissenburg as court lutenist; the Prince offered a sizable country estate to the "homecoming" artist. Unfortunately ,the prince soon died. Bakfark did not stay with his successor Stephen Báthory, preferring instead to live as an independent musician in Padua, where he settled in 1571.
Together with his second wife - an Italian- and their four children, he died of the plague in 1576. He burned his last works just before his death.
Among the biographical details that are still at issue are, besides the year of Greff´s birth, the year of his elevation to the nobility, his presumed stays in Paris and Rome, the occasion for his sudden departure from Wilna and the reason why he was arrested in Vienna and subsequently left that city. His childhood and education, his years of service at the courts of Zapolyai and Isabella, his Viennese years and the last years of his life also remain to be examined.

Karl Teutsch
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