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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
scholars feel that "... this insistence is a complex-ridden remnant of the Magyarization
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
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
increasingly on purely biographical aspects and, above all, on Greff Bakfark´s neglected
Bakfark research profited from the impulses it received on the occasion of the 400th
of Bakfark´s death in 1976. New biographical views and insights have since emerged from
documents, and new facts discovered. For example, the recent findings have led to the
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
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,
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
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
biography also needs to be revised: the notion of Bakfark as a "... restless adventurer and
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
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
,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
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
was trained there by a lutenist(apparently Italian)from Buda whose name has not been
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
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
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.
,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
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.