Magyar Music (Part 1)


Hungarians aren’t only famous for their mighty moustaches, paprika-heavy cuisine, and beautiful women, but also for their rich and unique musical heritage. Growing up and spending the first twenty years of my life in Budapest, a mid-sized European capital with nine professional and full-time symphony orchestras, two opera houses and countless chamber orchestras, I was the direct beneficiary of Kodály’s initiatives that institutionalized music. Thanks to his work, music and choral singing were part of every school’s compulsory curriculum, several times a week. Every district of every city – even the smallest settlement – had a music school, where children could learn an instrument completely free of charge from the age of 5. Even if parents couldn’t afford to buy expensive instruments, schools provided rental violins, cellos and all kinds of instruments in exchange for a symbolic fee. At the age of 5, my parents decided to enroll me into this world-class music education system, and from that moment on, I felt it was my future and destiny to become an active member of this musical paradise.


Although it would have been an obvious choice, interestingly, it wasn’t classical music that I first started to study. This was influenced by the context in which I began my personal journey with music.


Just around the regime change, beginning at the tail-end of the eighties and continuing on into the nineties, Hungary, like many other (post)communist countries, started to re-discover its roots and reclaim ties to its national folk traditions. Before that time, expressing strong pride about one’s national heritage, much like practicing religions, reading free-thinking authors, or writing about or spreading progressive and Western ideas behind the Iron Curtain – in short, pursuing anything that didn’t agree with the socialist-communist propaganda – meant treading on thin ice, and risking the displeasure of the government or authorities.. But as the strong grip of the regime began to weaken, an increasing amount of individualist movements started to flourish; society was moving towards a democratic and opened spirit. This movement included the re-discovery of our national heritage.


There was a very different scenario being played out in the villages at both sides of the Hungarian-Romanian, as well as the Hungarian-Slovak border versus what we felt in urban cities. These small enclaves were home to much more closed and traditional communities,  where Communist propaganda didn’t succeed in infiltrating the everyday life of hand-workers, farmers and peasants, and urbanization and modernisation was much less progressive than in bigger cities. The people living in these rural regions were able to keep and practice their own traditions. Weddings, christenings, funerals – these were just some of the occasions where locals celebrated with their own centuries-old folk music and dance,  that Bartók and Kodály researched extensively in the early 20th Century. More affluent villages and regions could traditionally afford more instruments in a band and more ornamented clothing. Contrastingly, poorer regions had much less sophisticated or tuned instruments. This shaped the musical language as well: even though one could find common roots and melodies among the musical language of distant villages, the tunes, rhythms, ornamentations, instrumentations – and even some instruments were just as different as the colors and patterns on the traditional garments of each village, or the language dialect in various regions.


The incredible richness of this colourful musical diversity and untouched beauty piqued the interest of some people living in modern and urbanized Budapest, and thanks to pioneers like Ferenc Sebő and Béla Halmos, as well as to newly founded (and still existing) folk bands such as the Muzsikás and Téka, these traditions were brought to the attention of a larger public – and in an interesting way, were thus saved and preserved. As modernization and urbanization were inevitably the future of these folklore-rich rural regions as well, traditional professions became less attractive for the younger generations. Progress naturally opened up new horizons, leading them to leave their villages in favor of exploring the world and studying in larger cities, as opposed to staying at home to maintain the family craft – be that the tailor or the contrabass player of that particular community. At about that same time, enthusiastic and interested young people began showing up from Budapest, with a keen interest in studying with the last generation of traditional musicians and they started to learn, film, and record the dances and the traditional activities of different villages.


When I started to play the double bass and later on the violin at the age of 5, my pioneering school, the Óbuda Folk Music School (Budapest) organized regular excursions and summer camps to these regions, mostly in Transylvania. I remember participating in these adventures with my parents, who – despite not playing a music instrument themselves – also felt connected to and passionate about this new movement. There was something magical when, after a day-long bus ride on wretched roads, we suddenly arrived to a completely different world. People with ox carts riding on dirt roads without pavement, going home from the day’s work in the fields, the smell of domestic animals, tiny houses without running water and kitchens with open fireplaces, I felt that I was travelling back in time, to a world that only existed in fairy tales.


To be continued…

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