Few countries can boast of a music history as varied and as interesting as Hungary. Many Hungarian composers and musicians have gone on to change the way we listen to, write and understand music. Just think of Kodály, Bartók or Liszt, and the indelible mark they have left on music and composition. But the list doesn’t stop there, as Hungarian music, and the composers who produce it, are still a very important part of contemporary music today.
Many orchestras and symphonic ensembles can be found in Budapest, as there are at least 8 that are internationally known and loved. Join us on a journey through the history of Hungarian music, what its roots are, and how it became the sensation it is today.
Hungarian Music History
Hungarian music is unique because of the language and cultural traditions that form its backbone. Unlike other countries in the region, Hungarians come from the steppes of the Ural mountains, and although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where we came from, we know that our origins are Asiatic, and likely Finno-Ugric. The basic scales used in Hungarian folk music are the Hungarian minor, or gypsy scale, which is a 7 note pentatonic scale that is perfectly balanced, but relies on a large number of half steps.
The earliest official record of Hungarian music is a Gregorian chant from the 11th century. It is a remarkably beautiful Christian plainchant. Although this forms a basis of knowledge, the folk traditions and dances that were around at the time were not documented, as they were seen as pagan and unimportant. These elements would not be incorporated into music (officially) until Kodály.
Hungary has had a very turbulent past, and this is clearly felt in its music. From Turkish influences, to the mimicry of Western trends throughout the years, to the Slavic traditions that took root here, there is a little bit of everything. In the 18th century, this all started to coalesce, and there was a massive boom in both Hungarian song and dance, and in learning new instruments. Folk songs were still deemed unimportant, but everyone seemed to know them nonetheless.
Hungarian Dance Music
In the 19th century, everything changed because of three famous composers: Liszt, Kodály and Bartók. Kodály and Bartók collected folk songs and customs religiously, and documented their ethnographic adventures. This formed a basis of knowledge that all of the music in Hungary still draws from. Liszt was a genius composer and musician, and his focus on Hungarian scales, of incorporating folk elements into his music immortalized Hungarian music forever. Hungarian gypsy music is also a hodgepodge of different cultural and social niches, crashing together to form something new and vibrant. This music has Eastern, Indian or Turkish elements, but mixes with the Hungarian scales, and the travelling people also introduced new instruments, like the zither, fiddle, and certain kinds of percussion instruments.
This century also saw the universal appreciation of the Opera, and Hungarian greats such as Bánk Bán, which relied heavily on Hungarian music, and musicians like Ferenc Lehár or Emerich Kálmán, were beloved internationally.
The ethnographic habits of Kodály and Bartók saw an incredible documentation of folk customs and music from Hungary. This music was considered interesting and new in the 19th century, and influenced a whole slew of works in every Western European country imaginable. This was the time that Liszt established his music academy, and Budapest was seen as a pinnacle of music. This tradition is carried on, and Hungarian music today feeds off of this centuries old history. This heritage and the techniques that utilize it are still taught today, and in this way at least, Hungary has stayed in the current of classical music.
Hungarian Classical Music Today
The Liszt Academy is one of the most prestigious places of musical education to this day. Established in 1875 and teaching a variety of instruments as well as music theory and composition, it also boasts one of the best performing halls in the world. It is one of the seats of classical music today.
The MüPa also sports an extremely good music hall that holds classical music events regularly. The Matthias Church in the Buda Castle holds choir events and recitals throughout the year, and is also well known for its incredible acoustics, as does the St. Stephen’s Basilica. The BMC (Budapest Music Center) sports over 4000 square metres of floor space, and holds some extremely interesting classical musical events as well. The Pesti Vigadó (established in 1870) is another great venue for classical and folk music alike.
Táncház Revolution: Folk Music Today
After the repression of the Soviet era, Hungarians were eager to get in touch with their roots again. This led to a Hungarian folk song, and more importantly, folk dance revival. Táncház (dance house in Hungarian) events became commonplace in many venues, where these musical traditions thrived and gave birth to many folk ensembles and instrument makers. The hub of these activities is the Fonó house in the 11th district. You can buy Hungarian folk instruments, take classes, get into a táncház, and see performances in this cultural space. The atmosphere at one of these Táncház revivals is absolutely wild; group dancing, folk costumes, Pálinka, and of course tons of yelling and singing. A must see for fans of any music, really. You can also catch folk dance troupes in the Danube Palace, for a less interactive experience.
Hungarian Music Around the World
Perhaps the biggest contribution Hungary has given to music (besides a set of scales and unique, virtuoso playing style that can still be seen in every single genre that utilizes solos), was Kodály, and his amazing method of teaching music to children. This method is so effective that it has been adopted in classrooms all over the world. In Hungary, all teachers must study the method, including kindergarten, pre-school and elementary school teachers.
Japanese artists, with their obsession of categories, forms and styles, have even started writing music in the vein of 19th century Hungarian composers. This has become a serious sub-genre within classical music, and produces some of the most exquisite modern classical compositions.