Hungarian razzle music history

This week, we are going on the razzle; that means we are evoking – with the aid of our database photos – how Hungarians enjoyed themselves in the past centuries, sometimes in delight, sometimes in sorrow. The Hungarian song and ‘gypsy music’ are almost synonyms, in addition, the most famous songwriters and musicians, virtuosos are gypsies. In our short music history, we are examining how this interaction developed, how the song become an entertaining genre – rooted in Hungarian folk music and heated by the romantic nationalism of the Reform Age.

Hungarian dance music


Due to our limited space, we do not dare to analyse the roots of Hungarian folk music, because that would mean going back to ancient times. We start our short summary as of the 18th century, when ‘verbunkos’ – so to say the antecedent of the Hungarian song – was born from the old Hungarian dance music. According to its original function, ‘verbunk’ (recruitment) dance and music served for inviting young men to become soldiers. The recruitment music influenced world famous composers like Mozart and Brahms as well.

The most famous representative of ‘verbunkos’ was gypsy bandleader János Bihari, who was a violin player virtuoso and composer too. He was one of the greatest characters in the Hungarian romantic music. He arrived in Pest in 1801, from Nagyabony (presently in Slovakia), where he became extremely popular with his five-member band. They performed in Pozsony (Bratislava) and Vienna, and they were on tour in Hungary. He lived the life of a vagabond, but in 1824, he had a road accident and his hand injury ended his bandleader career. Even the young Ferenc Liszt listened his live performance and praised him. Unfortunately, Bihari’s works were not written down, so their authenticity might be questioned.


In the 19th century, ‘verbunkos’ transformed into a romantic Hungarian dance music. It fitted to the patriotic feeling of the Reform age, when on the occasion of balls, young people danced ‘verbunk’ or ‘csárdás’ that developed from the former. Naturally, gypsy bands already had a great role then, as they provided music to the dance, and music developed and formed in practice. Gypsy music had such a great influence on Ferenc Liszt that he wrote a book on it in French language with the title ‘The Bohemians and their music in Hungary’. In this period, some virtuoso musicians could become real celebrities on national level – just like János Bihari (mentioned above). The emotionality of live music was not recorded in that time, thus we cannot admire the play of the masters who lived two hundred years ago.


The song that became Hungaricum


The Hungarian song was very popular this time – even educated society often preferred it to classical music. At the beginning of the 19th century, exploration of folk poetry was crucial in Europe. What is more, in Hungary, the national passion of the Reform age provided a perfect soil to this. In the meantime, melodies of the Hungarian dance fashion of the period revived in the songs, creating the ‘sung dance’ that was suitable for a razzle. Having fun, merry-making and singing songs spontaneously were parts of the Hungarian temper. Gypsy bands loved playing these songs. Even a new ‘profession’ appeared; many self-styled songwriters turned up among smallholders and intellectuals. Béni Egressy, who set to music the famous Hungarian poem ‘Szózat’ and wrote many songs, was a well-known author of the period (and did not belong to the above-mentioned dilettanti).


The popularity of the Hungarian song was unbroken at the turn of centuries and in the 20th century as well. Intellectuals and gentries liked expressing their emotions with songs accompanied by bandleader violin players. Probably, Pista Dankó was the most famous songwriter, who was the most active during the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. After that his songs became popular owing to Lujza Blaha, he achieved great successes with his song band from Hungary to Russia in the 1890s. His songs and popular theatre plays were written down by others and survived for posterity.

Play it, gypsies!

Let’s go back in time, because to complete the story we must add that the first standard gypsy band was mentioned in records in the middle of the 18th century. Naturally, musician gypsies had played music earlier, among others in exclusive places like royal and baronial courts; but wanderer gypsies trotted the world as well.


The first organised gypsy band was formed by Panna Czinka with her husband and two brothers-in-law. She was the leader of the band (the first known gypsy bandleader!), while his husband played the double bass, one of the brothers played the contrabass and the other the cimbalom. This is the standard arrangement of the gypsy band with a violin, a cimbalom and the bass – but the band can have more members also with a cello and a clarinet. Panna Czinka had a special talent in playing the violin even in her childhood. In this period, landlords used to patronise talented musicians; Panna was patronised by the landlord of the village Sajógömör. The band was very popular in that area.


During the following century, all social layers liked the company of gypsy musicians. (Our article does not introduce the folk gypsy music due to reasons of extent; we stay within the frames of folkish art music.) Later, the support of a strengthening middle-class and urbanisation placed gypsy bands in restaurants, coffeehouses, and their role was stabilised there. The phenomenon exists nowadays too, but is related to tourism mainly, and can be found in catering units visited by tourists. Their costumes are said to have come from the 1848-49 War of Independence, when gypsies took part in battles and played music to their fellow solders. Their uniform transformed into an orchestral attire: the gilded frogged red vest and the leader’s blue vest are still accessories of their performances.


In the 1950s, the genre started to be shifted into new frames with the Rajkó Band. Since then, Rajkó Orchestra and the One Hundred Gypsy Musicians are probably the most famous Romani symphony orchestras. Their repertory includes classical music, folk music besides the traditional gypsy music. Moreover, we have not mentioned yet the ‘world music’ collectives of Romani musicians. If you took a fancy for Hungarian and gypsy folk music - abstracting from the sentimental songs reviewed in the article, and staying within the exciting genre of world music – we would like to recommend you the world music festival Budapest Ritmo in Akvárium Klub (Budapest) from 5 to 7 October 2018.


Translated by Zita Aknai



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