The Middle Ages.
Church Music and Minstrel Music

We have mentioned the results of research into melody. A chain of a peculiar musical style, extending over thousand of miles from the Danube to the Yellow Sea, demonstrates that the Magyar people, originating from two or three different peoples’ elements, brought along, probably through the intermediation of Mongolian-Turkish {11.} peoples (their close relatives), an ancient Central Asian melodic style from the borders of Asia. We can only guess who were the intermediaries of the anciens Central Asian style: Huns, Turks, or Bulgarians from the Volga? The more recent musical style however, the music of the Islam, adopted by the Western and Southern Turkish peoples some centuries after the migration, was at any rate fundamentally different from this Old Turkish or “Ugrian” style, and possibly distinguished already the Petchenegs, Cumanians and Bussurmans from the conquering Hungarians.

But in addition to these results recent research offers other data concerning the musical life of the peoples related to the Magyars. Namely the ethnic group from which the Magyars broke away in the first centuries of our era lived partly in its ancient condition on the Western borders of Asia and the Eastern borderlands of Europe up to the present day, and undoubtedly has preserved some of the ancient traditions that inspired its primitive life. Even if these customs have changed since the time the Magyar people left the ancient nomadic community, and even if the traditions known today did not rule among all members of the ethnic group, we can assume that some of their cultural forms, surviving almost to the present day, more or less reflect in an unchanged way the conditions at the time of the migration. Nearly all research workers draw attention to the heroic songs of Finno-Ugrian and Turkisch-Mongolian peoples, performed by special minstrels or shamans, and accompanied partly by string instruments. It was noted of them that they sang of the deeds of ancient heroes, impersonated in their dances the deeds of their forefathers, or represented well-known events. Their dirges and other ceremonial songs were recorded, their string and wind instruments and magic drums described. Hungarian musical research could easily attach to these facts concerning Ostyaks, Voguls (Chantis, Manyshis), Buryats, Tatars and Kirghiz peoples the corresponding Hungarian melodies, as well as our people’s customs mentioned again and again since the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries. On the basis of the above we can assume that the Hungarian people of the Middle Ages had preserved several peculiarities brought along from the East – preserved them so firmly that they survived in their memory even through all the changes of the next centuries, of the settling in {12.} the new country and the entrance into the European Christian community. For the pagan Magyars, who – as recorded by the Byzantine historian Theophylactos in the seventh century – “honoured the soil with songs” not so long ago, and who, as noted by the chronicles of Sankt Gallen, “cried to their Gods” in a peculiar way (926), soon learned hymns of other kinds and adapted their singing to other melodies. The final settling down in the new country, on the territory of the present-day Hungary, was necessarily followed by the dissolution of the tribal structure, by the organization of the state, the conversion to Western Christianity and the development of the new class society, the birth of feudal Hungary. All these furthered closer contact with Europe. Since then Western elements have been constantly streaming into the Hungarian melodic world, partly through the borders of the new country and partly through the non-Hungarian population.

Let us say a few words here of the history of this territory, and of the musical culture of the country before the conquest of the Hungarians. The territory of present-day Hungary, that is its Western part, belonged to the Roman empire in the first centuries of our era under the name of Pannonia and today it still cherishes many relics of Roman culture. After the withdrawal of the Roman legions, it was occupied for longer or shorter periods by different peoples, by Turkish-Mongolian peoples among others, such as the Huns and Avars. Slavic and German tribes often made their appearance here also and round about the year 800 the army of the Frankish empire had also reached it. What was the musical culture brought along by all these peoples? We can only hazard a guess. A Roman water organ, however, dating from the third century and discovered in 1931, together with two double pipes, dating from the eight century, Avar, Byzantine or Arabian in character, unearthed in 1933 and 1936, prove that this territory was part of the highway taken by late antique and Eastern musical culture. Specialists succeeded in making these instruments sound, which are noteworthy also for the fact that they belong to the most intact, and for that reason to the most important specimens surviving of their kind.*Cp. Lajos Nagy: The Organ from Aquincum (1934, Hungarian); and Dénes Bartha: The Avar Double Pipe from Jánoshida (1934, Hungarian). The population itself, living on this territory {13.} at the time of the settlement of Magyars, preserved apparently in a most colourful jumble the melodic world of Western, Eastern and Southern Europe of that time.

It is possible that the Magyars of the eighth to ninth centuries made the acquaintance of Christian church music earlier, in their settlements on the Caucasus and on the coasts of the Black Sea; for these melodies may have been sung there already by the intermediation of Byzantine and Nestorian priests. Thus the ecclesiastical diatony, with its characteristic modes was not new on the territory of present-day Hungary. But the decisive role of the Gregorian chant begins of course only with the eleventh century, with the first christianized Hungarian kings. With it the musical culture of Western Christianity makes its appearance in Hungary. In monastic, cathedral and collegiate church schools the Gregorian chant, the Choral, was taught regularly in the eleventh to twelfth centuries. Esztergom, Nyitra, Nagyvárad, Pannonhalma, Veszprém, Vác and Csanád were among the most important centres of musical instruction. In canonical schools (Veszprém, etc.) singing was taught also later on as the most important subject of instruction, and charters of the collegiate churches refer to “succentors” ever since 1223. Latin hymns were spread in Hungary by such schools and monasteries, and they had a decisive influence on the development of ancient Hungarian verse metres as well. Of the method of musical instruction used by schools we have information concerning a later period only, thanks to the Notebook of László Szalkai, but Jacobus de Liège’s Speculum musicae (written around 1330–40) undoubtedly refers to it, mentioning Hungary among the countries using Guido’s solmization in practice. The Gregorian chant had taken quite deep root in Hungary. This is proved by the monuments of neumes, missals, fragments of antiphonaries and breviaries (Debrecen, Eperjes, Kolozsvár, Szeged, Zirc, Esztergom, etc.), and especially the three earliest: the Sacramentarium of Zagreb written according to Frankish examples, the so-called Codex of Hahót, the Agenda pontificalis of Hartvig, bishop of Győr (both from the end of the eleventh century), and the so-called Codex Albensis (formerly named Antiphonary of Graz)*Published 1963 in facsimile by Zoltán Falvy and László Mezei. Its musical notation is of S. Gallen origin. {14.} from the twelfth century. Soon it inspired the independent creation of melodies as well. It is therefore absorbingly interesting to follow the traces of increasing adaptions and transformations to Hungarian demands, or even Magyarization of the Chorals. The liturgical melodies of the sacramentarium known as the Pray Codex (parts of missals, antiphons, psalms, hymns, tropes) were written down by eight monks, mostly of Italian-French culture, in neumatic notation in the Benedictine monasteries of Boldva and of Somogyvár between the years of 1192 and 1216. The codex itself (named after a well-known Hungarian researcher George Pray [1723–1801]) – containing among other things the earliest written record extant of the Hungarian language, the Funeral Oration – also contains, here and there, independent forms of notation and even independent melodies (Hymn to Mary). At the time, the beginning of the thirteenth century, the monks of monasteries, whose job it was to write, apparently began to take notice that poets and scholars first began to use the Hungarian language; but Hungarian music had to wait three hundred more years until a writing monk took notice of it. Towards the middle of the thirteenth century an anonymous Hungarian poet-student or monk, living in Italy, translated into Hungarian, probably for a religious assembly outside the monastery, the Complaint of the Blessed Virgin of Georffroi de Breteuil, adapting his Hungarian version to the French sequence-melody of the Latin original. This is the earliest written Hungarian poem, and at the same time, the first encounter with the more secular melodic world of Western Middle Ages: The Old Hungarian Lament of Mary. It is noteworthy however that already in 1114 the synod of Esztergom was compelled to take a stand against the songs “not approved”, undoubtedly originated locally: “nihil legatur vel cantetur in Ecclesia, nisi quod fuerit in Synodo collaudatum.” Apparently it is this development, the last results of which may still be found today in the popular Hungarian variants of some Choral melodies, such as in the collections of our folklorists, recently examined and published by Benjámin Rajeczky and Zoltán Falvy. In two songs of the Nádor Codex (1508) the first Gregorian melodies with Hungarian texts make their appearance. What the development of the practice of Gregorian chant looked like in Hungary can be seen in a considerable number of graduals found {15.} from the beginning of the sixteenth to the middle of the eighteenth centuries (in Catholic but even more in Protestant sources), the rich musical material of which without doubt also abounds with local variants and has still to be closely examined. How local tendencies, with their leaning towards independence, developed, can be clearly seen in the melodies of the missals of Esztergom and Csíksomlyó, and later on of the Batthyány Gradual and their successors. As has been said this line of development leads directly to the Alleluia and psalmody variants that have Hungarian popular melodies.

Movement for two voices from a fifteenth-century manuscript. (No. 107) of the University Library in Budapest

Movement for two voices from a fifteenth-century manuscript. (No. 107) of the University Library in Budapest

Mass-singing – according to the Pray Codex, the Codex of Vác (1423) and to various Missals – early took on an organized, final {16.} character in Hungary. It is interesting to note the fact, among others, that a foundation was made in 1419 in Pozsony for a morning mass to be sung with four singers; while at Nagyvárad about the same time, during the reign of Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary, psalmodizing practice was regularized by royal order.

Monasterial singing was taught at the time, at least in certain schools, undoubtedly on a high European level. This is established also by the Hungarian Compendium written by László Szalkay (later on Archbishop of Esztergom), round about 1490 in the monastic school of the Augustins at Sárospatak; this is a work which can hold its own with other contemporary European compendia in its liturgical material and theoretical methodology. (Published in 1934 by Dénes Bartha.) This is the same period that brought forth (as shown by B. Rajeczky’s research) the first organa for two and three voices in Western and Northern Hungary. But in addition to solemn vocal culture there was, especially towards the close of the fifteenth century, a certain secularization gaining ground in monasteries. Preachers complained either about the secularization of monastic singing, the spreading of “theatrical songs” (cantus theatrales), or angrily condemned the many carnival songs (cantilena carnalis). The Dominican writer of the Sándor Codex from the beginning of the sixteenth century also described the paradisical rejoicing of the saints in a conspicuously secular spirit, envisaging that it was accompanied by the music of fiddle, lute, drum and cimbalom (dulcimer) players, by dance and by “the tenor, discant and contratenor” singers, – that means it was a piece in the style of the Western motet.

Where was this secular music-making mood hiding during the centuries of the Middle Ages? At present we cannot fully answer this question. In the centuries after the introduction of Christianity, ancient, pagan minstrel singing partly sank into insignificance and partly assumed new shapes. Ever since the twelfth century minstrels are repeatedly mentioned in chronicles and elsewhere in Hungary. Sometimes they are mentioned together with tribal leaders of the original settlement, and sometimes with Hungarian warriors who survived great battles, and it is also said that in some places the minstrels were put under the control {17.} of the church. Old memories are apparently mixed with newer ones. The subjection of the ancient pagan minstrel singing, its Christianizing, its drawing into state and church service – did not take place without difficulty, and just as was the case with all European nations, it was at the cost of enormous efforts lasting for centuries. All this does not mean that these traditions were extinct, for it is known that other pagan popular customs were alive at this period under the guise of Christian conventions (the songs of “regölés” and of the fire-making on St. John’s day). The encounter with folk music was, as it were, a symbol, the most outstanding event in Hungary’s cultural history in the Middle Ages. A much quoted episode of the Legend of Gellért [(St. Gherardus] i.e. the Vita Major, written sometime between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries) relates that Gherardus, the bishop, while travelling to the king together with a priest named Walter, who was a teacher and choir-master of the school of Csanád of Fehérvár, put up for the night at a farm on the Hungarian steppe. In the night they were woken by the noise of a hand-mill accompanied by the song of a servant girl. The bishop asked his companion in a slightly ironical tone: “Do you hear this Hungarian symphony (audisne symphoniam Ungarorum)?” The song became louder and the bishop asked: “Walter, what mode of song is that (quis istius melodiae cantus sit)?” He jokingly used learned musical terms and Walter probably replied in a similar vein: “It’s just the way they sing (ista modulatio carminis est)” – and explained that the singer was the servant of their host, and was singing while milling the grain.

These primitive popular songs were, however, by no means always so peaceful in character. At the time of the pagan revolt in 1061 – as recorded by the historian Turóczi – pagan priests, or shamans, suddenly appeared again, and incited the people by songs to kill the bishops and monks, to tear down churches and to restore the old religion. It seems that it was the mimics, historios, and joculators – these travelling minstrels and comedy-folk – who kept the pagan memories alive. Since the end of the thirteenth century the church had taken a strict stand against entertainers and against secular singing, so that it is here in the historic art of the minstrels that we should look for traces of the lost secular {18.} music of the Middle Ages. The first data concerning old Hungarian instrumental music also come from this sphere.

The origin and development of the “order” of old Hungarian minstrels is still unknown. We know from the description given by Priskos Rhetor and Jordanes that the tradition of songs of praise and of lament and of the epic songs was alive among the Huns, one of the predecessors of the Magyars. And if there is no bridge to connect them with the Hungarian minstrels we can still take it for granted that the Hungarian people did not forget the traditional epic songs of Asia in their European homeland. As the Hungarian minstrels came into prominence in historical records, they already had a manifold function, and played a decided intellectual and social role in society. The unknown chronicler, who is recorded in Hungarian history writing as Anonymus, and who wrote his chronicle around 1200 or 1250 in the French-educated court of Béla III or Béla IV, stressed with pride the difference between his Western, “lettered” education and the world of unwritten oral tradition, by calling the singing of Hungarian joculators “garrulous” (garrulus). Nevertheless he regarded them as the preservers of ancient national traditions. Out of this legendary world of the original settlement, which was then about three hundred years old, he took the material for his songs. (In one place he quoted two lines in rhyme from a joculator’s song, in Latin of course.) The livelihood of court minstrels was at the time ensured by the special official grant of land, just as was done in the time of Charles the Great for the menestrels of the Provence. In Igrici in the county of Zala lived the minstrels of the king and in Igrec of the county of Pozsony lived the minstrels of the Pozsony castle. (It is possible that the population of these old settlements preserved the professional name “igric” of the Slavic minstrels of the population at the time of the original settlement of the Magyars, and this name was then attached to the minstrels of the Hungarian court.) But the joculators, of whom we know many by name (Csiper 1253, Szombat 1273, Hamzó 1288, Mikó 1296, Tamás 1329; Lőrinc Énekes mentioned in the years 1277 and 1297, and János Kobzos talked of in 1326, were probably joculators too) did not only entertain the court but lived among the people. They kept alive the legends {19.} of the original settlement in taverns and among the common comedians just as much as in the royal court. They may even have revived pagan memories as well, and because of this, the church, following the example of the Synod of Lateran, at the Synod of Buda in 1279, forbade the congregation to listen to joculators. Their role of entertaining and of playing instruments came increasingly into prominence during the fourteenth century. Until then the playing of instruments was merely complementary to their singing, but now it became an independent performance. It was recorded of Márton, the minstrel, in 1377: “joculator vel fistulator”. At this period we hear very little more about the role of the court players, but an extinct group of royal servants, the “combinators called regös” are mentioned in a document in 1347. And towards the end of the fourteenth century the number of court and residential musicians defined by the name of the instrument, Hegedűs and Sipos (fiddlers and fluteplayers, etc.) increased while the old joculators – or at least the ones called by this name now – had drifted into a very miscellaneous company, far removed from their old court circle. By the fifteenth century the name of joculator is usually applied to showmen and tricksters (they were called also at the time by the name of “igric”), and the church refused them church charity and the Communion (at the Synod of Szepes in 1460). The name joculator is still found for a time for instrumental musicians, for instance, flute-players and buffoons, only to vanish eventually among the mixed crowd of wandering folk. The role of court minstrels had been taken over since 1420 by lutenists and fiddlers. The undivided, ancient tradition was now already divided into various, partial functions, in the same way that patriarchal monarchy was taken over by the feudal state, and the more simple, more uniform community by a system of various social strata, even though not yet rigidly divided.*Essays summing up the question of jucolators were published by B. Szabolcsi: Die ungarischen Spielleute des Mittelalters, Abert-Gedenkschrift 1928; Dezső Pais: Our Entertainers from the Time of the Árpád and Anjou Dynasties (in Hungarian), Zenetudományi Tanulmányok (Studies in Musicology) I, 1953; W. Salmen: Die Auslandsfahrten ungarischer Spielleute im Mittelalter, Zenetudományi Tanulmányok (Studies in Musicology) VI, 1957; and Zoltán Falvy: Spielleute im mittelalterlichen Ungarn. Studia Musicologica I, 1961.

{20.} The “court” itself and the meaning of courtly culture also underwent great changes after the beginning of the fourteenth century. After the extinction of the Árpád dynasty in 1301, the court of the Anjous and Luxemburgs (in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) made different demands and required a different orientation from the essentially Hungarian courtly culture of the Árpáds. With them began a new era in the intellectual and social life of the country. From the musical standpoint the Hungarian court of the Middle Ages orientated itself towards France. It was no accident that Béla III, king of Hungary, who through his wife had ties with the French court, sent Elvinus in 1192 to Paris to study music, “ad discendam melodiam”. The visit of the French troubadours Peire Vidal and Gaucelm Faidit at the court of King Emeric (around 1200), and the french melody of the Old Hungarian Lament of Mary were also not accidental. And now the courts orientated themselves in three directions. The boundaries were opened chiefly towards Italy and Flanders, the first artists from Germany appeared at the court of Louis the Great in the fourteenth century (Suchenwirt, Mügeln, Teichner), followed by the Minnesänger and Meistersänger at the courts of King Sigismund and King László V (Oswald von Wolkenstein and Behaim) and the choir masters of Vladislav II and Louis II, Master Grimpeck and the famous Thomas Stoltzer. (Tradition has it that Stoltzer met his death in Hungary in the disastrous battle of Mohács, 1526.) This courtly culture reached its culmination during the reign of King Matthias Corvinus and Queen Beatrice in the second half of the fifteenth century. In the brilliant Renaissance bustle of their court in Buda outstanding visiting artists from Flanders, Italy, Germany and France could be met (Stokhem, Bisth, Mecchino, Bonnus, Stefano da Salerno, Cornuel, Barbireau). Strangely enough it was here that the first lutenist Gipsies made their appearance (1489) on the island of Csepel. There was an excellent choir about 1480 in Buda, which cultivated Franco-Flemish polyphonic literature, a choir highly praised by papal ambassadors (in the letter from 1483 of the Bishop of Castella). Organ, viola and lute playing flourished – thanks chiefly to foreign artists – and apparently theoretical works even found a public (Tinctoris, the great music scholar of the period {21.} dedicated his Diffinitorium to Queen Beatrice). Tradition has it that Willaert also appeared among the guests of the court of the Jagellos, and it was believed for a long time that after the disastrous battle of Mohács he moved to Venice from Hungary. However, the only evidence pointing to this was the ambiguous title of a “Hungarian royal musician” (cantor regis Ungariae). It seems likely that such visits were not one-way but were balanced by awakening Hungarian wandering spirit and desire to see the world. We soon hear of a “Thelamonius Hungarus” in Germany and Italian authors mention the singing of Hungarian students in Padua. The fact that we find abroad in the dance music in Hungarian style of the sixteenth century the vagrant-rhythm found in many European countries, and that the verse-chronicle of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries should have woven into its texture the motifs of Czech and Polish, Italian and German literary culture at the same time is not without precedent. In what way did the visiting foreign musicians of the Renaissance period enrich Hungarian musical culture in the narrow sense of the word? Foremost, apparently, by reviving interest in the field of instrumental music for which a certain basis already existed here in Hungary.

Probably the practice of wind instruments dates furthest back. The bugle and the whistle (pipe) were regarded, on the basis of their name (“kürt,” “síp”), by eighteenth-century historians as the oldest Hungarian instruments. In any case they played a very early role in Hungarian military and court life. The name of “kürtös” and “sípos” (bugler and whistle-player) appeared for the first time in the first decades of the twelfth century in charters. We hear in 1257 already of court buglers (buccinatores), led by Count Burdel. From old Hungarian place names we can conclude that whistle-players, buglers, trumpeters lived on separate settlements, apparently by royal favour. Wind instruments were probably supplemented as late as the fourteenth century by the use of string instrument (bowed or plucked), such as the lute and the “koboz” (compare with the Arab-Turkish “gubuz”) and the fiddle (“hegedű”). They represent a more conscious artistic function. The augmentation of the instrumental set can be traced, particularly since the thirteenth {22.} century (the first whistle-player was mentioned in 1222, the first “kobzos” in 1326, the first bugler in 1355, the first “fiellator”, that is fiddler, in 1358, the first “gajdos,” that is whistler or bagpipe player, in 1402, the first lutenist in 1427, and the first trumpeter in 1428 in charters). Of all musicians the lutenists, fiddlers and whistlers came increasingly to the forefront in the course of the fifteenth century. From 1437 and 1452 onwards there are numerous references to the organ. Organ music was played in the first half of the fifteenth century in Székesfehérvár and Lőcse, there were famous, sumptuous organs installed in King Matthias’s Buda and Visegrád castles, the organists of Körmöcbánya are mentioned in account books as early as 1464, while Eger, Esztergom, Kisszeben and Bártfa were famous for their organs from about 1500 onwards. The increased role of instrumental music thus apparently coincided with the Western courtly culture of the Anjous and their descendants. About the end of this period a more conscpicuous role was given to fiddlers and lutenists: they were the musicians (citharaedi) whose epic songs accompanied by the lute were heard by the Italian writer Galeotto round about 1485 at King Matthias’s table, and whose playing reminded him of the old Roman minstrels. It way they who prepared the entire subsequent development of the new period of Hungarian music.


For the picture was already changing. Humanist culture, the Renaissance splendour of Buda and Visegrád, the brilliant dream of a Hungarian-European culture suddenly came to an end at the beginning of the sixteenth century, swept away by the destitution of the war and the breaking-up of the country. The great Hungarian peasant revolt in 1514 was put down with ruthless violence, the Turkisch power attacked Hungary with increasing force, and the country became, after the crushing defeat in 1526 at the battle of Mohács, the victim of attacks from the Ottoman Empire from the South and of Habsburg imperialist threats from the West. The foreign musicians and scholars of the court were scattered, the choirs were dissolved, the organs silenced or destroyed. {23.} But the minstrels carried along into a tempestuous future the memory of the golden age of the Hungarian court, the memory of the blissful time when the poet of heroic songs found the most beautiful themes in the realities of everyday life, when his voice was heard by the royal residence of a flourishing country. We can say that these minstrels were the bearers of a “great memory”. There are indications that they were singing age-old themes and keeping them alive as examples, warnings and as encouragement during the hard times. And the “great memory” will be more and more important in the next period; he who remembers, is able to hope, he who remembers, will survive.

We know nothing of the songs of lutenists and fiddlers, of minstrels and “combinators”, probably because nothing was recorded at the time; but now, at the dawn of a new era when remembering and recording became such great necessities, there was a decisive turn also in this sphere. Around 1520 a Minorite monk, Fülöp Pominoczky, recorded on the book cover of his handwritten Manual a melody fragment, or short ditty, consisting of two lines in which a village “oldster” shows his “master”, who is seeking the way, the right direction. (“Gaffer, gaffer, which is the way to Becskerek? Master, master, this is the way to Becskerek.”) This simple, popular melody, or fragment of a melody, consisting of four notes, found in the Battyhány Library of Gyulafehérvár, represents the earliest written record of Hungarian music. It is on the boundary of the old and the new period and with it begins the history of Hungarian music recorded in musical notation. It would seem that the “peasant voice” inherent in this music often “showed the way” when the culture of the rulers had a tendency to go astray, and it was a strange reminder at a time when the suppression of the peasant revolts and the petrification of the feudal society, amid the increasing exactions of Vienna and Constantinople bore the country the catastrophe of Mohács, and centuries of crises.

The picture of a Hungarian lutenist (as represented on the sgraffito of the Frics Castle around 1630)

The picture of a Hungarian lutenist (as represented on the sgraffito of the Frics Castle around 1630)