Hungarian Folk Music and Folk Instruments

As the result of the monumental work carried out by Béla Vikár, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, László Lajtha and others in the collection, publishing and adaptation of music, Hungarian folk music is famous far and wide.

Béla Bartók defined the most important traits of folk music as follows: “Folk music is the sum of all those melodies which were used in some kind of a human community over a smaller or larger area for a certain length of time, as spontaneous expressions of musical instinct. To put it simply, folk music is composed of melodies which were sung by many people and for a long time. But if melodies are sung by many from generation to generation, then on the one hand, these will undergo more or less of a transformation in one way or another, depending on the place, that is to say, variations in melody will occur. On the other hand, melodies originally dissimilar from one another in structure may undergo transformation and become similar; that is, melodies come into being with common characteristics and a homogeneous musical style.” (Népzenénk és a szomszéd népek zenéje [Our Folk Music and the Folk Music of the Neighbouring Peoples], p. 3, Budapest, 1952.)

The basic melodies of the Hungarian treasury of folksongs exceed three thousand in number and naturally multitudes of innumerable and boundless variations are attached to these. Regardless of the homogeneity of such an enormous stock, certain historical strata can be differentiated of which only the most important shall be dealt with below.

Fig. 196. Melodies with the construction of alternating fifths.

Fig. 196. Melodies with the construction of alternating fifths.
1. Surd, Somogy County. 2. Rafajnaújfalu, former Bereg County. 1912

{429.} The oldest stratum of Hungarian folk music is characterized by the pentatonic scale and structure which repeats the melody a perfect fifth lower. If we take as our starting point the note “g”, the outline of the scale is as follows: g1 – b1 – c2 – d2 – f2. The missing notes often occur as unaccented passing notes. Today this structure is rarely found in a pure and untouched form, but if the influences of later centuries are stripped away, numerous melodies may be uncovered which were thought to be new. The texts in this kind of folk music comprise four lines: the third and fourth being sung a perfect fifth lower than the first two.

Although the pentatonic scale can be found in the music of practically every people, this melodic repetition at the interval of the perfect fifth is found mainly in areas of Hungary. Already a half century ago the idea emerged that this type of melody has its closest link with the melodies of the Mari (Cheremiss) people living in the Soviet Union. Often the similarity is so great that it is almost impossible to differentiate Hungarian and Cheremiss songs. This melodic form has also been found among the Chuvashes, where similarly it represents the oldest layer. Related forms occur even in Mongolia, so that this style can rightly be called Central Asian. We know what a great influence the Bulgaro-Turkish people, who spoke the language of the Chuvashes, exerted over the Hungarian language in the 7th to 8th centuries, and we have to suppose that musical connections also originate from this period.

The possibility also arose that the songs of mourning for the dead preserved Ob-Ugrian, or more precisely, Ostyak, connections. However {430.} the relationship is not that simple, because most likely this is a case of both having derived from the same source, the source from which the ancient Hungarian pentatonic world of melody, arising from North-Central Asia, could also have originated through appropriate transposition.

What we find in certain children’s songs and minstrel songs (cf. pp. 654–8) appears to be another ancient layer of Hungarian folksongs. When we search for traces of the “hexachord-melodies”, we know of parallels primarily among the Slav and German peoples. But in all likelihood this connection can be much wider because the twin bars, the prolonged repetition of short motifs, can be found in the basic layer of every people’s music, and it has even survived in all the most ancient traditions.

Fig. 197. Melody type A A

Fig. 197. Melody type A A5 A5 A. A ballad about highwaymen.
Heves County

Fig. 198. Melody type A B B A.

Fig. 198. Melody type A B B A.
Heves County

Fig. 199. Melody type A A B

Fig. 199. Melody type A A B5 A.
Bácsandrásszállás, Bács-Kiskun County. 1942

Fig. 200. Melody type A A B A.

Fig. 200. Melody type A A B A.
Fejér County. 1906

The recording of music with notes started late, in the 8th and 9th centuries. In Hungary, musical notes appear much later. Thus free variations, especially in folk music, but in church music also, must have been extraordinarily extensive. Recorded folk music material also testifies {431.} that Hungarian folk music assimilated many different elements. Influences came from Gregorian chants, just as sacred folk music has preserved a close connection with religious folksongs almost to this day. We know of several melodies that were sung with both religious and secular texts.

However, the repertoire of folk music has increased from the Middle Ages on, not only through religious written music but also through the influences of secular noted music. Some influences came from abroad, others evolved within the country. Foreign bards travelling to royal courts and to the upper nobility presented their songs. New vogues of dancing must also have introduced many new melodies. A detailed discovery of all these historical factors offers many tasks to the students of music history and music folklore.

Following the Western preliminaries that had already occurred in the Middle Ages, a new type of Hungarian folksong form arose in the 18th and 19th centuries, apparently under Western influence. Its characteristic traits are that the first and last lines of the four line melody are repeated, that is, we hear the opening line again as the conclusion. By disregarding variations few in number, these musical forms can be divided into four main groups: AA5 A5 A, ABBA, AA5BA, AABA. While about 200 melodies belong to the oldest layer of folk music, this newer group, not counting the minor variations, includes more than 800 basic variations. The new Hungarian folksong was dissimilated widely and thus restrained the inflow of foreign melodies.

At first glance there is a great deal of similarity among the melodies, but a more thorough examination also readily reveals the differences. Although this group is essentially a limited type, new melodies did come into existence, though in most cases these are only variants. Yet this melodic form maintains a close relation with the old structure. Thus the old form of A5 A5 AA can very easily, without any foreign influence, be {432.} transformed into the form AA5 A5 A, and in that case connection with the old fifth-construction is already obvious. Similarly, we can find traces of the old stock of notes, even if the bulk of these are already pentatonic, because if we leave off the minor, weak beat notes, the heptatonic basic structure comes to light. Actually the new and the old songs are both symmetrical forms, and if we peel off the superimposed notes, we often discover the oldest layer of Hungarian folk music. This proves how very much the pentatonic structure and the fifth-construction are peculiarities of Hungarian folk music.

Songs composed in a popular form (műdal, e.g. artificial song) practically flooded the entire country from the end of the last century until the First World War and got even as far as the villages. Unfortunately, the composers of the verse and music are mostly not known, and today there is not much hope for discovering their identity. The majority of the songs, in both their lyrics and melody, are foreign to the spirit of the Hungarian folk; their composers were educated men, more familiar with foreign than with Hungarian folk music. The lyric text and the melodies both reflect resignation from life, hopelessness, not infrequently a desire to die. Thus these songs primarily expressed sentiments of the middle and lesser nobility, whose numbers were declining from the middle of the 19th century. However, the influence of these songs left their mark, especially in two respects. Lines that used to consist of 6 to 12 syllables were extended and often reached as many as 25 syllables. Through this type of songs the major and minor modes entered into Hungarian folk music to a significant degree for the first time. And yet, Hungarian folk music defended itself against their effect by trying to reshape such songs to its own image. Numerous folksongs are known which transform the mentioned type into pentatonic songs, although this did not in every case happen successfully and often resulted in some kind of a mixture. But even in such instances the value of the songs had been improved.

The question of the relationship between Hungarian folk music and gypsy music is closely related to this problem, all the more so since in the middle of the 19th century Ferenc Liszt in one of his works erroneously called Hungarian music “gypsy music”. This notion became so deeply entrenched, especially abroad, that even today in many cases Hungarian folk music is equated with gypsy music. The truth is that gypsy orchestras of the cities played a shallow, folksy, composed music, suitable for satisfying wider audiences. Gypsies adjusted their musical repertoire to a great degree to their environment. As an earlier example, in Máramaros, Bihar, and also in some other places, in the first half of the last century the gypsy bands played, without any change, the repertoire inherited from bagpipers. But in and near cities their activity was limited almost exclusively to pseudo-folk music. As a result of more recently changing tastes, however, today they again frequently play old and new types of folksongs, true Hungarian folk music, even in cities.

Following the authority of Béla Bartók, we shall outline the reciprocal effect between the folk music of the Hungarians and that of the neighbouring peoples. Several instances are known: (1) only the structure and certain details are of foreign origin; (2) transforming the {433.} received melodies in a manner appropriate of the recipient people’s music; (3) receiving the melody in a broader or more narrow form; (4) finally, complete reception of a melody without any change at all. We must note that there are also certain melodies which exist both among Hungarians and the neighbouring peoples (e. g. Szeretnék szántani, Debrecenbe kéne menni, etc.), yet are not characteristic of the music of either group.

Practically no direct reciprocal effect may be proved with respect to the style of German music. Melodies originating from the direction of Germany came to the Hungarians mostly through Czech-Moravian-Slovak transmission and transformation. It seems that, with the exception of the Central-European type German music of the late Middle Ages and the 16th to 18th centuries, there was such a fundamental difference between Hungarian and German music that it almost completely precluded borrowings.

The situation is entirely different with the Slovaks, not only within the region of the linguistic territory, but in more distant areas as well. The connection is most diverse, since Slovakian labourers travelled for centuries to the Great Plain, to do the harvesting, or earned their bread as travelling glaziers, tinkers, cambric merchants, etc. Interestingly, we either cannot find or find very rarely the traces of the old type of Hungarian folk music in Slovak music, yet the new type of folksong occurs all the more frequently. This was a genuine revolution of Hungarian folk music, which reached not only into Slovakia, but into Moravia and even into Galicia. The reason for this is possibly the strengthened relationship between these countries at the time. In the second half of the 19th century the rhythms of new folksongs were spread also by the soldiers. This is also a reason why we find so many corresponding melodies among Hungarian and Slovak songs.

The situation is again different in connection with the Transcarpathian Ruthenians. One part of Hungarian swineherds’ songs, a group of about thirty variations, reflects an influence of the so-called kolomejka. We assume a sequence something like the following: Ruthenian kolomejka → Magyar swineherd songs → recruiting music → new type of Hungarian folk melodies. At the same time, the effects of the new Hungarian melodies and in many cases their complete reception shows up very strongly in this area. In some collections of folk music, the proportion of these songs reaches 20 to 40 per cent.

A different relationship developed with Rumanian folk music, which is worth examining primarily in Transylvania, where coexistence was extremely close both in the past and in the present. Rumanian folk music may be divided into several musical territories, each differing from the other to significant degrees. The pentatonic melodies of Hungarian origin are known in the majority of these areas; at the same time the new Hungarian music is almost completely unknown and occurs only perhaps in Máramaros, but here most likely as the result of Ruthenian transmission. The lack of the latter melodies can be explained among others by the different character of the fundamental Rumanian musical treasure by the attachment of Rumanians to that style, and also by a difference in musical taste.

{434.} It is futile to search for traces of Hungarian folk music in Serbia, Croatia and Slavonia. The influence is negligible on both sides. At the same time, in the Muraköz an extremely large number of songs were received from the old Hungarian material. We know of published collections where the influence of pentatonic music reached one-third of the melodies, proportionately greater than in Hungarian collections. However, the Muraköz district is a negligible part of the south Slav area, although it is extremely important for Hungarian folk music, precisely because of its conserving character.

We have surveyed certain layers of Hungarian folk music which, after the analysis of 2,600 melodies, was classified by Béla Bartók in the following way: (1) Old pentatonic melodies in approximately 200 groups of variations: approx. 1,000 songs (9%); (2) new type of melodies in approximately 800 groups of variations: approx. 3,200 (30%); (3) melodies composed in an artifical “Magyar” style in approx. 600 groups of variations: approx. 2,500 (23%); (4) foreign influence, approx. 100 groups of variations: approx. 4,000 (38%). The results of subsequent research have not changed the proportions of this survey, which shows clearly that prior to its fulfilment and general proliferation, the new Magyar folk music was threatened by strong foreign influence, which would have caused its Magyar character to be restricted to an extremely small area.

The fact that the grandparents stayed at home with the children while the parents and grown children worked in the fields and meadows determined over a very long period the method of transmitting folk music within the family. Thus the grandparents spent a great deal of time with the children and passed on their knowledge of folk music. This method of bequeathing broke up only in recent times with changes in the rhythm of village life.

There were a great many opportunities for singing in the past. Thus a whole series of communal activities could not have taken place without singing. Formerly the setting was given by the communal performance of feudal services, and later through day and seasonal labour on the large estates, though less frequently while working but rather during breaks. Corn husking, spinning, and grape harvesting provided opportunities for singing. Naturally, with the cessation of these types of work the opportunity for singing also decreased.

Singing was an indispensable part of children’s games, of the gatherings of girls, and of Sunday afternoon strolls. Songs associated with occasions were tied to customs, and an entire system of these developed. Well-defined songs were sung at certain parts of the wedding. The songs of Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday were just as different as the songs of Shrovetide or the near-forgotten songs of the fire jumping on Midsummer Night. We shall speak of all these again in regard to customs (cf pp. 637–659).


Peasants with a good ear and liking for music generally played instruments, and often made them themselves. But we also find instruments in the hands of bands who have joined together for certain occasions, and {435.} even more so in the hands of people who were regularly employed to play music.

Music and singing were already part of Hungarian village life in the Middle Ages. Sigismund, a Polish prince, spent a long time in Hungary around 1500, and on some occasion listened to the singing of men and women, and at another time to gipsies playing on the zither at their lodging. In the Vienna Codex from the middle of the 15th century we can read the following reference to musical instruments: “... at the time when I listened to the sounds of trumpets, pipes, fiddles and to the sound of the instrument made from elder-wood by minstrels, also to the voice of psalms and that of drums.” Medieval sources bear witness that fiddlers, lute players, gleemen, bards, minstrels and flute players travelled throughout the country and played, sometimes sad, sometimes happy songs on the instruments with which they accompanied their singing. Since the way of life of the medieval nobility and of the peasantry did not differ greatly from one another, it is likely that many of the instruments were also the same.

The word síp (pipe or whistle) originates in the eastern dialectal areas from the word sültü, which was being mentioned in the middle of the 17th century in the form süvöltyű, and which originates from the very old onomatopoeic root word sí, sív (sír–howl, cry). Its wide diffusion is demonstrated not only by linguistic records but by children’s poems, which look back to a much more distant past and preserves shamanistic elements:

Storkie, storkie, dickey bird,
What has got your leg with blood?
A Turkish lad has injured it,
Magyar laddie cures it, with
Piping, drum-beat, playing on the reed-strings.

                           Sárrét (Bihar County)


The traditional metre or prosody of any popular poetry is difficult to transpose into any other system of versification. If, as in our case, the traditions and conventions are so widely divergent for linguistic and cultural reasons as they are in Hungarian and English folk poetry, the task is nearly impossible. Nevertheless, I felt the task was worth the attempt. I have therefore accepted the challenge and tried to preserve as much as I could of the peculiar rhythms of my originals. I believe that doing (or at least seeking to do) justice to the prosodical features of foreign poetry, however outlandish and unusual they may be, is one of the translator’s liabilities. If only because the original rhythm is no less part and parcel of the total effect than other ingredients of poetry, such as syntax, diction, rhyme, etc. And if we consider that the lyrics and ballads in this volume exist primarily as songs that are sung to this day, any adaptation of their prosodic structure to the English reader’s accustomed native rhythms would have inevitably interfered with their appreciation as pieces of folk poetry and as folksongs. (Translation into prose, so often preferred in works of this kind, would have been, in my view, an even less acceptable solution.) The attempt to be faithful to the rhythmic form, I am aware, has no merit in itself; still, in order to be able to judge its success or otherwise, or even to be able to read or scan the lines as they are intended to be, the reader needs to be familiar with at least the basic principles of rhythm in Hungarian traditional verse. These principles are summed up and exemplified below.

Hungarian national versification is based on linguistic word stress, which invariably falls in speech on the first syllable. The periodically recurring heavy stresses in the poetic {436.} line constitute the main principle of prosodic organization. The lines of varying syllabic length divide into units called bars, each beginning with a heavy stress–normally coming on a word initial syllable but the established and anticipated rhythmic pattern occasionally requiring it to be shifted–followed by 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 (relatively) unstressed syllables. A line usually consists of 2, 3, and 4 such bars, and each bar in turn may consist of the same or a varying number of syllables; if the bars are unequal in syllabic length, they are said (by one theory at least) to be equalized in time. This yields an extremely varied repertoire of rhythmic line patterns, some of which are more common or favoured than others. E. g.

1) Gólya, gólya gilice,
Storkie, storkie, dicky bird, (see p. 435)
Síppal, dobbal nádihegedűvel.
Piping, drumming, playing on the reed-strings.
2) Felszántom a császár udvarát,
I’shall go and plough his Highness’ land (cf. p. 470)
3) Tizönkét kőmijes esszetanakodék,
Once twelve master masons put their heads together (cf. p. 524)

To help the reader establish the rhythm of the poems to follow, each different line structure will be provided with stress marks to show the beginning of each bar. In this simplified notation for convenience we shall dispense with double bars and the marking of light or subsidiary stresses.

(Translator’s note.)


Fig. 201. Flute.

Fig. 201. Flute.
Somogy County

The most primitive forms of such pipes or whistles were made of reed, and several varieties of them are known in the Hungarian linguistic region. One is made of a single reed, approximately 25 cm long. At one end it is stopped, and the reed-stops are placed at the other. Several holes, generally six, are bored along the side and the melody is played on these. Double reed pipes are also made, and people who intended to play the bagpipes later learned to play with the help of these. The reed pipe or whistle is mentioned in nursery rhymes. The counting-out rhyme below demonstrates the widespread existence of such musical instruments:

Once when I went down the cellar for to filch some butter,
Mother came soon after me and she did give me what for.
Hid in the reeds, I made myself a reed pipe;
This is what my reed piped: hee-how-hoy,
You are it, you big-mouthed boy.

249. Old man playing the flute

249. Old man playing the flute
Váralja, Tolna County

This children’s poem also records that when playing the pipe, the player would mutter into it (“hee, ho, hum”), in this way providing a background to the melody. Pipes were made from various kinds of {438.} wood or tree bark. Herdsmen were especially good at making these. Different sounds were produced by moving the lips and by blowing the right amount of air. It follows from all this that the sound and the register of every pipe is different.

Fig. 202. Swineherd’s horn.

Fig. 202. Swineherd’s horn.
Former Gömör County. 1906

However, as time went by, pipes descended the ladder of musical instruments and by and large became a children’s toy. Pipes were replaced by flutes, the name of which, furulya, is a loan-word very likely from the language of Wallachian herdsmen. In general, two forms are known. One is long, with five holes, approaching one metre in length. The holes are placed near the end so that while blowing into it the player’s head had to be raised high. The other is the short version, its length varying between 30 and 60 cm, and having six holes bored in its side. Generally, the players themselves make their own instruments out of maple or elder wood. Before the First World War, the Rumanians of Transylvania and the Slovaks of Upper Hungary made flutes for sale and travelled with them from village to village or to fairs.

The flute is an instrument played by men or boys. It was used during the last century primarily by herdsmen, who played it when alone, for their own enjoyment. With the exception of the Csángós, it is not used any more anywhere to play dance music. Because flutes are all tuned differently, their joint use in a band is impossible. Herdsmen, incidentally, especially in Transdanubia, often ornament their flutes with etched or embossed ornaments.

Herdsmen’s horns (pásztortülök) were made out of the horns of cattle and were used not so much as musical instruments, but rather to signal. These signals, however, are musical in character. The horns of the gray Hungarian cattle were especially suitable for this purpose because of their length. Smaller horns were lengthened with copper plates. Horns gave an extremely high range, so that it is also possible to sound the keynote on them. (It follows that the four notes of the natural scale can also be sounded on them.) The signals for the most part imitate sounds such as the calls of pigs, horses, and cattle.

One of the most widely spread wind instruments among the Hungarians was the bagpipe (duda), which consisted of a large leather bellows and the pipes that were mounted on it. The word duda is of Slavic origin, but it cannot be determined where the Hungarians took it from, because both the name and the instrument can be found among all the surrounding Slavic peoples. Earlier they also called it gajda, especially in the eastern part of the linguistic region. This is a loan word, presumably of Slavic origin, that could have been spread by Wallachian herdsmen. The proliferation of the word is demonstrated by recordings of the family name Gajdos as early as the first years of the 15th century. We also have an 18th-century reference to another Hungarian name for the bagpipe: “A musical instrument, used habitually by the herdsmen, commonly called tömlősíp (bagpipe).”

250. Head of a bagpipe

250. Head of a bagpipe

One component of the bagpipe is the bellows, the function of which is to supply the two pipes evenly with air. They made it mostly from lambskin, less frequently from goat- or dogskin. Only the front part of the flayed skin is made use of and the stumps of the front legs. Thus, together with the neck, three openings are created on the skin. Afterwards {439.} the skin is prepared and used with the woolly side in the inside. They then make the bagpipe parts. First comes the blower through which the air is let into the bellows, then the deep toned bourdon pipe is fastened on, which has only one hole. The double melody pipe has 6 + 1 holes. The single-tongued blowers of each, which are cut from reed, are hidden by a ram’s or goat’s head. In the Great Plain, we even find bagpipes shaped like heads of men or young women.

We know nothing of the tuning and pitch of bagpipes in the past, though we have adequate information from the 20th century. Their keynote lies between F and B. The scale of the melody pipe is mostly in the Mixolydian mode. If its first hole is opened up, then even deeper sounds than the keynote can be raised half a note. However, this is done only rarely, or rather just as an embellishment. Generally all together about eight notes can be sounded on a bagpipe.

From the 16th century the bagpipes became widespread. The players of bagpipes were greatly appreciated. For example, in 1666, of the eleven {440.} musicians of Prince Ferenc Rákóczi I, only the trumpet and violin players received higher salaries than the bagpipers. Among the princes of Transylvania, Mihály Apafi in particular loved the sound of the bagpipe, and when he went on a long trip he always took along his favourite bagpipers. This instrument had faded from the courts of the nobility by the 18th century and had found its place only in peasant bands. In the first half of the 19th century it was mostly used alone. The saying that “two bagpipers cannot fit into one tavern” was born at this time. People danced to a bagpipe at occasional and improvised dance gatherings, but the zither and especially the gipsy bands replaced it. Herdsmen played the bagpipe the longest, and were also the best bagpipers.

Fig. 203. Bagpipe.

Fig. 203. Bagpipe.
Palotsland. 1920s

A good bagpiper was known far and wide, and even dance songs sung by herdsmen were written about him.

He who wants to play the bagpipe,
Needs to know Hell in and outside;
Quite some time he must be stayin’,
Mastering his bagpipe playin’.

Some learned to play with such virtuosity that legends were written about them. According to one, a bagpiper played so well in a tavern on the Nagykunság puszta, that as long as he played, the people couldn’t stop dancing. There were also stories about others who hung their bagpipes on the main beam, and the instrument continued to play beautiful melodies by itself, and when four young men got tired of dancing they tried to take it outside into the yard, but could not move it. However, even famous bagpipers eventually got tired, and broke into the following song:

Weary am I, sick of livin’,
Good old bagpipe, I’am leavin’.
Such a long time did I blow thee,
Life is but a burden to me.

Among the string instruments, several were used only in distant areas, such as the lute (koboz) in Moldavia, where it was preserved by contact with Rumanian gypsies. The word itself originates from one of the Turkic peoples, most likely from the Cumanians or Pechenegs, although it is also possible that these peoples revived a musical instrument that had existed earlier. Nothing shows better its general use than an observation about Hungary from the early 17th century, namely, that “in my country even the children are plucking it”. It was still used in the second half of the last century: “The koboz is a guitar-like instrument having five ribs, a short neck, and eight strings, plucked by a quill. In the band it substitutes for the zymbalon, which is difficult to carry around.” In the western areas it is an oval-shaped, narrow-necked musical instrument, fitted out with four or five guts or stranded cords. The player holds it in his right hand, half way in his lap, and plucks it with the fingers of his left hand. Its use was presumably limited by the lyre (lant) and harp (hárfa), of German origin, which at first did not much differ from the koboz, as is indicated by the fact that the words for these {441.} instruments sometimes occur as synonyms. Thus Comenius, among others, mentions them together in one of his books as “either koboz or harp”.

The tambura is a stringed, plucked instrument, which came to the Hungarians presumably from the south. Different instruments were designated by this name through the centuries. Comenius writes about them in this way in the 17th century: “The tombora consists of strings, which are tightened by small string-tightening pegs”; a quotation from the 18th century says: “A horn out of which they make a tombora.” It may be equated with the zither in the region between the Danube and the Tisza, or rather its larger version may be called by that name. However, the most general form is in which the pear-shaped body is covered with a plate in front, out of which the narrow and relatively short neck emerges. Usually four steel cords are fastened onto it, on two of which the melody is played, on the other two the accompaniment. It is generally played sitting down, by holding the instrument in the lap. In our century the instrument was replaced by the zither.

251. Beggar with hurdy-gurdy

251. Beggar with hurdy-gurdy
Great Plain

The hurdy-gurdy (tekerőlant or tekerő, or by its newer name the nyenyere) came to Hungary probably from the West. We can assume that the hand or street organ (kintorna), often mentioned in the 16th century, {442.} was its ancestor. This word took on the meaning “hurdy-gurdy” (verkli) only in the course of the language reform, during the 19th century. It appears in our sources as a ten-stringed musical instrument. And that the hurdy-gurdy and hand organ may have been some kind of closely related instrument is again suggested by Comenius: “Hurdy-gurdy, hand organ: lyre.”

After its popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, the hurdy-gurdy remained in the south Great Plain, primarily around Szentes, where its most eminent makers lived. Special tools and calculations are necessary to make the complicated mechanism, and these often passed on in a family from generation to generation as carefully guarded secrets. The majority of the instruments known today are four-stringed, a few of them five-stringed. The strings are sounded by a resined wheel, which rubs all four strings simultaneously and brings them into transversal vibration. The pitch of the sound is controlled with the help of a key. Although it was tuned in a, it cannot be controlled satisfactorily, so that it wavers between g and c. In general, people like to tune it higher than a.

The hurdy-gurdy players of Szentes know three different methods of playing. They turn the wheel smoothly for the quiet (halk) playing and play the melody with frequent flourishes, accompanied by the strongly buzzing-humming sound of the other three strings. The friss or recsegős (fresh, crisp) method of playing provides music for dancing. A small piece of wood is fastened under the rasping string and the wheel is turned with a rhythmic motion and brief interruptions. This makes the melody, played with a strict tempo without flourishes, characteristically rhythmical. Finally the instrument may imitate the bagpipe when the rasping string is disconnected with the help of a small hook. At the melody notes the key is let out periodically. This method provided an accompaniment similar to that of the second pipe of the bagpipe.

The makers and users of the hurdy-gurdy were poor day-labourers who supplemented their income with their music. They paired it off, earlier with the bagpipe and later on with the clarinet, which reinforced the melody considerably. Most recently the hurdy-gurdy player played alone in taverns and at pig-killing feasts, and was rewarded with money, drink, and food. Only men played on the hurdy-gurdy, but the instrument itself was often given a woman’s name, usually the nickname Bözsi (Liz) or Kati (Kate).

The zither (citera) is a widely distributed string instrument still in use today. The origin of the word can be traced back to Latin, and the word was introduced into numerous European languages, but it is impossible to ascertain its exact transmission into Hungarian. At any rate it appeared fairly late, only in the 16th century. The Latin version of the word was already mentioned by the chronicle of Anonymus, although one cannot tell which kind of instrument could be hidden behind the name.

252. Playing the zither

252. Playing the zither
Sándorfalva, Csongrád County

Several kinds of zithers are known in the Hungarian linguistic region. Among these the simplest is the so-called trough-shaped one, which is usually made of a single piece of soft or hard wood with its inside carved out. In a more widespread version, one side is gradually widened, creating the so-called kid- or lateral-headed zither. In the past the head {443.} was adorned with fancy carvings, similar to a horse’s head or to a snail, but more recently it has been simply rounded off, because fewer people are good at carving. The third type is the big-bellied zither, which can be differentiated from the former ones by the bulge on one of its sides. This came to the Hungarians from the Austrian–Styrian area, where they played it with the fingers as a plucking instrument. However, Hungarians use it in the same way as the above.

The great majority of the Hungarian zithers are tuned to the Mixolydian scale. The keynote of the larger-sized zithers, 70 to 80 cm in length, is around g, while the keynote of the smaller examples, 40 cm in length, is higher by an octave. The scale of the former includes as many as three octaves in itself, while the smaller includes at most two and a half octaves. According to the scales that can be sounded on the melody cords, diatonic zithers are used in Upper Hungary and Transdanubia, and their notes or scores are placed in one row. Chromatic zithers are general in the Great Plain, and their scores are grouped in two rows.

In the past, zither players used to play standing up, holding the instrument at a slant. More recently they sometimes sit on a low chair and place the instrument on a bigger chair. In his right hand the zither player clasps the pick, made of a goose feather, a piece of horn, or most recently of a small celluloid plate, while he holds down the cords made of steel with the help of the index finger or thumb of his left hand. As zither playing is learned easily and quickly, it was quite a widespread instrument. Generally men played it, although at some places the existence of outstanding female zither players has been recorded.

Fig. 204. Zither.

Fig. 204. Zither.
Nagyszalonta, former Bihar County. Early 20th century

A zither, which any handy wood-working man could make himself, {444.} could be found in almost every house. That is precisely why the zither was always present at smaller gatherings. People also danced to the music of a zither at the conclusion of corn husking and spinning, for example. It was the most important instrument for dancing to at a Sunday afternoon gathering, and on winter evenings people liked to listen to its music even without dancing. Only in recent times has experimentation with zither bands begun, in which eight to ten participants play basically the same tune, while perhaps one or two more able rhythm players play a harmonic accompaniment.

During the last two centuries the violin has been the most important instrument of peasant bands and of gypsy bands. Undoubtedly this name designated some kind of string instrument during the Middle Ages, perhaps plucked, but from the 16th century it has become an instrument played with a bow. A traveller at the end of the 17th century noted with surprise that “the Hungarian violin players handle their instrument in a most peculiar manner; the stroke of the bow is very long, extended, with the kind of jerkings people from other nations cannot do”. From the end of the 18th century the violin in Hungary more and more resembled its present form, following the general European development.

Cimbalom (or zymbalon) in Hungarian is a loan word of Latin origin, which spread over a great part of Europe. This originally meant the chiming of bells, but in the Hungarian language in the 15th century the name meant a percussion stringed instrument. “They sang to God with cimbalom”, as it is written in one Hungarian codex, which shows that at this period it accompanied church music. In 1596 it was written: “... they do not pluck the cords with their fingers, but they beat them with wooden beaters and shout out the songs with full lungs”. This reference is to a larger, trapezoid instrument with metal cords, which they beat with metal or wooden sticks. It was widespread in the 17th century and became an indispensable part of Hungarian orchestras from the end of the 18th century.

In the Middle Ages the majority of musical instruments mentioned above were not used solo but in bands. We can only deduce the structure of such bands from very sporadic records. One codex from the early 16th century records that after the death of King Stephen I (1038), “the playing of violins, pipes, and drums and dancing was forbidden in Hungary”. These instruments presumably belonged together. Another codex originating from the same period records a search for “violin, lyre, drum, and zymbalon players” to play for a dance. A noted Calvinist preacher admonished his flock in 1563 in these words: “There are violins, lyres, flutes, and drums at your weddings, and there is no end to lyre, violin, and drum playing.” Some still complain at the end of the following century: “God cries alas to those at whose weddings there is violin, lyre, pipe, drum, and wine.”

At the end of the 17th century a foreign traveller described a peasant band, playing mostly stringed instruments. He observed that no matter how many there are in the band, the song is played on the same tune by the first descant and in the eighth note, which is called contra. The bagpipe accompanies violin players; its steady humming provides {445.} a good background to the melody. The first gypsy band–in the present meaning of the word–was, to our knowledge, formed in the middle of the 18th century by Panna Czinka (d. 1772). She herself played the first violin, accompanied by a second violin, a bass, and a zymbalon player. It seems that bands were expanding by the end of the century, as is testified to by the following lines of a contemporary poet:

One man his violin to his ear did press hard,
His zither another to his knee placed up-right,
To his bass violin a third hunched down crooked.

And we can read the following from 1823: “An outstanding feature of Hungarian music is that it is ordinarily played by four instruments, such as two violins, one bass, and one zymbalon; however, in more recent times, they also use many kinds of wind instruments along with these.” The bass viol, cello, and bass or “large violin” appeared in Hungary only in the second half of the 18th century, and from then on gradually pushed out the bagpipe by taking over its function. At the same time the clarinet also appeared, as indicated by our source quoted above.

253. Musicians in a wedding procession

253. Musicians in a wedding procession
Szék, former Szolnok-Doboka County

254. Drumming on the bass

254. Drumming on the bass
Gyimesközéplok, former Csík County

255. Musicians at a wedding, with fiddle and drum-bass

255. Musicians at a wedding, with fiddle and drum-bass
Gyimesközéplok-Görbepataki, former Csík County

Peasant orchestras, especially in Transylvania, where their archaic features are well preserved, retained almost till the present their extremely simple structure. The violin and cello formed a unit among the Székelys of Csík; a violin, and later on a clarinet were added to the bagpipe among the Palotses; the clarinet accompanied the hurdy-gurdy in the South Great Plain: The band of Szék in the Mezőség region (former Kolozs County) is already more complex, consisting of three {447.} members: the violin player plays the leading melody, the viola player the harmony, the cellist usually the bass tune of the harmonies, although sometimes he plays the melody in unison with the violin. The violist brings out tunes created by treble stoppings, which are almost always major treble.

The so-called gypsy orchestras are largely a completed and enlarged version of this. The first violinist, the leader, plays the melody, and one or two viola players accompany him. They are completed by the large bass, less frequently by the small bass. In most cases the clarinet is as much of an indispensable part of this orchestra as is the zymbalon, which today stands on legs instead of being held on the player’s knees. During the last decades, many of the gypsy musicians have attended music schools, which means that they became even more acquainted with the old and new style of Hungarian folk music.