History of the Ballad


It is understandable that those theoretical attempts which did not apply to historical-social perspectives were faced with almost insurmountable difficulties: mythicizing attempts, aesthetic formulae, geographical or nationalistic theories were not suited to condensing into a single formula the creations of many eras and social forms, which had been related to each other and had been drawn under a single collective noun. These are works of art that, although containing many differences, still contain something common in spite of national, historical and artistic differences. Furthermore, it was also hard to find the root of this “something common”. It is the centre from which the variations have unfolded some kind of an ancient mode of performing, some epic that was combined with dance, the effect of the Christian Middle Ages, or is it the effect of geographic regions? The Italian ballata (dance song), the Celtic gwaelawd (epic song), the Russian bilina, the Ukrainian dumi, the South Slav narodne pesme, junačke pesme, the Spanish románce, the Danish, Norwegian folkeviser, the Hungarian ballada are the same genre; they fulfil the same function, that of the short epic song, often dramatic in character. Still there are great differences among them, or, more precisely, they incorporated other genres, until in the end the amalgamation of genres, the separate national development of the ballad, produced different forms everywhere. All this explains the uncertainties of theoretical definitions and of generalising formulae.

Soviet researchers, although duly separating literary and folk ballads and exploring the connections between the two types, do not attempt an unequivocal definition in regard either to the ballad or to the bilinas, but they consider it their task to draw the definite social and historical {515.} background of folk epic poetry, and to analyse the historical layers deposited one over the other in epic song recital.

There is an element in defining the ballad which leads closer to the question of the origin of the ballad, and at the same time is an aid to apprehending the two decisive elements of the ballad. These two elements are the dance song and the epic song, and both are ballads. One is derived from the verb ballare (to dance), and primarily can be discovered in the refrained stanzas, the feature of dance songs; the other is from the Celtic expression gwaelawd (hero). However, according to some people, the epic song that was sung and the dance separated in the course of their development, so that their growth diverged. It is certain, however, that at the birth of the European folksong, the dance song and epic song were equally functioning, and we can even look upon it as symbolic that in the attempt to explain the word, the two genres have met.

To the researcher, the ballad is a characteristically European genre, in spite of its many artistic colourations and divergences. And even if there is considerable debate about the factors and history of its development, it is obvious that the development itself took place within Europe. Where epic songs similar to the ballad genre can be discovered outside Europe, this is always an effect of traditions brought by European settlers. Thus the Russian epic song-writing spread to Siberia; French and English settlers carried their own ballads to Canada and North America; the Spanish romancero became the new type of ballad, called corrido, which developed in Mexico. When Jorge Amado speaks of the blind singers who sang about the fight of the exploited workers of the cocoa fields, he tells us about a type of poetry which was further shaped from Portuguese balladry and was thus also able to express new ideas. This is a way the European-born ballad became enriched with novel elements and expanded its geographic boundaries.

There is much less agreement about the origin of the ballad. Since the discovery of the Greek ballads in Akritas, we can push the earliest time limit of the data referring to the ballad to the 9th to 10th centuries A.D. Until now, 12th century France and early 12th century Scandinavia were considered as the points of origin, and supposedly the epic-dramatic dancing song moved from there to England after the Norman Conquest. It spread in the German linguistic region in the 13th century.

The balladry of the Slavic peoples, or rather, the development of their ballad-like epic songs, was also estimated to have been somewhere in the 11th to 13th centuries. The 11th to 16th centuries saw the maturation of the ballad. Indeed, this is when it unfolded in the complete wealth of the variety of its artistic form, this is when the concise, dramatic structural form of its themes developed which assures the ballad such a special place in epic song writing.

The question, therefore, is not whether the epic can originate from the ballad, or whether every epic originates from a ballad song. For us it follows that the ballad did not appear in the poetry of European peoples earlier than the feudal period. It is another question whether the epic poems reflecting clan organization or various phases of feudalism were or were not preceded by smaller epic forms (this can be verified in certain {516.} cases), and this question of genre history cannot be confused with the question of the development of the ballad as such. The folk ballad (and this also applies to the beginnings of the written ballad) was born in Europe; its form began to take shape during the early phase of the stabilization of feudalism, and it reached the height of its flowering during the zenith of feudal society. It then declined, only to leap into a new flowering in written poetry, during the period of Romanticism.

Naturally, it would hardly be possible to characterize European balladry in a uniform way. Still, in broad outline, three major layers are differentiated in the themes of the European ballad, and the entire balladry of Europe is divided into these three thematic cycles, no matter which ballad is in question, that of the Slavic peoples, the Northern, English-Scotch, or the Romance (French, Walloon, Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian, Italian) ballad, the German, or the Hungarian ballad. The earliest ballads are characterized by mythological themes, and such songs actually turn up among the bilinas as much as among the South Slav or Norwegian and Scottish ballads. The next group consists of historical epic themes, a sub-group of which comprises the epic songs of Eastern European peoples about their struggles with the Turks. This group can equally be found among the Bulgarian, Rumanian, South Slav and Hungarian ballads, and also in the Ukrainian and Russian material. The third group containing the most general, most varied material is made up of the epic songs that tell about individual and family tragedies and comedies in song and dance. These provide us with the most effective picture of actual social conflicts.

Although the development of the Hungarian folk ballad is related in many ways to the general European development, still it has a character all its own.

Naturally, an examination of the Hungarian folk ballad will not solve the mysteries of the lost Hungarian epic poetry and heroic poetry, just as on the other hand, neither the Vogul heroic song nor the Finnish Kalevala direct us in questions of the Hungarian folk ballad. This is especially so as the balladry of the Finno-Ugric peoples related to the Hungarians shows more common characteristics with Northern Slav and Germanic folk poetry than with ours. With respect to the ancient Magyar epic poetry, of the few motif and melody fragments left to us, as well as the interpretation of the historical data relevant to old epic minstrelsy, are extremely hard tasks, and even after much critical scientific examination, we are only beginning to explore this field.

267. Woman singing a ballad

267. Woman singing a ballad
Moldavia, Rumania

This does not mean that the folk ballad does not give valuable information of the past of the Hungarian epic and the long road it has traversed, especially as the existence and beauty of the folk ballad, and the spread of almost every type of ballad over a large part of the Hungarian linguistic region, testify in themselves to the epos-making talent of the Hungarian people. Certain researchers have doubted this talent. Unscientific “theories” relying on insinuated or open racial prejudices have announced that the Hungarian folk has talent only for lyric songs, and that epic poetry received both the topics and the manner of performing from the German fiddlers and Slavic minstrels. Or, as one researcher explained the matter, the pride of the Magyar folk did not {517.} permit them to “demean” themselves by becoming entertainers. Others proclaimed that only a highly cultivated aristocratic class is able to create epic poetry, and listed the epos-creating and preserving talent of the Hungarian people as the fantasy of folklorists.

268. Woman singing a ballad

268. Woman singing a ballad
Moldavia, Rumania

We hardly need to waste many words on refuting such theories, since even the negative arguments testify that the practice of epic minstrelsy was constant and powerfully alive among the Hungarian people. Let us consider the chronicle of Anonymus (12th century), in which he tells how unseemly it would be to hear the origins and heroic history of the Magyars only from the false stories of the peasants and the prattling songs of the minstrels. This sentence, evidencing the contemptuous attitude of this master of letters, actually acknowledges that through three hundred years folk poetry and story telling had lived among the Hungarians in oral tradition, and this preserved historical traditions better than written records, which only salvaged fragments of it. How this type of heroic minstrelsy was transformed into relating and singing {519.} other types of epics, we do not know. However, we do know that even in its transformation it tenaciously preserved its earlier heroes and created new ones.

Mátyás Bél, a scientist interested in literature and folklore, mentions in the 18th century stories about Toldi, a folk hero known for his superhuman strength, to live on the lips of the people–also through the distance of several centuries. We need to think only of the writings of Zoltán Kodály, the musicological studies of Bence Szabolcsi, to know what ancient inheritance is preserved by Hungarian folk music, by its pentatonic system, and what ancient memories of melody forming, verse structure and rhythm live precisely in the older groups of ballads. There are also themes which, on the lips of peasant performers, call to life whole centuries. We can therefore rightly suppose that even if folksongs do not give definite support to the understanding of old Hungarian heroic epic poetry, they still have preserved many principles of the ancient epic method of performance, singing, hero forming, and the epic and dramatic method of construction. Therefore we can look upon the older strata of the Hungarian folk ballad–and the peculiarities of these older strata are in the process of reshaping, transforming almost in front of our eyes, while still retaining old characteristics–as the continuation of ancient epic minstrelsy, as receiver of the role of ancient epic minstrelsy.

This much is certain, that contrary to the theories of oblivion and conscious destruction, we have continuous information up to the 16th century of the lively practice by the jesters, lyrists and violinists of the royal court of singing merry, comic songs. We also know that bards, minstrels and lyrists lived not only at the courts, but also among the people. The supposition is by no means arbitrary that these minstrels played themes related to each other in their material. The nature of the tunes appears just as certain as the invocation, the poetic introduction addressed to the audience–which shows relationship not only between the songs of Sebestyén Tinódi Lantos, best known singer-chronicler of the 16th century, and folk ballads, but also between ballads and 19th century broadsheet or chapbook ballads–a relationship reaching back even further, and to be found not infrequently also in melody and rhythm. Furthermore, just as the survival of archaic pre-Conquest heroic songs recited in first person may be found in Latin chronicles, similarly the captive of the Turks or of the lords would speak in the first person as would the 19th century hero of outlaw ballads. Just as many theorists see the song of lament at the cradle of the epic, a song which both laments the hero and tells of his deeds, so too we may discover among the ballads the dirge which, though disguised in the form of new epic song, bears an obvious relationship in its intonation to the ballad. In the way Tinódi asks his listeners if they had heard about the siege of the town Lippa, or in the way he begins the history of Ali pasha of Buda with a similar formula, so for centuries before his time singers used to speak the same way, as for instance in the 18th century the ballad of “Izsák Kerekes” addresses its audience with such a question, and printed texts of murder ballads, which became broadsheet or chapbook ballads in the 19th and 20th centuries, also phrase their question thus. And we could {520.} continue making this list, without even dealing with the distant past of historical songs or the ancient method of versification.

The minstrel’s role must be certainly evaluated as the most important in preserving epic traditions and in the development of its forms, and it is also certain that the Hungarian people, fond of songs, have preserved the bulk of their individual creative talent through the centuries even though it has been wrapped in anonymity. However, this does not in any way mean that only the compositions of court minstrels got down to the people and changed there in a certain way. Our data about the role of court and folk minstrels, about their historical fate, prove precisely that the art of minstrels was connected inseparably to the traditions of the Hungarian people. Minstrels’ songs received inspiration from folk poetry, melodic language and traditional image appear moulded with novel contributions, a new voice and erudition. In the course of this process, anonymous oral tradition reshaped and polished the repeated meetings of old and new through the constant practice of centuries. Minstrels sang both among urban and rural people and at the tables of the lords. Gianmichele Bruto, Italian historiographer of István Báthori (1533–1586), the Polish king of Hungarian descent, writes the following about the importance of minstrels: “They sing the praise of ancestors in verse accompanied by the sounds of a violin, to fire up the youth so that they aspire to military glory by competing in valour. In these songs their heroic deeds are collected chronologically, as in a yearbook, and because these songs remain so solidly preserved in the memory of the Hungarians from childhood on now, when the largest part of the country, along with its royal seat, is destroyed, there is no better recollection of the past than that which can be found recorded in these songs.”

This beautiful observation also illustrates how important epic minstrelsy was for the entire nation and how comprehensive the role of minstrels was.

The analysis of the ballads of romance also indicates that the written form was preceded by oral tradition, which to this day carried vestiges of the original ancient form. We also know that songs of wandering composed by people whose names have come down to us accommodated and adapted themselves to oral tradition. Thus, oral tradition plays a significant role in both creating and preserving balladry. Among the transmitters of this tradition were the many singers, from court singers and minstrels, beggar-singers at fairs, warriors, and Kuruc heroes forced into wandering, through wandering students and their teachers. They sang of the fate of the people, their hard lives and wars, in the voice of the people, just as later on, in the 19th century, chapbook merchants took to the fairs those books whose language and themes were familiar to the rural populace. They sang about the fights with Turks and Serbs, the sufferings and adventures of prisoners in Turkish captivity, family, love tragedies, the voices and dramas of passion, hatred and love.

The Hungarian folk always had a great respect for those who had the talent for epic singing, and loved the minstrels who could do it well. In this manner, the minstrel, at one with the people and speaking in their language, preserved through changes in form and content, and through songs with new content preserved his role through the centuries. {521.} Therefore, not only certain subjects and motifs were left to us of pre-Conquest times, but the traditional, oral traditional way of performance and the role of the singer as well. In this way, we can come upon the relationship between the ancient epic and Hungarian folk ballad.

Alongside epic minstrelsy, dance songs also played an important role in the European development of the folk ballad. There were places where their significance was greater than elsewhere, at other places their role was considerably less, but yet could be found everywhere. The texts and melodies of this layer of the Hungarian folk ballad prove that one group of the merry and tragic ballads were originally dance ballads. In the past, methods of collecting strove simply to record only the texts yet even so ballads refer to dance songs, and dance-games possess refrains or structures with repeated lines. There are also recordings of ballad-like songs sung to children’s roundels, as for example the tragic ballad of the three orphans written down by Kodály in 1922.

In the development of the Hungarian folk ballad the same two artistic factors operate that created the European folk ballad, namely the historical and narrative song. This does not mean that we should doubt the national character of the Hungarian ballad, nor its individual development; it only means that great historical, social, and literary factors exercised their legitimate effects in the development of the poetry of the Hungarian people. The researcher has to be careful to show precisely those peculiarities which determine its history, in addition to the common development and general characteristics of balladry, to show that surplus it brought to the common treasure house of peoples, nations, and of mankind.

How did the Hungarian folk ballad develop historically and what strata does it have? Recording of Hungarian folk ballads began only in the 19th century, but that does not mean that further tracing of the history of Hungarian folk ballads is an impossibility. We have tried to show above that Hungarian folk ballads were part of a lively process, the older links of which can only be inferred, but the certainty of their existence is demonstrated by their artistic forms.

We can trace the oldest, historically determinable layer of Hungarian folk ballads to the 15th and 17th centuries. References, historical atmosphere, and subject matter place them into that period. However, there are ballads whose age can hardly be determined because their plot, structure, connection to more ancient beliefs (e.g. building sacrifice, motifs signalling trouble) offer a possibility of dating this type of ballad much earlier. At the same time, presumably only some of the elements of these ballads are truly more ancient, but their generic development cannot be put earlier than the 15th to 16th centuries. It is certain that some of the mythical story motifs of the European ballad, not infrequently beliefs going back to the age of a tribal community, also indicate earlier centuries, yet the genre of the ballad itself still was not born earlier than the turn of the 9th to 10th centuries. In short, we can say this much with certainty, that some elements of the Hungarian folk ballad are survivals of more ancient memories, but the artistic form of the ballad did not evolve in Hungary earlier than the 13th to 14th centuries, and the first verifiable references in our recorded ballads refer to the 16th {522.} century. The collections of folklorists have placed in front of us the evaluation, the flourishing, and the power of the ballad to create new layers and new groups, and we can see that this creative force in folk ballad poetry has remained a force, although the tradition-destroying effect of developing capitalism can also be traced.

Today, historical periodization of Hungarian folk ballads and their division according to subjects and eras is carried out with a great deal of difficulty. How hard such an experiment is can be shown by the introduction of different classifying experiments, in which the most varied and most arbitrary viewpoints are mixed with correct historical interpretation. Perhaps those researchers proceeded most consistently who simply divided Hungarian folk ballads by centuries. However, this division, although suitable for determining starting points, in no way marks off the larger units. That historical aspects have to be connected with aspects of genre also makes the division more difficult. Therefore, here we are first providing only an experiment in historical periodization according to subject, keeping in mind that the characteristic but understandable conservatism of the cultural elements of peasant class society does not permit closed time limits in any direction. At the same time this division by period is also suitable for briefly characterizing how the folk ballads have reflected the picture of society and how the development of the peasantry’s fate can be read from it.