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The origins and development of Hungarian folk music

Like their ancient language, the folk music of the Hungarians has maintained its basic structure through centuries of migrations and more than a thousand years of statehood in Central Europe. The structure of their folk music underwent certain superficial changes during these centuries. Ornamentations, modern, richer tonalities, western scales and rhythm patterns have been added to the original pentatonic scale and simple structure, without obliterating the distinct, ancient characteristics of this unique form of artistic expression.

The movement of these melodic elements can be traced from China to the Danube, from the Arctic Sea to Mesopotamia, mirroring the influences and contacts which shaped the racial, cultural and artistic character of the Hungarian people during their long migrations before their final settlement in the Carpathian basin. Thus the evolution of the Hungarian folk music began in the prehistoric mist of antiquity somewhere on the immense Euro-Asian plain, where a multi-racial group of tribes amalgamated into a more or less united people of heterogeneous racial and cultural composition. This composite ethnic structure accounts for the various sources of inspiration in their folk art in general and folk music in particular.

The systematic study of Hungarian folk melodies, carried out by Kodaly, Bartok and their associates during the last seventy years, revealed two distinct types of folk tunes: the "ancient strata" or old style and the "new style" which evolved from this during the last two centuries.

The main characteristics of the "ancient strata" are:

(a) The pentatonic scale: only five tones are used instead of the seven known in western music. The second and sixth tones ("a" and "e") are missing, though they may appear in the form of unaccented, passing notes in ornamentation.

(b) The melody is repeated a fifth lower later in the song. This is called the "fifth construction" and it usually occurs in a "descending structure."

(c) The rhythm is ‘parlando" (recitativo) or "rubato" (free) to suit the singers’ mood and the occasion. Quicker ("giusto") tempo is used with dance melodies and group singing. The slower rhythms accept all forms of ornamentation, as well as decorative, individual variations.

(d) The song-structure usually consists of four lines of equal length, the second of which may carry the repeated melody five tones lower.

The pentatonic scale, probably the oldest melodic structure used by mankind, is found in the folk music of peoples who could not possibly have had cultural contacts with each other, such as the Celts, the Chinese, the Incas etc. However, a comparison of Hungarian and Central Asian, Northern European (Ugrian) and Caucasian folk music reveals other similarities of melodic structure and rhythm as well as other components which exclude the possibility of sheer coincidence or natural development along the same lines. It is obvious from these Investigations that the basic Magyar folk music represents the westernmost area of a great Euro-Asian musical heritage. Furthermore, this specific musical form, with its harmonious and distinct structure, shows no similarity to the folk music of any of the central European neighboring peoples (Slovaks, Serbs, and Rumanians) and no influence from their melodic types. If anything, the Hungarian music has influenced these neighbors, especially Rumanians, in areas where there was close contact between these nations.

Closer study of the old-type tunes reveals interesting facts about their possible origins. Thus the song "Fuj, suvolt…"

An old pentatonic melody recorded by Kodaly in 1905 in Northern Hungary, can be traced to similar melodies among the Mari (Cheremis) and Chuvash peoples (Upper Volga, Eastern Russia).the Kalmuk in Western Siberia, the Tartars in Central Asia and to some Chinese folk melodies.

Hundreds of other melodies show remarkable similarities to the folk music of people as far apart as the Western Siberian Ostyaks and Voguls, the Central Asian Nogai Tartars, the Eastern European Bashkirs and the Anatolian Turks, indicating contacts with Ugrian, Turkic and Central Asian cultures.

The extent of the Transcaucasian or Mesopotamian influence is less clear. Folklore research in these regions has made little progress; consequently there is insufficient material for comparison. As the influence of these cultures is clearly detectable in decorative folk art and other aspects of Hungarian culture, it is reasonable to expect a similar effect on the development of folk music. Zoltan Kodaly, when studying the Gregorian influence on certain Transylvanian melodies, suggested the possibility of melodic influences of "pre-Gregorian" nature on the music of the Magyars’ ancestors (Proto-Hungarians) before the occupation of the Carpathian basin. The cultures, which had created the antecedents of Gregorian music, were those of the Mesopotamian region: Sumerian, Babylonian and Semitic cultures. The folk ballad "Istenem, Istenem…" seems to point to pre-Gregorian (Mesopotamian) inspiration.

During the last two centuries the Magyar people have developed a new style of folk music while preserving the basic features of the old style. The new style has maintained the pentatonic scale in many melodies and short, pentatonic sequences in others, along with Doric, Mixolydian, Aeolian and modern minor and major scales. The "fifth construction" is usual and the rhythm is as free as in the old style songs. This new style is a purely Hungarian creation; nothing similar in style or character has been found in the Central European region.

This more modern form of the folksong, together with the soldiers’ dance-song type, called "toborzo" (recruiting dance), and certain western elements helped to create, at the beginning of the XIXth century, the artistic popular song, usually performed by gypsy musicians and known all over the world as the ‘Magyar song" or (erroneously) the "Magyar folk song". This pleasant, but rather hybrid style has since been mistakenly identified with genuine Hungarian folk music by such eminent composers as Liszt, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Ravel. In Hungary this urban "folksy" song became the favorite musical style of the middle classes, mainly through the production of countless stereotyped "Magyar songs" by urban composers and operetta composers, such as Lehar, Kalman and Kacsoh.

The gypsy orchestras have been the best known interpreters of this song and music type. The gypsies – a people of east-Indian origin – came to Europe during the Middle Ages. They have found in each country certain volatile occupations as tinkers, showmen, dancers or musicians. In Hungary they almost entirely replaced the folk musicians whom we only find in remote areas playing mostly woodwind and string-percussion instruments. The gypsies have formed orchestras made up of a large number of string instruments; woodwind instruments and the "cimbalom" (dulcimer) string percussion instrument. The band, led by the "prima’s" (prime violinist, conductor) performs according to the tastes of the audience, playing the tunes with an excess of ornamentation and variations with typical gypsy style in variable "rubato" tempo. They do not compose the music they play. Instead, they perform – sometimes rearrange –. Popular urban songs, operetta arias, internationally known light compositions and, of course, genuine folksongs. It is wrong, therefore, to speak of "gypsy music" which (like feminine logic) is quite delightful but does not exist.

The researchers of folk songs have also classified the melodies according to their social role and use. Thus, in addition to the songs of general, lyric nature, there are many tunes used in connection with special occasions: marriage, death, harvest, vintage and other festivals (some of pagan origin), children’s songs, games and ditties, religious songs and minstrels’ songs ("regos"). The melodies of folk ballads usually belong to the old strata. These occasional’ tunes have conserved their original melodic forms, being associated with certain ancient customs, or – in the case of the children’s songs – with pantomimes, games and dances. Some children’s songs preserve very old melodic forms: the three-tone, pre-pentatonic scale. Their ancient, classic simplicity makes them eminently suitable for the purpose of elementary musical education by the well-known "Kodaly method."

As the various themes and topics of lyric, epic, festival and children’s songs are expressed in their texts as well as melodies, we shall divide the various areas of folk poetry in later chapters and examine the contents as well as the poetic and melodic forms in each thematic group.

On the initiative of Kodaly, Bartok and their fellow researchers a rich treasure of about 100,000 folk melodies has been collected in Hungary. Many Hungarian and foreign composers have used the inspiration of the Magyar folk song in their compositions or the artistic orchestral or choral arrangements of these tunes. As it is, Bartok and Kodaly saved the treasures of the Hungarian folk music in the eleventh hour. In a few decades, urbanization and industrial progress would have destroyed all traces of this magnificent treasure.

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