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(Hungarian literature and the arts in the XVlth - XVlllth centuries)

Literature and music during the Turkish wars

Threatened with destruction, the Magyars found strength, hope and consolation in their literature and music during these turbulent centuries.

The wandering minstrels of the war, the "lute players", were the soldier-poets and musicians of the XVIth century. The best-known of these, Sebestyen Tinodi (called "Lantos": lute player), who died in 1556, sang the praises of the frontier soldiers to the accompaniment of lute-music, composed by himself. His epic accounts of heroic deeds (e.g. "The Siege of Eger"), exhortations or humorous sketches ("Of the Many Drunkards") cheered the tired soldiers of the border fortresses and spread the news of the glorious battles. His music, noted down and printed in his life-time with his poetry, had a characteristically Magyar richness.

The greatest poet of the XVIth century was BALINT (VALENTIN) BALASSA (1554-1594), an aristocrat who led a very eventful life, fighting as a volunteer among the frontier soldiers and getting into all sorts of amorous and financial troubles. His poetry reflects all facets of emotional expression: erotic passion and lusty love alternate with deeply religious sincerity and patriotic devotion. His poetic technique was quite remarkable, his language rich and colourful, unmatched by anything written in Hungarian until the XIXth century.

His "Soldiers song" is a youthful, glowing praise of the frontier-soldiers: their sorrows, joys, sacrifices and rewards during a short life in the service of the nation. The poem "Forgive me" is a moving credo of his deep Christian faith. Balassa was one of the Magyar millions, who died with the name of "Jesus" on their lips. Mortally wounded, his last words were: "Jesus died for me – why should I have any doubts – I have been your soldier, my Lord, I have fought in your army. . ." His farewell songs and love poems show a fresh, natural inspiration, akin to that of folk poetry.

The ideas of the Reformation reached Hungary during the XVIth century. The need for Magyar-language hymns in the Protestant service helped the development of religious literature: original works and translations were required. The best-known poet-preachers were the Transylvanian Protestant pastors, Gaspar Heltay, also known for his fables, and Gaspar Karolyi the first Hungarian translator of the Bible. Their writings present many examples of a blend of patriotic and religious inspiration.

The rich magnates of the territories not occupied by the Turks had replaced the royal court as patrons of the arts. Their composers and orchestras provided relaxation and emotional comfort in the short periods of rest during the almost continuous fighting. Many of these composers' melodies have survived in foreign collections bearing such titles as "Ungaresca", "Ungarische Tanze", etc. The best-known Hungarian composer of the period was Balint Bakfark of Transylvania. ("Lute Fantasia").

The XVIIth century presents a picture of spiritual and Cultural consolidation. The Catholic "Counter-Reformation" produced some great writers, such as Cardinal Peter Pazmany (1570-1637), Archbishop of Esztergom. His many Magyar-language sermons polemic writings, prayers and translations have greatly enriched the Hungarian language. His contemporary, Albert Szenczi Molnar, a Protestant preacher, scholar and humanist translated psalms and set them to music of his own composition.

Count Mikios Zrinyi (1620-1664), the great general and statesman, was also a remarkable poet. His long epic poem, the "Peril of Sziget" describes the heroic defence of Szigetvar by his ancestor. Zrinyi dedicates his work not to the Muses, but to Hungary's Patron, the Blessed Virgin. His numerous prose works are political and military studies concerning the war against the Turks and written in racy, colourful Hungarian.

The two regions free from Turkish occupation had, by this time, developed a relatively secure and civilised form of living.

Dance and entertainment melodies, many inspired by folk music, have been preserved in notation in various manuscripts, such as the "Kajoni", "Vietorisz" and "Virginalis" "codices". The collection of Prince Pal Eszterhazy (1635-1713), Catholic hymns ("Harmonia Caelestis") contains many fine compositions by the great statesman, including some inspired by Magyar religious folk melodies.

The "Kuruc" literature and music

The freedom wars, led by Bocskai, Bethien, Thokoly and Rakoczi, have created a rich treasure of poetry and music. These poems and melodies have survived by oral tradition only:it was treasonable to write them down during the decades following the Kuruc wars. For the same reason the authors preferred to remain unknown.

An early Kuruc poem: "Between the fire and the water" from around 1670 describes the bitter dilemma of the Hungarians of that period: between the Turkish aggression and German tyranny only their trust in God gives them consolation. The author may have been a Protestant pastor. Another song –obviously created by a common soldier – expresses the same idea, using the phrase, which has since become the motto of those troubled times: "Betwixt two heathens – fighting for one countrv. –" the Kuruc soldier, always hungry, always in battle, sheds his blood for one nation fighting the Turks and Germans.

The songs of the early Rakoczi period are more exuberant: they praise the bravery of the gallant hussars and their leaders who raided Austria. They ridicule the imperials (called "Labanc": from the German word "Lanze"), comparing the Kuruc colourful, fine uniforms with the shabby looks of the "Labanc".

Toward the end of Rakoczi's struggle the songs again become melancholic. They are full of bitterness, recriminations and fear for the nation's future. The most moving of these poems is the so-called "Rakoczi Song" known in many variations, including folk song versions. From these elements an unknown poet composed the final version around 1730.

Ferenc Rakoczi himself was not only an inspiration to poets but also a forceful and emotional orator, the author of manifestos, memoirs and history in Hungarian, Latin and French.

His faithful chamberlain, Count Kelernen Mikes (1690-1761), who followed him into exile and died there, wrote a number of letters to a fictitious aunt in Transylvania. These "Letters from Rodosto" are a deeply moving record of the lives of the exiles, a fine example of Transylvanian-Hungarian style.

Literature during the period of repression and stagnation

After Rakoczi's defeat a period of constant "benevolent repressions" followed: the various Habsburg regimes tried to Germanise the nation. At the beginning, the Hungarians, exhausted, offered little or no resistance. In a gesture of defiance, the Catholic schools turned to Latin and the study of classics, while the Protestant colleges maintained the use of the Magyar language. Some writers, during the second half of the century, began to discover the inspiration of folk poetry.

Some young members of Maria Theresa's Noble Guard in Vienna became interested in French literature and philosophy. The leader of this circle was Gyorgy Bessenyei who, influenced by Voltaire, wrote several dramas as well as epic and lyric poetry of a philosophical nature with more enthusiasm than success. His most memorable work is the political-satirical novel "The Travels of Tarimenes."

The repression and Germanisation increased under Joseph II. Even the complacent country nobility began to show some mild resistance. Jozsef Gvadanyi for instance, ridiculed the propagation of German and other foreign customs in his "Travels of a Village Notary". Mihaly Fazekas' comic epic, "Ludas Matyi" ("Matthias and the Geese"), satirised the archaic social conditions of the late XVIIIth century in the form of a witty folktale in verse.

Music during the period of stagnation

The aristocracy of the XVIIIth century – especially in the western regions – welcomed and promoted Austrian and German music in Hungary. In the East, especially in the Protestant colleges, Magyar music became one of the means of maintaining and protecting the Magyar culture. The Hungarian songs of these schools – including those from some Catholic schools –show the mixed influence of western and Magyar folk melodic elements.

The army of the Empire was being organised as a permanent force. Recruiting for this army used the methods of the "press gangs" of the British Navy, as the peasant boys showed little inclination to leave their families for 7 or 12 years. The Viennese government knew what effect music had on the emotional Hungarians and sent recruiting teams with bands of gypsy musicians to the villages and towns. The band then played fiery music while the members of the team performed the "toborzo" ("recruiting dance" also called: "verbunk"). The impressionable young men, tempted by their favourite tunes, often joined in the dance – only to find that they had signed up by this symbolic act as recruits. This clever method seems to bear the trademark of a certain Lady in Vienna who must have been an expert in the psychology of Hungarian men.

The gypsies collected and ornamented many contemporary folk melodies. The richer, new-style folk songs were particularly suitable for this type of orchestration. From this "toborzo" or "verbunk"-type music evolved, during the XIXth century, the well-known "Magyar song"

Fine arts and architecture

The Baroque style reached Hungary through Austria during the XVIIth century. The Catholic inspiration of this style found its main expression in church architecture, religious painting and decorative sculpture. The church of the Minorites in Eger is the best example of this style in Hungary. The simpler, one-tower type of Baroque church became the prototype of the numerous village churches built during the XVIIIth century which constitute today the architectural image of the Catholic villages in Hungary.

Secular architecture consisted mainly of palaces, such as the sumptuous Eszterhazy residence at Fertod.

Baroque sculpture served mostly as a decorative element in ecclesiastical architecture. One of the few Hungarian sculptors was Sebestyen Stulhoff, a Benedictine monk.

While Austrian artists were commissioned to decorate the churches and palaces with their paintings, Magyar artists were often obliged to leave the country for political or religious reasons. To these belonged Janos Kupeczky, who spent most of his life in Germany, except during Rikoczi's freedom war. His "Kuruc Soldier" was painted during that period.

Adam Manyoki (1673-1756), the greatest Magyar painter of the XVIIIth century, worked in Rakoczi's court during the war. After the armistice he followed his Prince into exile. He painted his masterpiece, Rakoczi's portrait during their exile. He captured the true personality of the great man in this fine portrait.

Unknown, probably Hungarian craftsmen left fine examples of woodcarving in many churches. Goldsmith Janos Szilassy of Locse used the Renaissance "filigree enamel" technique of painted enamel work – a Hungarian innovation.

It seems that the Baroque, a form of artistic expression imposed upon the Magyar people by a regime, which had remained foreign for centuries, had little appeal for the peasants. Their folk art rarely uses Baroque motifs – a surprising fact if we remember what a deep impact Matthias short-lived Renaissance had on folk art.

* * *

The damage caused by the Turkish and German devastations to the nation's spiritual and artistic potential was not as obvious as the appalling loss of life and material but the result, Hungary's cultural retardation, has taken much longer to remedy. This is why the foreign observers of the XIXth and early XXth centuries were struck by the "conservative" or even "retrograde" aspects of Hungarian art and way of life. Yet before the XVIth century Hungary was in the forefront of European social and cultural progress. Even during the XVIIth century embattled Transylvania managed to remain the eastemmost bastion of Christian humanism and culture.

Then, after the collapse of the last great struggle for freedom in 1711, the nation reached the point of physical and spiritual exhaustion. The Magyar soul was empty, the one million survivors of this people had lost their wish to seek new horizons.

So began a long century of cultural convalescence. Apathy, passivity, retrospection and slow awakening marked the various stages of this period – from 1711 to the Vienna Congress, 1815 – while the rest of the world was making rapid industrial, social and cultural progress. When, at last, the Hungarians awoke from their long torpor, the West was a century ahead of them.

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