by László Kelemen (Translated by Peter Laki)
In the late twentieth century, world music has entered its global stage. The astonishing wealth of styles to which we are subjected has certain drawbacks as many of us dont know what to make of this (overly) great freedom. Faced with this situation, one often turns to tradition in order to delineate the boundaries of ones personal existence, to find out who one is and where one is headed. Both in Hungary and in the West, total chaos reigns in matters concerning Hungarian (folk) music. In the West but also often, alas, in Hungary, the average person means by Hungarian instrumental folk music the art music played by Gypsies that you can hear in restaurants. This is referred to purely and simply as “Gypsy music” even by us Hungarians, although it is not that. It has only been played by Gypsies for the last two hundred years. In addition, there exists a type of traditional instrumental folk music in the villages that is also played by Gypsies but is not Gypsy music but rather Hungarian, Romanian, Saxon, Jewish, and other folk-dance music, handed down from generation to generation by Gypsies in their function as professional musicians. Finally, the Gypsies have their own folk music, a jealously guarded treasure that they use solely for their own entertainment. So many different kinds of folk music, often in the head of a single musician! It is a chaotic and misleading state of affairs. No wonder there has been confusion, and not only in the mind of the average person but also with a composer of genius such as Franz Liszt, who in his study (Des Bohémiens et de leur musique en Hongrie, 1859) argued in favor of the Gypsy origins of “Gypsy” music and was surprised at the indignant reactions from Hungary. Let us, therefore, briefly delimit these various musical traditions and explain how they came to be lumped together in the first place. Old Hungarian folk music, searched for by many during the period of national awakening in the nineteenth century but not actually found until Bartók and Kodály came along at the beginning of the twentieth, was a monophonic tradition, thousands of years old, and primarily vocal. Before the age of string instruments, this music also used to be played on winds (recorders, bagpipes, shepherds pipes) and hurdy-gurdies. String instruments appeared later, sometime during the sixteenth century, as part of a Western cultural influence (which has been more or less continuous ever since, even if its quality has changed). The strings soon took over the leading role in entertainment. Bands were formed, following Western models. As far as we can tell, the earliest bands were Jewish, until Jews were supplanted in the business by Gypsies. These bands continued to perform music from the earlier, vocal/wind-instrument period, but as they grew, they developed a new repertoire better adapted to string instruments. By the end of the eighteenth century, the best band leaders got to the point where they were able to play their own compositions; they even wrote them down or had others write them down for them. The cult of Gypsy music coincided with the period of Hungarian national awakening. The best Gypsy musicians soon formed a special caste within the Gypsy people, and they eventually lost touch with their own folk music. These gypsy bands were often in aristocratic service just as their learned contemporaries were (Haydn, for example), and as the verbunkos style became fashionable, even aristocrats tried their hand at composing in this vein. Within a short time, what is usually known as “Gypsy music” was born, and it evolved more and more into a kind of music written by Hungarian noblemen and members of the middle class, rooted in verbunkos and shaped by the Gypsies in performance. This music was what passed for Hungarian “folk music,” and this was what Liszt and Brahms heard, along with the other prominent, music-loving Westerners who, for whatever reason, set foot in our country. Gypsy music and verbunkos soon found their way into Classical music; many composers (among them Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Liszt, Brahms and Erkel) used this fashionable style, often peppering their works with actual quotes from the repertoire. Bartók and Kodály wrote countless instructive articles explaining the difference between Hungarian folk music and “Gypsy music,” sometimes with great patience and sometimes in anger. Yet it is doubtful that their message has reached the general public even today. Some musicians, at home as well as abroad, received these precepts with incomprehension and even hostility, perceiving them as attacks against their own activities (Heinrich Möller, Jenö Hubay); Romanian musicologists read nationalism and revisionism into Bartóks writings. Bartók and Kodály sometimes carried matters too far, as apostles of new ideas are liable to do. In their efforts to find the ancient, “pure source,” they excluded the instrumental dance music tradition, as practiced by the Gypsies, from the corpus of Hungarian folk music, which, from todays more lenient perspective, seems like an ideological and conceptual mistake. Their work is still invaluable since they collected and systematized the treasures of Hungarian vocal music in the nick of time before it vanished and compared this repertoire with the folksongs of our neighbors. (To this day, no single person has collected more Romanian folksongs than has the Hungarian Bartók.) As composers, Bartók and Kodály were the first to integrate the ancient vocal tradition into the mainstream of modern European music. In a famous essay of 1931, Bartók defined three ways in which this integration could take place. On the first, more superficial level, one takes a folk melody and adds a prelude, a postlude and an accompaniment. This can be compared, in a sense, to Bachs chorale arrangements; in Bartók and Kodálys practice, all the folksong arrangements for voice and piano belong in this category. The second level is reached when the composer invents a folksong imitation (as in Bartóks Evening in the Country); the methods of the arrangement can be the same as before. In the third and most evolved category, the composer has made the idiom of folk music thoroughly his own and uses it as a poet would use her mother tongue. With characteristic modesty, Bartók used Kodálys Psalmus Hungaricus to exemplify this last stage, but he could have cited many of his own works just as well. Bartók did not speak of an even higher level of integration that has to do with folk music only indirectly, yet is extremely important. This occurs when the composer has delved into the folk music idiom so deeply and absorbed it so completely that its elements become transmuted into elements of a higher, more general and more abstract compositional idiom. In Bartóks works one often finds a certain characteristic flavor coming from a longtime coexistence with folk music. Any composer who confronts folk music in any way, shape or form has still to deal with this epoch-making, unavoidable and unsurpassable Bartókian idiom. The decades following World War II have seen an inordinate number of Bartók epigones. In Kodálys work, the golden nuggets of folk music were embedded in an impressionistic style. Kodály devoted a large part of his activities to the musical education of his nation, writing vocal music to support the growing choral movement, but also through the system of relative solmization bearing his name, which brought him and his disciples international renown and recognition. His outlook, deeply Hungarian and broadly European at the same time, provided a stronghold, a “mighty fortress” as Hungary became engulfed by the darkness of Communism. Of course, this school, too, produced epigones. Many of them became involved with new musical institutions and “folk music ensembles,” shaping some contradiction-ridden organizational structures that, ossified, hamper the musical renewal of those ensembles today. Dance music and instrumental folk music have always been influenced by the spirit of the times. When Márk Rózsavölgyi (1789-1848) composed his first Hungarian round dance, he was guided by the desire to create a Hungarian national dance. The origins of the csárdás were similar; within a few years this new dance had reached the villages where the local Gypsy bands wished to be up to date. In more traditional villages the peasants dubbed the csárdás “Gypsy dance,” to indicate its foreign character. (The name still holds in the Transylvanian region of Mezöség, where the csárdás is just as current as the “Hungarian” dances.)
In imitation of their urban models (who were Gypsies), village musicians adopted many “composed” csárdás dances, as they had earlier done with other fashionable dances, transforming them according to their own tastes. Yet they were powerless in the face of the mass-culture explosion of the twentieth century (radio, recordings, film). They were forced to change the composition of their bands: the traditional string ensemble was joined first by the accordion and modern wind instruments (clarinet, saxophone), and later, in the second half of the century, by electric and electronic instruments (organ, synthesizer, guitar, rock drums). The traditional sound was thereby completely destroyed and made ridiculous.
>The changes in instrumentation brought in their train changes in the music itself, just as had happened earlier during the transition from wind to string sound. The new instruments demanded their own appropriate melodies. In a traditional Transylvanian village, where only twenty years ago Zoltán Kallós and his colleagues were able to collect the most beautiful music for acoustic instruments, the guitar, drums and synthesizers are “in” with their corresponding disco repertoire. Only rarely does an “old” csárdás or sürü crop up during a festivity. The generation that used to regard these dances as their own is slowly dying out, jeopardizing the survival of old instrumental folk music and dance in the long run. The urban groups, playing only “Gypsy” music, shared the same fate after World War II. The new power declared their music purely and simply to be “petty bourgeois,” fit for the (Marxist) “rubbish-heap of history.” They tried to integrate the Gypsy musicians of the cities, who couldnt protest since they knew what fate awaited those who protested in the Communist world, into the big bands of the new Soviet-style “folk-dance ensembles.” Here they had to play for the dance incompetent arrangements of vocal melodies whose instrumental versions had flourished for many years in the much more mature and artistic practice of their village colleagues. The fittest continued to perform in restaurants but were gradually displaced by the rapidly growing electronic entertainment industry. Then, in the mid-seventies (during those years of rising opposition), two young men, Ferenc Sebö and Béla Halmos, started something new, based on Western models. They began to study and perform Hungarian instrumental folk music and folk dance, inspired by the research of Zoltán Kallós and György Martin, and with the help of Sándor Tímár and others, organized the first táncház (dance house). Here one could not only listen to music but also learn the corresponding dances. It was a smashing success: authentic folk music and dance left the concert stage and recovered their original function of entertainment. The táncház movement grew apace; thousands of young people started to go from village to village collecting folk music, dances and folk art; they learned how to play the folk instruments. New groups were formed, such as the Ökrös Ensemble, that strove to perform traditional instrumental music as authentically as possible. Camps and workshops were organized where participants could learn old crafts, music and dance from authentic practitioners. In the folk-dance movement, Gypsy bands are increasingly being replaced by young revival bands. At the same time, the ideological gulf between “Gypsy” music and the instrumental folk music played by the táncház people seems to be dimishing. The members of the younger generation on both sides begin to realize that the two kinds of music have more in common than the similarities of instrumentation. There is more communication than before; more and more Gypsy musicians now play instrumental folk music and vice versa. (The collaboration between the Ökrös Ensemble and Kálmán Balogh is a good example.) “Gypsy” music is open in the direction of jazz as well; many of the best Gypsy musicians are successful at international jazz festivals. On the other hand, folk music, both instrumental and vocal, has also entered the electronic age by taking its place in the global market of “world music” with successful productions such as the albums of Márta Sebestyén and Deep Forest. Despite these accomplishments, Hungary (and all of Eastern Europe) has been facing serious cultural difficulties since the demise of the totalitarian regimes, threatening to wipe out a folk culture that has been in artificial isolation for decades. We must preserve everything we have learned of folk culture and to record whatever remains. We are currently engaged in a comprehensive collecting effort under the name “Eleventh Hour,” in which, over 45 weeks, we will document instrumental folk music in Transylvania, digitally recording the best of the remaining Transylvanians, Romanians, Hungarians, and Gypsies. As performers, we are striving to present the inherent values of this music, whether Romanian, Hungarian, or Gypsy, and to bring it where it belongs: the Pantheon of European instrumental culture.