Zsolt Strajber

Hungarian peasant and folk music

I. General confusion about Hungarian folk music.

Gypsy music Peasant music - the real Hungarian folk music - is not Gypsy music. Peasant music certainly had influence on the songs and playing of gypsies who lived in Hungary and performed in ensembles, though. Gypsy music used to be the basis of all generalizations about Hungarian music. It was Ferenc Liszt's monumental error to state that Gypsy music is the creation of gypsies. The so called 'gypsy scale' points to a southern oriental (Arabic) origin and may possibly have reached Hungary through the gypsies. This music falsifies Hungarian folk songs by introducing augmented intervals of the Gypsy scales, which scales were never used by peasants.

Some of the gypsy composers e.g. Pista Danko wrote and performed songs on more than 400 contemporary Hungarian texts. Whereas others specialized playing the instrumental csárdás. Gypsy music was influenced by West European melodies and they second-rate imitated Hungarian style. Gypsy music therefore is not even Gypsy music. It is true, however, that real Gypsy music existed but they were mainly sung by nomadic tent colonies and to a lesser extent by settled village gypsies. The civilized town gypsies and hence the musicians did not know them at all.

Popular art music

Peasant music must neither be confused with popular art music, which is the music of town (also could be named as flourishing popular town art music or light popular style). Popular art music is the wide category for all the artistic product of the current generations of industrialized culture following the fashion of the day with the tremendous influences of Western European music and any surrounding styles. Obviously, Gypsy music belongs to this category as well. Popular art music tends to involve extremely popular songs, which songs are most popularly broadcasted and played through the media and identified as Hungarian folk music. The first widely-known Hungarian dances are composed by known composers and harmonized after the Viennese style. It is a mystery why they were labeled as Hungarian folk melodies. Popular art music is set on texts or poems, which is the commonplace language of the town reflecting the individual tastes and whims of their composers with a less beautiful and corrupt use of the language in comparison with the high, natural, illiterate musical and poetic artistry of peasant music having no individual authors or composers yet with a beautiful use of the language full with natural images and marvelous metaphors. Just an example: here is a quotation of one strophe from the old style of peasant music: "Sír elöttem az út, - Bánkódik az ösveny, - Még az is azt mondja: - Áldjon meg az östen" ("In front of me the trail is crying, - The path is lamenting, - Even it says: - God bless you") It does not work in English. The translation does not show the nicety of the language, its clear genuine sound, the sound of the words, which language is free from any stylized effects. I would even risk saying: the sound of the meaning. Popular art music is incompetent to carry poetry as this. And its music the same way: with its stylized lighter popular taste it cannot emulate that of peasant music, the music evolved and carried through the natural process of a long illiterate oral tradition.

One favored instrumental genre of urban dance music is the 'Csárdás'.

II. Peasant music - the genuine Hungarian folk music

Peasant music Peasant music - the old folk tradition, the true Hungarian folk music was not visible behind this flourishing popular town-art music in the 19th century, neither has anything in common with popular art music. Peasant music is an organic part of folk culture conveyed through oral tradition for centuries. Its origin is lost in antiquity. Bartók and Kodály both agreed that peasant music had two clearly discernible structures: the old style and the new style:


The group of the old style, the oldest known Hungarian peasant music descends mainly from certain isolated regions of the Rumanian peasants (Transylvania), a Hungarian speaking population of at least 500 000 east from the Rumanian political frontier. These people are mostly illiterate that means that their songs were passed through mouth to mouth and not by writing or notation and live in thorough seclusion out of reach of the questionable blessings of urban culture. They manufacture their own clothing and hardly ever leave their small native home land. These songs comprise marriage songs, dirges, harvest songs, match-making songs, the so called regös songs and the children's game songs connected with these, and songs associated with no special occasion to lyric or ballad texts or dance tunes. The salient characteristics of these songs are the followings: "The descending melodic structure "The large proportion of parlando-rubato rhythm against tempo giusto "Smaller compass "The four isometric text lines of twelve, eight, six, seven, eleven, ten or nine syllables. (The twelve, eight and six syllable parlando tunes are the oldest) "The original main caesura "b3" "The dominant pentatonic scale "The non-architectural structures of the four isometric lines like A-B-C-D or resulting A5-B5-A-B (or A5-A5v-A-Av) sructure by the repetition of the first phrase (1-2 lines) at the fifth below ["A5" = the line A but a fifth interval higher; "Av" = variant of line A] "Intricate ornamentation. The old style tunes seem purely Hungarian creations so far as we know nothing similar in style and character to be found in any other country. Excluding the hundreds of variants of each tune pattern we can distinguish and count approximately three hundred basic tunes collected. Although in many places people clung to them with amazing tenacity, they were gradually dying out and only not more than a seventh of this material remained known throughout the country.


The song repertory of the new style contains a much larger material of 7000 different basic songs (always excluding their hundreds of variants). The main type of them have a repetitive form with the first line heard again at the end. "As contrasting with the parlando-rubato dominance of the old style the new style exclusively involves tempo giusto rhythm but exploiting it in a remarkable variety. "They have the following structure: A-A5-A5-A, A-B-Bv-A, A-A5-B-A, A-A-B-A. The most well known Hungarian songs belong to one or more of these types. The A-B-Bv-A (or A-A5-A5v-A) form is considered a particularly Hungarian structure in western European literature. "They have the architectural "arch" form in melodic structure. "The compass can be from one octave to tredecima. "The Dorian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and major scales are equally common; while the Phrygian is slightly less frequent (but important). "The main caesura may fall on from 2 to 9 anywhere. "There are isometric as well as heterometric lines. "The number of syllables to a line varies from six to twenty-five. "For ornaments maximum one or two notes are typically sung only in a single melism as opposed to the old style's intricate ornamentation.

Note, that beside the old, and new style's songs there is an additional, equally significant third miscellaneous group involving the material of songs that has no unity of style being discernible, like a mixed style or with foreign influence.

III. What is the material a twentieth century collector finds? They find material from all the three major groups:

1) Peasant music - about nine-tenth of the songs he finds would belong to the new style and only one-tenth to the old style. Do not forget the equally important third miscellaneous group (list based on tune-pattern types): a) mixed style, b) of foreign influence, c) children's games, d) traditions of feast days (e.g. Regös-song), e) long dirges, f) no style discernible.

2) Popular art music - songs from popular art music as "contamination" inevitably filter into the village life and mingle with the repertoire by the spread of industrialization, urban culture and media, the building of the railroads and what songs (e.g. "verbunkos") the returning veterans bring from the army, etc.

It is interesting that the singers a twentieth century collector "auditions" do not make difference on what is of high value for ethnomusicological research rooting in extensive oral tradition and what is of "low value" infiltrated from urban culture. They sing all of them with the same devotion. They would really cast a puzzled look if I asked them: "Terka néni, please, sing me a song from the Old style". But they are merely not aware of the structure, which is naturally present in their ear and governs over the melody. The experienced collector can easily distinguish the familiar structures and musical construction of the two styles and relate the songs to their origin and eliminate the "contamination".

The singers, however, do distinguish the next, third category from the rest. They name it themselves as "szentes énekek" (sacred songs).

3) Sacred songs - Hungarian sacred folk hymns of a variety of origins also make up a wide repertoire of songs present in live folk tradition. The valuable and most significant part of church songs in folk tradition is ecumenical - ignoring the different type of denominations (that is Evangelic, Catholic, Reformational). We find songs with a) Gregorian origin (Psalmtones, Te Deum, Hymns - sometimes sung in Latin, even funeral parodies); b) songs evolved from medieval canticles; c) songs of the Reformation era; d) the psalms of Genf and other metric songs; d) 16th, 17th century Hungarian Chorals) songs of Counter-reformation f) sacred gongs set on peasant tunes.