International with a specific flavour
The Hungarian music scene in a nutshell
Rennaissance luthenist Bálint or Valentin Bakfark (1506-1576) was probably the first musical star of Hungarian origin. On his six-stringed instrument he performed his own virtuoso arrangements of the polyphonic vocal works of his age by Italian and French masters, like Josquin des Prez and Orlando di Lasso. His work illustrates not only that the Hungarian musical life was entirely in line with the Western European trends but his fate as such is also very representative of Central Europe. Born in Transylvania (nowadays in Romania) in a family of Saxon (German) origin, he travelled extensively in Europe and was employed by Polish king Sigismund Augustus II, lived in Vilnius for many years and in 1565 published a lute book in Krakow. Later he relocated to Vienna, Transylvania and finally to Italy. His transcriptions and original fantasies are often performed today by luthenists and guitarists alike.
Arguably the best known Hungarian composers from the 20th century are Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. They had a major influence on the history of classical music and are still performed extensively worldwide. Their opus relied on the (re)discovery of genuine folk songs collected in small villages throughout the country, which they later applied to their compositions; however, in a truly modernist spirit. Kodály encouraged the start of musical education at a very early age, and developed the so-called Kodály method, also using mostly Hungarian folk songs. The method based on relative solmization is still widely used today not only in Hungary but also Japan, which resulted in the fact that the general musicality of school children in Hungary is above average. It is also party due to Kodály’s mission, that by today almost each town or rural region has a basic level school of music, with qualified teachers for the major instruments.
Founded by the famous Romantic pianist and composer Ferenc Liszt in 1875, the Zeneakadémia (Music Academy) is one of the most acclaimed music universities in Europe hosting students from all over the world. Its grand concert hall in downtown Budapest (built in 1907) is the prime venue for concerts of classical music in Hungary. The most acclaimed contemporary soloists (pianist Dezső Ránki), conductors (Zoltán Kocsis) and composers (György Kurtág, Emil Petrovics, György Orbán, György Ligeti, Miklós Csemiczky) were graduates and/or teachers of the Academy.
The Hungarian State Opera House, located in a representative Neo-Rennaissance building on the Andrássy Avenue, was opened in 1884 with fragments from the romantic operas by Ferenc Erkel, conducted by the composer himself. Erkel’s works (Bánk Bán, Hunyadi László) are practically the only classical Hungarian operas still performed on a repertory basis. The first golden age of the opera (1888-1891) was hallmarked by the directorship of Gustav Mahler. Today the Opera House performs a large repertory of all the major opera and ballet classics. The norm-breaking and visually very elaborate opera stagings by Balázs Kovalik, the former artistic director, were highly acclaimed also by theatre critics. Péter Eötvös’s five major operas are very popular in Europe and America alike, and kept on the repertory of many famous houses worldwide. His Russian language Three Sisters became a hit right after its 1998 world premiere in Lyon. His 2010 opera, The Tragedy of the Devil (Die Tragödie des Teufels), was staged in the direction of Balázs Kovalik by the Beyerischer Staatsoper in Munich, while one of his most recent works, Oratorium balbulum, is coming to MÜPA in November, with the Vienna Philharmonics conducted by the composer himself. The Hungarian opera soloists often run a world-wide career: coloratura soprano Erika Miklósa (b. 1970), a Mozart “specialist”, has already played in productions in Germany, USA, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France, UK and Spain.
The influence of Hungarian folk music permeates all the musical genres. In its original form folk songs are performed by young singers specialized in this genre, like Ági Szalóki and Ágnes Herczku, who often appear with success on larger open-air stages of the numerous music festivals. Most often they are accompanied traditional folk bands consisting of violins, viols, double base and the very specific cimbalom, a large hammered chordophone instrument. There is also a great revival of Romani (Gypsy) folk music and dances, performed in its most authentic form by the Parno Graszt ensemble. Singer Bea Palya uses folk inspiration in a world music environment, often using poems or tales for lyrics. Bands like Makám, Napra or Zuboly experiment with a creative clash of folk and pop, electric and acoustic instruments, merging many different genres. Often rock (or alternative rock) musicians also perform together with folk bands, like András Lovasi from Kispál és a Borz with the Csík ensemble, who play authentic folk music. Alternative rock bands, very popular among young people, are inspired by a variety of styles, yet sometimes manage to develop a strong and unique musical signature. Quimby, for instance, can be characterized by epic, chanson-like songs, expressive stage presence, a very complex percussion section, but first and foremost a strongly symbolic textual universe, which is at times spiced with folk elements.
The jazz music scene in Hungary features many musicians of Roma (Gypsy) origin, who come from great families of musicians: for example saxophonist Tony Lakatos or pianist Szakcsi Lakatos Béla. Also a classical pianist, Szakcsi Lakatos, issued in 2004 the album titled Na dara! (Don’t be afraid), which is considered to be a genre-creating opus of Roma jazz. He also wrote Gypsy musicals, the first one titled Red Caravan was staged in 1975. Jazz Guitarist Ferenc Snétberger is also open and conscious about his Roma origin. Performing on nylon-stringed classical guitar he has developed a very personal and unique style of solo improvisation, influenced by jazz, flamenco, folk and classical elements. In 1995 he composed his Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, titled In Memory of My People, on the occasion of the fiftieth year following the end of the Holocaust. Inspired by melodies of the gypsy tradition, the concerto is a powerful statement against human suffering. It has been performed by the composer himself with chamber orchestras in Hungary, Italy, Germany and New York. Recently he has opened a centre to support the musical education of talented gypsy children, who often come from very bad financial background. He is also a well-known touring musician, often playing together with Bobby McFerrin, Dhafer Youssef or Markus Stockhausen.
The ever so famous Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss, composed in 1866, became a very important musical symbol of the Austo-Hungarian Monarchy. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the most important musical landmarks of Budapest are also strongly connected with the Danube river. Sziget Fesztivál is one of the largest music and cultural festivals in Europe. ‘Sziget’, meaning ‘island’ in Hungarian, refers to the Old Buda Island, where the one-week-long event is organized every August. Here all the musical genres are represented from rock, electronic music, heavy metal, reggae to electronic and world music, often performed by the biggest international stars. In 2012 Sziget came out first in the contest between Europe’s twenty-five largest festivals organized by Yourope and Virtual Festivals Europe. A little lower on the river, next to the Petőfi bridge A38 Ship is anchored, giving space to one of the coolest music clubs in Europe. The former Ukranian stone hauler has been hosting since 2003 concerts in a variety of styles and genres, yet very consistent in quality standards. The floating live-music hall and restaurant won first place of the 100 great bars of the world contest of the Lonely Planet guide book in 2011. And for the lovers of classical music there’s the Palace of Arts next to the southernmost Danube bridge. Opened in 2005, the monumental multi-cultural building hosts a modern concert hall, a theatre and a museum of contemporary art, placed under a single glass-covered pentagonal shell. From inside, the mass of the Bartók Béla National Concert Hall appears as a beautifully developed wooden beehive. The auditorium, with a maximal capacity of 1700 seats, was designed in a way to be able to give a perfect acoustic experience for all genres and orchestra sizes, ranking among the top five concert halls in the world.