Hungarian Composers

shutterstock_52005022Hungary is located in central Europe, bordered by several countries including Ukraine, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Austria. It is a landlocked country, with the largest city, and capital, Budapest, located in the central northern region. Originally founded in the year 895, Hungary has existed in its current form as a republic since October of 1989. The population of Hungary is a little less than ten million people, with a blend of ethnic groups including Hungarians, Germans, and Romani people, an ethnic group often referred to as gypsies. Hungarian culture is very interesting and dynamic, having developed over the country’s long and rich history.

Of its many cultural trends and traditions, Hungary’s music, particularly folk music, remains and important part of the country’s cultural identity. The popularity and long-standing nature of the folk music tradition has had a strong influence on other genres of Hungarian music, including modern forms as well as classical music. Hungarian classical music is unique in this way, and it is considered one of the country’s most important contributions to the culture of the European continent in general. Hungary has produced some of the most influential classical music composers in history, who enjoyed success and admiration throughout Hungary and throughout the rest of Europe. If you are studying classical music, Hungarian history, or European music trends in general, this introduction to Hungarian composers will familiarize you with some of the important historical figures whose work contributed to this country’s classical music traditions. Their compositions and contributions to the classical genre are still celebrated today, and have informed the work of those who composed music after them.

Béla Bartok

Considered one of Hungary’s greatest composers, and one of the most prominent composers of the twentieth century overall, Béla Bartok was born in 1881 in a region now considered a part of Romania. He is considered one of the founders of the practice of ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicology is the study of music based on its social and cultural backgrounds in addition to its sound and composition. In Bartok’s time it was referred to as comparative musicology, and developed over the years into ethnomusicology as we know it today. Throughout his career, Bartok collected and studied a great deal of Hungarian and central European folk music, studying its historical and cultural contexts and incorporating its themes into his own compositions. He is known as one of the first Hungarian composers to incorporate the country’s musical history into his work in this way. Bartok’s biggest classical influences included the works of French composer Claude Debussy, and German composers Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms. His first major work, written in 1903, was titled “Kossuth,” celebrating the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 in the form of a symphonic poem. His “String Quartet in A Minor,” was written in 1908, and was his first piece that included significant and noticeable elements of folk music. Bartok went on to write several more string quartets, as well as violin sonatas and ballets, one of which was titled “The Miraculous Mandarin” and was heavily influenced by the work of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Franz Liszt

A musical predecessor of and mentor to Béla Bartok, Franz Liszt is considered one of the most influential composers in Hungarian history, contributing a great deal of important music to the nineteenth century classical music genre in Europe. Liszt was born in 1811 in Doborján, in the Kingdom of Hungary, to a father who was very musically inclined, and associated with many significant musicians. In addition to being a composer, Liszt was also an accomplished pianist, and he initially gained popularity in the music world in this way, even being deemed a virtuoso, called the most advanced pianist of his age, and considered by many to be one of the most accomplished pianists of all time. Liszt worked as a piano teacher and a conductor in addition to composing his own music, and also transcribed a great deal of popular music for piano, making it more widely available. Liszt’s best known work is a collection called “Years of Pilgrimage,” which includes three musical suites, consisting of both his original work and variations, referred to as “paraphrases,” of other classical music pieces. Liszt is famous for creating the symphonic poem, or a piece of orchestral music in which the sound evokes the content of another source, such as a poem, short story, or novel. Liszt composed thirteen symphonic poems himself. He is remembered as one of the most creative and unique composers of the Romantic period.

Zoltán Kodály

Zoltán Kodály was born in 1882 in the central Hungarian city of Kecskemét. He was introduced to music early on in his life, learning to play the violin as a child. Like Béla Bartok, Kodály was very interested in Hungarian folk music, and even wrote a thesis in 1906 on the subject of Hungarian folk songs, based on phonographic recordings he had made the previous year while traveling to remote Hungarian villages. It was titled “Strophic Construction in Hungarian Folksong.” Around the same time, he met Bartok, who shared his interest in Hungarian folk music, and the two remained close friends for the remainder of their lives. Kodály’s notable compositions include “Summer Evening,” written in 1905, “Concerto for Orchestra,” written in 1939, and “Variations on a Hungarian Folksong,” written in 1939. Though he is known for his musical contributions, Kodály is best remembered for developing a unique approach to music education, which was then converted into a specific educational method named after him. He was very interested in music education throughout his career, and sought to change the way music was taught to young children in lower and middle schools throughout Hungary in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Among his ideas was the concept of teaching children about concepts such as rhythm by incorporating skills that they could easily master already, such as hand gestures, clapping. And other types of movement, Kodály also composed a large amount of music intended for children’s education to accompany these methods.

Later Composers

Béla Bartok and Franz Liszt were contemporaries, and their work had a significant influence on Zoltán Kodály and his contemporary composers. Similarly, the work of all three of these artists influenced the work of the following eras in Hungarian classical music. During the Communist era, classical music became very formalistic, with commonly festive themes. The work of composers Endre Szervánsky and Lajos Bárdos are most indicative of these themes. This period was followed by a new wave of music composition beginning in the 1950s, and the modernization of Hungarian classical music with the introduction of the New Music Studio in 1970. Certain modern Hungarian composers, such as Miklós Rózsa, have gained renown and enjoyed success composing music for Hollywood film scores.

Classical Music Study

These composers are only a few examples of the classical music talent that the country of Hungary has produced throughout history. Other famous Hungarian composers to study include Karl Goldmark, Stephen Heller, and László Lajtha. Many world-famous pianists, violinists, and a variety of other musicians are Hungarian as well. Beyond Hungary, other European nations, as well as countries from around the globe, have contributed to the timeless and beautiful art of classical music. Hopefully, this introduction to Hungarian composers has piqued your interest in classical music in general, and encouraged you to pursue further study of this very important musical genre.