History of the Department


There was still no institutional background for research into medieval liturgical music in the 1960s, although its importance had been shown by Benjamin Rajeczky in several papers in the 1950s. He stressed the relation between folk music and plainchant several times and observed in methodological terms that Gregorian research should be tackled in many ways via experience gained in folk-music research. Thus the origins of Gregorian research in Hungary must be sought in the work of the Folk Music Research Group, where a working group formed around Rajeczky for the purpose.

By that time Rajeczky had behind him two decades of research into the history of Hungarian folk music, which had given rise to two important works:

  • Magyar Népzene Tára V. Siratók (Corpus of Hungarian Folk Music V. Laments) edited by Lajos Kiss and Benjamin Rajeczky with an introduction by the latter (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1966)
  • Melodiarium Hungariae Medii Aevi, I, Hymni et Sequentiae (Budapest: Zeneműkiadó, 1956)

Following Rajeczky’s approach, the main tasks of the working group were to examine the role of oral tradition in the written monodic music repertories, and in reverse, to bring a historical outlook to the research into oral traditions (e. g. folk music). Rajeczky’s closest associates were Janka Szendrei and László Dobszay. Others such as Kornél Bárdos, Margit Tóth, Veronika Vavrinecz also took part.

It is notable that several of the decisive projects that shaped institutional early-music research for some decades emanated from this working group of the Folk Music Research Group. Among these were the Medieval Microfilm Collection, the Medieval Plainchant Collection, and the foundation of the Historical Hymn Collection, the last two later serving as bases for major publication works (covering the corpus of antiphon and responsory melodies and the Historical Hymn Collection).

Decisive to developing institutional research was the 1974 merger of the Institute for Musicology and the Folk Music Research Group. This was also important to the working group on early music history, which operated thereafter as a separate unit within the Institute.

This became vital as preparatory work began for Volume 1 (Middle Ages) of the Music History of Hungary, almost entirely through the group’s efforts. It took comprehensive research work of unparalleled intensity to begin mapping the whole of Hungary’s medieval tradition, which included discovering and collecting the source materials, examining their content in liturgical, codicological, musical and palaeographic terms, examining and cataloguing each function, comparing these with the region’s plainchant traditions, etc. Decades of intensive effort yielded in 1988 a compendium extending over almost the whole field of Hungarian Gregorian studies, with knowledge, conclusions and evaluations valid to this day:

  •  Magyarország zenetörténete I. Középkor(Music History of Hungary, Vol. 1, Middle Ages), edited by Benjamin Rajeczky (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1988)
The scale became departmental: the resulting Department of Early Music was headed from 1985 by László Dobszay. The Department had many voluminous collections to look after, which grew in line with the volume of work on Hungary’s music history undertaken. The collections were indispensable to the great summarizing work, and it became urgent to develop and systematize them. The Music History of Hungary represented a publication plant that gave the effusive process of building up the collections content and direction.

Sections of the collections acted as research aids. Others arose from specific publication plans (the melodies of the antiphon and responsory repertory) or would lead to such as they developed (the catalogue of Mass ordinary chant).

As the Music History of Hungary was prepared, some areas grew into separate subjects and led to larger-scale findings and publications than the summary itself required. Notable are the monographs of Janka Szendrei, the way musical sources (complete and fragmentary) of the Hungarian Middle Ages were combined into a fuller, more professional system of musical and ecclesiastical history seen and assessed as a whole (Notated Sources of the Hungarian Middle Ages), and historical and structural analysis of Hungarian notation (Medieval Notations in Hungary).

Other staff members later joined in the Department’s work, notably Ilona Ferenczi and Ágnes Sas in the 1980s, Gábor Kiss, Ágnes Papp and Zsuzsa Czagány in the 1990s, and somewhat after, Gabriella Gilányi. (Several others contributed over shorter periods.) Their efforts enriched the collections and broadened the spectrum of subject-matter in the Department.

The comprehensive examinations of earlier decades concluded a period in the history of Hungarian plainchant research. Above all it brought the work of basic research towards completion, as the complex of research lines yielded full understanding in many respects. It became decisive for younger  generations of researchers to know, thematically and methodologically, which lines were worth pursuing, where the hiatuses were, and how the research horizons could be broadened.

This search appears in moves into hitherto neglected genres and phenomena (e. g. chants of the ordinary and music theory), geographical areas (the Bohemian/Moravian and Polish traditions, Aquileia, Transylvania, and Zagreb), and chronological periods (post-Tridentine chant sources, and survival of the tradition of the Order of St Paul into the 17th and 18th centuries). The concurrent search for directions and a change of paradigm covers the use of modern methods and techniques that place familiar phenomena and processes in new contexts, so presenting them in a new light. One major change was to digitize the Microfilm Collection, which began in 1998. Digital methods and internet solutions leap ahead internationally as well. So some change of approach is also needed in Hungary’s Gregorian research. It will become a priority to impart through the internet research findings drawn from voluminous sources and suited to presentation in database form.

Though the CAO‒ECE still appears in the traditional form of books, an internet version is being prepared. With the Gradualia project, the electronic system is not just an aid to processing, but a means of storing and transmitting the material. Also planned is digitization of all the Department’s chant collections and databases and its publishing intentions are being altered accordingly.

One of the major publications of the Institute for Musicology is Musicalia Danubiana, founded by László Dobszay as a series to carry primary source materials. This has encompassed critical editions of numerous medieval sources in facsimile or transcribed form. The plan is for future such publications to appear in electronic as well as volume form, as will be the case with editions of the Ulászló Gradual and the Várad Antiphoner now being prepared.

A decisive change in the outward framework of the Department’s research work occurred in 2012, when the Institute for Musicology became a constituent of the new Research Centre for the Humanities. This brought closures or structural alterations in some fields, but the Department of Early Music, with its specific source materials and processing methods, remains part of the Institute for Musicology. So the unitary frames of plainchant research in Hungary continue.