The contemporaries of Bartók and KodálySeparate ways – the first generationOn the way of Bartók and Kodály: the second generationThe ideal of folkloristic national classicismIn thrall to ZhdanovismThe musical renewalLigeti and KurtágExperimental and postmodern music in HungarySelected bibliography


The contemporaries of Bartók and Kodály

The names of Bartók and Kodály have been the hallmarks of Hungarian music for most of the twentieth century, both in Hungary and elsewhere. Over recent decades this situation – thanks to the international reputations of György Ligeti and György Kurtág – has changed somewhat. However great the importance of their work, even on the international scale, nevertheless it cannot be denied that their life’s work serves an example of what it can mean – as Kodály would put it – ‘to be born into Hungarian life, Hungarian culture’, because their compositions are rooted in the soil of twentieth-century Hungarian musical culture, and this soil is fertile precisely because it provides sustenance for numerous other composers too. They bring into existence that musical medium in which the greatest personalities can develop and which has so powerful an effect on their growth and the way that they think about music. If this context is not appreciated, the life’s work of the ‘great’ cannot be fully understood either.

The young composers that emerged in the early twentieth century tried first and foremost to create modern Hungarian music. The representatives of the new century inherited the problem raised in the nineteenth – how was it possible for music to be at the same time contemporary by Euro-pean standards and yet characteristically Hungarian? – but the new generation, the most prominent members of which came from Liszt’s Music Academy and the class of Hans Koessler (a German maestro and devotee of Brahms), wished to modernize it with regard to current attitudes to life. The contemporaries of Bartók and Kodály – of whom the most important were Ernő Dohnányi (1877–1960) and Leó Weiner (1885–1960) – were on the way of Hungarian modernity. What is more: at the start of their careers both of them seemed to be much brighter stars in the Hungarian musical firmament than Bartók or Kodály. In addition, as pianist, principal conductor of the Philharmonic Society Orchestra, director of the Music Academy and musical director of Hungarian Radio, Dohnányi guided Hungarian musical life with great authority and exerted serious influence on it until as late as 1944, while Weiner, as a teacher of chamber music at the Music Academy, reared several generations of important Hungarian musicians. Their influence thus went far beyond the bounds of their compositions – and they played roles which remain beyond question to this day in making Hungarian musical life European.

Both of them appeared fully mature in the concert life of early twentieth-century Budapest. It seemed as if they had not needed to find the way. True, in stylistic terms – in contrast to Bartók and Kodály – they never moved far from the traditional harmonic and formal ideas of the late nineteenth century. Taken by and large, their music – despite an occasional roughness of tonality, and an occasional disintegration of form reminiscent of the musical art nouveau – does not evoke the innovatory movements of the twentieth century. Both of them speak in a musical language that was formed earlier, thoroughly circumscribed, and they were not diverted from that even in their stylistically most Hungarian compositions – Dohnányi composed such things from 1916 onwards, Weiner from the 1930s – and with them the Hungarian style appears primarily as a decorative element. 

Ernő Dohnányi, the brilliant virtuoso, whose first work, the C Minor Piano Quintet (1895) even Brahms rated highly, used the musical idiom of the nineteenth century from the very first; the art of Schumann and Brahms had a powerful influence on his style and especially his numerous works for piano and chamber-music items. His works for larger forces – as is proved by, among others, his best known compositions: Variációk egy gyermekdalra (Variations on a Nursery-rhyme, op. 25, 1913–1914) or Szimfonikus percek (Symphonic Moments, op. 36, 1933) – recall at least to some extent the world of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, indeed, even that of Mahler and Richard Strauss. His principal works – Cantus vitae (op. 38, 1939–1941) and his 2nd symphony (op. 40, 1943–1944) – are first and foremost confessions. Both follow in the wake of Imre Madách’s drama, The Tragedy of Man and are infused with the spirit of Weltanschauung music in the Mahler and Strauss sense. In these compositions Dohnányi actually speaks – in the language of earlier masters, using familiar stock musical terms, sometimes taken seriously but at other times playfully stylized – about himself and his relation to the world. It is these two works that explain best why he rejected modernism so decisively. He was quite positive: it was possible to express ideas and thoughts that were important to him by the use of earlier styles – there was no reason to revise the existing musical language, for if one uses it as one’s native language, tradition does not hinder self-expression but enables it to be achieved with precision.

Leó Weiner turned more decisively than Dohnányi against the language of the nineteenth century, and his youthful works – even in spite of his purposely craftsmanlike attitude – show him to be a powerfully individualistic composer. In his case, however, the opposition was not aimed at the creation of a new musical language but at the revival of an earlier manner of speech – that of the world of Mozart, Beethoven and the early romantics, Mendelssohn and Schumann. The taste of the bourgeoisie of the turn of the century is to be seen in his choice of this music as his models of style: his very first compositions too point this way, for example Serenade (op. 3, 1905), the 1st String Quartet (op. 4, 1906), the String Trio (op. 6, 1908), but also what may be regarded as his major work, the incidental music to Csongor és Tünde (1913). It must have been the paradigm shift that followed the emergence of Bartók and Kodály and the resulting loss of significance of his work that caused the conspicuous reduction of Weiner’s output as a composer, which was marked by his long periods of silence and by one of his last creations, the large-scale symphonic poem Toldi (op. 43, 1952–1957), which reveals his loss of inspiration. In contrast to his contemporaries, Weiner is a secretive being, who abstains in his works from that basic gesture of the arts, that of creating at least an imaginary community around himself with his work. That applies to his popular Divertimenti (1923, 1938, 1950 and 1951), which seemingly address the national community in Hungarian style and in which he rather withdraws into an idyllic, harmonious, elegant, refined but non-existent sphere, a glass-house world of his own creation.


Separate ways – the first generation

If we have spoken of the rejection of modernity in connection with the art of Dohnányi and Weiner, in the case of the generation directly following Bartók and Kodály we must emphasize that it is modernity that defines their esthetic ideals. The influence of the art of Bartók and Kodály is very little to be detected in the creations of these young composers – and if at all, then only at second-hand. Young composers beginning their careers at the start of the First World War and immediately afterwards turned with the same openness to the expressionism of Schoenberg, the free twelve-note music, the Russian avant-garde machine-music, Hindemith’s ‘new simplicity’ or to Stravinsky’s Russian period and his neo-classicism, as they did to the possibilities of creating a new Hungarian music. The majority of them were actually Kodály’s pupils, such as György Kósa (1897–1984), Lajos Bárdos (1899–1986), Ferenc Szabó (1902–1969), István Szelényi (1904–1972) or Mátyás Seiber (1905–1960), and, as in the case of Kósa and László Lajtha (1892–1963), the paternal support of Bartók had defined the start of their path of life, and yet they wished to prove their independence not only with their works but in their organizational plans, with the establishment of Modern Magyar Muzsikusok (Modern Hungarian Musicians) in 1928 and the second Új Magyar Zeneegyesület (New Hungarian Music Association) in 1930.

László Lajtha’s career illustrates the separate paths most distinctly; despite his importance he left no great mark in musical public opinion. Even though Lajtha’s creativity and the world of his compositions are in many respects reminiscent of the youthful Kodály’s – activity as a folk-music collector, attachment to French culture and great education determine his creative thinking – his work, with the exception of early experiments with expressionism, moves in the realm of French neoclassical style. He composes his neo-rococo (in the modern sense) works in the spirit of his favourite painter, Watteau. These are chamber music for flute and harp – his two Harp Trios (no. 1 in 1935, no. 2 in 1949) and two Harp Quintets (no. 1, ‘Marionettes’, in 1937, no. 2 in 1948) – or his ballets (Lysistrata, 1933; Négy isten ligete, ‘Forest of Four Gods’, 1943; Capriccio, 1944) and his opera A kék kalap (‘The Blue Hat’, 1949–1950). One can attribute to the influence of French music – most of all the French ‘Six’ – that his compositions are always visual in nature, pictorial, while their great forms, even in the symphonies, are built up by persistently placing thematic elements side by side in contrast to the developmental technique of German tradition. In these – for example, the Piano Quartet (1935) or the 2nd, 3rd and 4th String Quartets (1926, 1929 and 1930) – fugues evocative of Bach appear as a determining element. And even if he self-consciously distinguishes his own original compositions from his folk-song arrangements, the experience of folk-music expeditions is still perceptible in the way in which he constructs melodies. 

György Kósa, pupil of Bartók and Kodály, likewise went a separate way. His works, which include more than a hundred songs and thirty cantatas and oratorios, bear the impression of Debussy’s world of impressionist tonality and form, and of Mahler’s world-view music, while being also marked by a strong, expressionist personal voice. In his art, representation is always superseded by the private sphere, ‘greatness’ is superseded – even in his nine symphonies and numerous oratorios and operas – by ‘smallness’. His view of the world is not that of the higher-order god-man but of the little man who endures the horrors of the twentieth century. In Kósa’s workshop, smallness, entrapment in private life is accompanied by a kind of deliberate lack of equipment, a technical baldness, as if it were his wish to heighten the power of expression by reducing the means to an absolute minimum. This helps to explain his interest in genres that have words. The function of music in these works is simply to enhance the power of the text; examples of this are found beginning with Laodameia (1925), a setting of Babits’s poem, through his oratorios on biblical themes, Joseph (1939), Illés(Elijah, 1940) and Krisztus (1943), up to his cantata Katakomba-ének – Perlekedő prófécia (Catacomb Song, Litigious Prophecy, 1953), in which he attacks the dictatorship, and his late masterpieces Bikasirató (Bull-lament, 1975) andHalálfúga (Death-fugue, 1976). With its musical revaluation of the influence of the text, Kósa’s work was able to serve as one of the models for the composer György Kurtág.

The careers of Lajos Bárdos, Mátyás Seiber and Ferenc Szabó likewise started from the ideal of the new simplicity. In his later settings of folk songs, Bárdos tended towards the Kodály practice of the folk-song suite, but in his earlier compositions – such as the motet Libera me (1933) – worked with simple tools capable of great effectiveness, and in addition to the use of dissonant intervals called on both Gregorian chant and techniques of Renaissance polyphony. In his antifascist part-song – a setting of Ferenc Jankovich’s A nyúl éneke (The Rabbitt’s Song, 1944) – he returns to the cori spezzati technique of the Renaissance motet, even using percussion instruments, so much in favour at the time, in the instrumental accompaniment. At the start of his career Mátyás Seiber, Kodály’s favourite pupil – as his Kamaraszonáta of 1925 proves – gave evidence of his intention to reject transparent, complex structures and his attraction to the music of Bartók, Kodály and Stravinsky. In all certainty, this interest explains his later attraction to jazz. Even after settling in England he did not deny his Hungarian roots: in addition to his large-scale, important works (Ulysses, 1947; Clarinet concertino, 1951; Permutazione a Cinque, 1958) he also produced a number of folk-song arrangements. Ferenc Szabó – who became the lone master of Hungarian music after 1945 – published music in the mid-twenties which was finely polished, inclined to the neoclassical, and rejected every form of complexity; in the String Trio (1927), Farkasok dala (Song of the Wolves, 1929–1930) and Lírai szvit (Lyric Suite, 1936) he employed baroque forms and techniques, such as fugue. The dryness of baroque techniques distracted the music; abstract quality became the key concept of the young Szabó’s poetics.


On the way of Bartók and Kodály: the second generation

Although a duty to stylistic plurality still characterized the first generation, at the same time as they were appearing, the demand arose – in the writings of the first propagators of the art of Bartók and Kodály – for the formation around the two maestri of a united group of like-minded composers. At this time the young composers did not yet represent a unified esthetic and stylistic tendency, and looked to Bartók and Kodály only in a small way. The musical concept of what was later called the Kodály school, however, the theoretical foundation of which was created by the musicologist and musical esthete Antal Molnár (1890–1983), had considerable influence on later generations. In his writings Molnár expressed the view that the new music would come about with the amalgamation of the art of Bartók and Kodály: Bartók’s expressive power would provide its modernity and Kodály’s perfection of form its classical quality. 

For composers, however, bringing the new style into being was not so simple a matter. The year when Bartók was taken seriously as a composer in Hungary was 1926, that is, Bartók’s ‘piano year’. That also means that the creative acceptance of Bartók’s art in the Hungary of the 1920s was closely linked to the acceptance of Stravinsky’s art and neoclassicism. The music which Pál Kadosa (1903–1983) wrote after 1926 – his 1st and 2nd Piano sonatas (1926 and 1930) and even the Sonata for two pianos (1947) – represents contemporary Bartók language; to Kadosa and his generation the use of the piano as a percussion instrument and folk-song intonation symbolized modernity. There is no doubt, on the other hand, that from 1930 on Kadosa experimented with the arrangement of Stravinsky, Hindemith and neoclassicism, for example in the piece of etude Irren ist staatlich (1932). The most eloquent proof of duality of tendency – towards Stravinsky and Bartók – are the two Divertimenti (1934): while the first is an act of deference to neoclassicism, the second is Hungarian music in tragic tone.

We meet a similar intensive reception of Kodály’s art in the work of Ferenc Farkas (1905–2000), who, in contrast to most of his generation, was not officially a pupil of Kodály. After studying at the Music Academy in Budapest he became a student of the master-class of Ottorino Respighi, so renowned for his knowledge of orchestration, in the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. He became well versed in the stylistic tendencies of the time through his experiences in Western Europe, and primarily followed the models of Italian music – the neoclassical works of Casella and Malipiero – as is shown by, among other things, his comic opera A bűvös szekrény (The Magic Cupboard, 1938–1942), or from a later period Concertino all’ antica (1964). Several items of music for the theatre and the screen bear his name, which indicates that Farkas approached composing primarily as a craftmanship. This attitude of putting trade into the foreground enabled Ferenc Farkas, as a teacher, to set several Hungarian composer generations off on their careers. There is no doubt, on the other hand, that songs, choral works and cantatas form the greatest part of his inventory of more than a hundred works. As his numerous traditional and folk-song choral items prove, among them the particularly popular Rózsamadrigál (Rose Madrigal, 1947), for Farkas the art of Zoltán Kodály’s choral music and songs was a prime example from the point of view of style, writing, national orientation and choice of words. Even in his compositions of the seventies, eighties and nineties and in his cantatas, the Kodály model and the sorrowful-national tone can be recognized. His song-cycleElfelejtett dallamok (Forgotten Melodies, 1980), for example, harks back to Kodály, not only stylistically but also alludes in its title to his Megkésett melódiák (Belated Melodies).

Sándor Veress (1907–1992) was the first to attempt the amalgam adumbrated by Antal Molnár. Considered to be the most promising composer of his generation, Veress set out in the main works of his youth – the cantata Szent Ágoston psalmusa az eretnekek ellen (St Augustine’s Psalm against the Heretics, 1943–1944), his ballet Térszili Katicza (1943) and the 1st Symphony (1940) – to unite the styles of Bartók and Kodály. The psalm arrangement – with the elaboration of the part-writing, the fugal structure of the central section and the melismatic melodic line of the bass solo – unambiguously evokes Bartók’s Cantata Profana, and at the same time the ethos of the selection of text and genre for the work reflects Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus. Veress altered the elements of Molnár’s concept: from the points of view of form, style and musical language he connected with Bartók – thereby providing the modernity of his work – while from the aspects of expression, content and message he showed himself a follower of Kodály. In his later works – even in those composed after his emigration to Switzerland in 1948 and his acquaintance with twelve-note music, such as Hommage à Paul Klee(1951) or the Piano Concerto (1952) – in a new musical environment, but evoking folk-song laments and Bartókian tonality and yearning for the lost past and his homeland, he endeavoured to unite the two models of composition.


The ideal of folkloristic national classicism

At the same time as St Augustine’s Psalm and Veress’s flowering as a composer, at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s there arrived the musical style which József Ujfalussy (1920–2010) described as ‘folkoristic national classicism’, and which from 1939–1940 until 1956 determined the thinking of the Hungarian composers then starting their careers. Theoretical foundations had preceded the appearance of this stylistic ideal: from the mid-twenties Bence Szabolcsi and Antal Molnár had been much occupied with the question of the new classicism, and believed that they had recognized paradigmatic examples of it in the young Kodály’s chamber music – especially in the Trioszerenád (1919–1920). In Molnár’s interpretation, the new Hungarian classicism would be built of purified, classical forms, mainly traditional, which would rely on harmonies which mostly avoided chromaticism, but its melodies would be derivable from Hungarian folk song and the Kodályian ideal of melody. The young András Szőllősy (1921–2007) set about writing a systematic description of this style in 1943, and in his doctoral thesis on Kodály spoke of ‘the compromise of filtration’, that is, a style which would pick out only the beautiful from every preceding style. Knowing the works of his contemporaries, it seems as if Szôllôsy, as composer and musicologist (and who destroyed all his compositions from this time), was thinking of the ideal of his own age-group rather than outlining the genuine features of Kodály’s art. 

The ideal of the ‘compromise of filtration’ did in fact determine the start of the careers of Szőllősy’s contemporaries. This concept played a key role in the development of Endre Szervánszky (1911–1977), Gyula Dávid (1913–1977), László Weiner (1916–1944), Rudolf Maros (1917–1982), Rezső Sugár (1919–1988) and Pál Járdányi (1920–1966); it became common currency, the summing up of the Zhdanov Directives, that is, it was valid after 1948 as a valid musical point of view. The first standard examples of folkloristic national classicism include Szervánszky’s two Divertimenti for strings (1940 and 1942), Maros’s Divertimento for violin and viola (1940) and Serenade for two violins (1944), Sugár’s String Trio (1942) and Serenade for two violins and viola (1943), and Járdányi’s Szimfonietta (1940) and his Divertimento Concertante (1942), which was reworked in 1948–49 and in that form raised an ideological debate. The titles unambiguously indicate that the new style was primarily for chamber music groups and string quartets, and was associated with the genres of divertimento and serenade.

The most characteristic examples of the style were the compositions of László Weiner, who perished at the age of twenty-eight in a forced-labour camp. His music – String Trio Serenade (1938), Duo for violin and viola (1939), Sonata for viola and piano (?1939) and Concertino for piano, flute, viola and strings (?1941) – presents a fully mature style and displays the influence of Kodály’s first creative period. On the evidence of these four items, Weiner wrote fine, pure, orderly classical music. Produced in the shadow of the Second World War, and by a musician suffering persecution,  they set before us a world of surprising harmony; it is hard to say whether they indicate flight from reality or simply refusal to accept reality. These pieces – perhaps as a result of the budding trauma of doubts over the identification of Hungarianness with Europeanness – seem to wish to illustrate an ideal, or rather one that is national and at the same time classical, that is, the ideal of an eternally valid scheme of cultural values.


In thrall to Zhdanovism

‘The first three years passed in the spirit of total freedom,’ recalled György Ligeti in 2003, speaking of the period 1945–1948. The work of Hungarian composers too reveals ‘total freedom’: such experimental works appeared as Ferenc Farkas’s cantata Szent János kútja (St John’s Well, 1945), his Musica pentatonica for string orchestra (1945) and his cycles of settings of Sándor Weöres’s poems Gyümölcskosár (Fruit-basket, 1946–47), which pointed the way to Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel (With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles, 2000), setting of Weöres’s poems by Ligeti in his riper years. Even the youthful Ligeti, however – not unaffected by Farkas’s example – was at the time writing his first experimental pieces, among them the overpoweringly surreal Három Weöres-dal (Three Weöres Songs, 1946–47). Kadosa’s experimental piano-cycle Epistolae ex Ponto (1948) also dates from this time, as do Sándor Veress’s orchestral piece Threnos (1945) in memory of Bartók and his song-cycle of poems by Attila József (1945). 

The couple of years’ freedom, however, was abruptly snuffed out by the declaration of the 1948 conference in Prague of Composers and Music Critics by which the cultural colonialization of the countries in the Soviet sphere of influence began under the arts policy of Zhdanov. (Andrei Alexandrovitch Zhdanov, Soviet politician, communist party official, was director of Soviet cultural policy from 1946 until his death in 1948; this function was carried out in Hungary by József Révai.) The Prague declaration stated that socialist realist art had to be easily understood and at the same time have relevance to classical and national traditions. From reaction at the time, it seems that the Hungarian composers accepted the declaration calmly, saying that they – Bartók and Kodály – had done that sort of thing already. Only gradually did it dawn on them that working in the terms of the cultural-political directives so encroached upon self-expression that living up to expectations – as music of the time such as A huszti kaland (The Adventure at Huszt, 1950) and Sinfonia romantica (1955) by the convinced communist Pál Kadosa prove – might lead to the complete loss of creative liberty.

The production of the period 1948–1956 is connected with characteristic genres. Up to 1950 – to some extent as a continuation of the preceding decade – divertimenti and serenades dominate in Hungarian music, and among the most important are Szervánszky’s Szerenád for strings (1947–48) and Klarinétszerenád (1950). At the same time, there developed in Hungary a large repertoire for wind quintet: based primarily on Mozartian examples came Gyula Dávid’s 1st and 2nd Quintets (1949 and 1955 respectively), Rudolf Maros’s Musica leggiera (1956) and György Ligeti’s Hat bagatell fúvósötösre (Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet, 1953). From 1949 cantatas and oratorios appear. Among these, Szervánszky’sHonvédkantáta (1949), Rezső Sugár’s oratorio Hunyadi – Hősi ének (Hunyadi – A Heroic Song, 1951) and Ferenc Szabó’s Petőfi oratorio Föltámadott a tenger (The Sea Has Risen Up, 1955) enjoyed great popularity. Even greater interest was aroused by musical portraits of national figures – partly on Soviet lines, partly following Kodály’s Kállai kettős (Double Dance of Kálló, 1950) – composed for the State People’s Ensemble; Rudolf Maros’s Ecseri lakodalmas (Wedding at Ecser, 1951) achieved great success outside Hungary too. The most successful examples of folk-song suites for choir were the works of Lajos Bárdos Első népdalrapszódia (First Folk Song Rhapsody, 1951) and Régi táncdal (Old Dance-song, 1951). The modest repertoire of the Hungarian musical stage was enriched in 1953 by György Ránki’s Pomádé király új ruhája (King Pomádé’s New Clothes).

Compulsory reference to national romanticism replaced the following of classical models in the early fifties. The swing to neoromanticism played a decisive role in the rise to prominence of such genres as the concerto, the symphony and the concerto of symphonic dimensions. Concerti, mostly with the structure of quick–slow–quick movements of the Hungarian tradition, either followed the nineteenth-century models of Liszt, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, or Bartók’s Violin Concerto (1938) with its classical features. The most significant works in this repertoire are Gyula Dávid’s Viola Concerto (1950), the Cello Concerto (1953) of András Mihály (1917–1993), the Violin Concerto (1952) of Rezső Kókai (1906–1962), the Piano Concerto (1953) of János Viski (1906–1961) and Kurtág’s Viola Concerto (1953–54).

Symphonies and concerti in five movements, on the other hand, went back to Bartók’s Concerto (1943). The two standard works of the period – Pál Járdányi’s Vörösmarty-szimfónia (1952) and Endre Szervánszky’s József Attila-concerto(1954) are constructed on similar lines: each of their five movements is linked to a poem by Vörösmarty or Attila József respectively. In both Bartókian tonality rules, and both end with a slow funeral march. Járdányi’s work revives the nineteenth-century programme-symphony, which can be traced back to Liszt; the principal role in it goes to romantic gestures and genres (romance, fantasia, battle-scene, funeral march), and to the verbunkos style, then so decisively significant. Szervánszky’s work, at the same time, puts into novel musical form the idealized portraits of the intellectuals responsible, following the examples of Attila József and Bartók.   


The musical renewal

The period between the death of Stalin in 1953 and the revolution of 1956 brought a certain political and cultural easing in Hungary, which brought with it in 1955 the rehabilitation of Bartók, until then partly labelled a formalist. After 1953 a group gathered around the later dissident György Ligeti; its members included Rudolf Maros and András Szőllősy, and they tried as opportunity arose to discover and study what had been happening in new music in Western Europe in the years of isolation. Until 1959, however, the single really determining landmark for Hungarian composers remained Bartók, although it was true that they attempted to renew their musical language starting rather from the hitherto prohibited sections of his œuvre. 

The analyses of Bartók made by Ernő Lendvai (1925–1993) – much debated among musicologists – had a great effect on a significant number of Hungarian composers; their first systematic formulation appeared in his 1955 book on Bartók. He dealt with types of harmony, scales, formal principles realized in golden section proportions, and certain Hungarian composers took the book into their hands as if they were receiving the key to Bartók’s method of composition, which would place at their disposal a modern musical language, equal in standing to Schoenberg’s twelve-note system, indeed, one even more developed than that and structuralist in its approach. This kind of reading of Lendvai is most clearly seen in Endre Szervánszky’s œuvre: his 2nd String quartet (1956–57) and 2nd Wind quintet (1957) admittedly derive from model scales and types of chord sketched by Lendvai, and he also makes confident use of the golden section rule. This theoretical approach eventually led Szervánszky to twelve-note music: in 1959 he composed his Hat zenekari darab (Six Pieces for Orchestra), which caused a great ideological scandal; they were the first audible evidence of the reception of Webern in Hungary, and, at the same time, of the appearance in the country of the new Western music.

Other composers tried to shape their new style on two typical Bartókian tonalities: for some of them, the ‘chase’ scene in A csodálatos mandarin (The Miraculous Mandarin, 1919) served as a starting-point, and for others the movement titled Az éjszaka zenéje (The Night’s Music) in the piano cycle Szabadban (Out of Doors, 1926). The former made it possible, by the use of rapid movement and dissonance, to depart from the old, folk-music melodic thought, a world of harmony constructed on tonality and the ideal of thematic development, while the latter moved towards extempore form, the superimposition of different musical strata and the use of noise-music. We find prime examples of this experimentation in such orchestral works of Rudolf Maros as Ricercare (1959) and Musica da ballo (1961).

Experimentation with the tonality of Az éjszaka zenéje finally proved more fruitful, as it directed Hungarian composers to the tonal world, instrumentation and melodic form of the almost contemporary works of Pierre Boulez Le marteau sans maître (1953–55) and Improvisations sur Mallarmé (1957–59). In addition to the serialism of the preceding decade, their interest was immediately aroused by the Darmstadt circle and the post-serialism of Polish composers. First of all they were captivated by the ideal of the new type of beautiful sound. It is no accident that Rudolf Maros, reacting as always sensitively to the spirit of the age, used the code-word of this stylistic ideal – euphonia – as the title of three orchestral works in 1963, 1964 and 1965. In addition to warmth of harmony, Boulez’s artistry set a clear pattern in forming melody too: the melodies, constructed of leaps of (mostly dissonant) big intervals, helped the break from ideas based on earlier musical formulae. 

It was not, finally, the generation of Szervánszky and Maros that effected complete musical renewal, but that of the young composers who had been born in the thirties and came to the fore for the first time in the sixties. As students of either Ferenc Farkas or Endre Szervánszky, they had no direct links to Kodály nor, thanks to their youth, had they had to struggle with their past in the fifties. Their development and professional attitudes towards the new music of the West had in many cases been strengthened by study abroad. Zsolt Durkó (1934–1997) studied in Rome under Goffredo Petrassi, and was the first to return to Hungary fully equipped technically. He set his colleagues an example of composition focusing on the problems of composition with his earliest works Organismi (1964) and Fioriture (1966). Many contemporary elements appear in his style of writing: he experiments with both random structures (aleatory) and the elaboration of free passages of extempore appearance. As early as 1965, however, he endeavoured to reformulate the concept of Bartók and Kodály with regard to the unification of Hungarian tradition and modern European music. He went this way in his later works too, from Halotti beszéd (Funeral Oration, 1972) through the opera Mózes (1977) to Széchenyi-oratórium (1982). Durkó’s modern traditionalism had a great effective resonance on his contemporaries, primarily Attila Bozay (1939–1999), Sándor Balassa (1935–), Miklós Kocsár (1933–) and István Láng (1933–).

A kind of renewal in Hungarian music began not only in the style of writing but also in the choice of genre. In this period, new Hungarian opera was born: C’est la guerre (1961) by Emil Petrovics (1930–), followed by his Lysistraté (1962) andBűn és bűnhődés (Crime and Punishment, 1967–68), together with the two operas Vérnász (Blood Wedding, 1964) and Hamlet (1965–68) by Sándor Szokolay (1931–) and the somewhat later one-act piece A tisztességtudó utcalány (The Respectful Prostitute, 1976–77) of Kamilló Lendvai (1928–). In these, a new, expressive musical style came into being which became dominant in the operas, cantatas and oratorios of the next twenty years, and in instrumental music too, and which may be regarded as a source of the plurality of styles arising in the seventies, that is, of the musical postmodern in Hungary.


Ligeti and Kurtág

In the eyes of the world, the two most outstanding figures of the new Hungarian music have been György Ligeti (1923–2006) and György Kurtág (1926–). Their careers took radically different directions after Ligeti left Hungary in 1956 – he was at the most important focal points of new music from the late fifties on, while international recognition of Kurtág can only be dated to the eighties – and the music they wrote was essentially different too. It sprang, however, from the same cultural context, the Hungarian musical tradition, and the same teachers – Sándor Veress, Ferenc Farkas, Pál Kadosa, Leó Weiner and Lajos Bárdos – had determined their professional and personal backgrounds. 

Ligeti began to take an interest in the experiments of the new music that were taking place in Western Europe as early as the mid-fifties, but was able to start acquiring a personal attitude towards experimental composing when out of Hungary, at the electronic studio in Cologne and at the summer new music courses in Darmstadt. He soon became a central figure of the avant-garde music hallmarked with the names of Stockhausen and Boulez, but held the most skeptical views possible of the idea of serialist composition. What made his criticism and independence possible was, in all probability, that they came from abroad – from a quite different, much more traditional musical culture, which may also have had something to do with his becoming an exemplary figure in the European waves of postmodern music. His first works written in the West – Apparitions (1958–59), Atmosphères (1961) and Lontano (1967) – brought into focus the slowing down of musical currents and the ideal of constantly changing changelessness (Ligeti called this phenomenon ‘micropolyphony’). In parallel with this – in such works as Poème symphonique (1962) or Continuum (1968) – Ligeti was concerned with the dominance of mechanical movement-types (‘meccanico’) and abandoning tempered tuning. In fact these techniques work out possible forms of a way out of serialism. Ligeti is moving in the same direction when his experimental tendency drives him to wish to create a new kind of musical theatre out of snatches of speech. Through the latter came Aventures (1962–63), Nouvelles Aventures (1962–65), and then his way was from Requiem (1963–65) to the grand opera Le Grand Macabre (1974–77).

At the same time as he was writing the opera, Ligeti’s attention turned to earlier musical styles and traditions, among them emphatically the Hungarian, as the titles of his two harpsichord pieces indicate: Hungarian Rock and Passacaglia Ungherese, 1978. In addition to his Hungarian background, he was strongly influenced by Central African tribal music; banda-linda polyphony, Latin American and Caribbean dance-music, the abandonment of tempered tuning and Mandelbrot computer graphics. Playing with tradition and allusion to it were to become a defining attraction in Ligeti’s pieces from the eighties on Horn Trio (1982), Piano Études (1985–2001) and the Piano Concerto (1985–88). A melancholy allusion to Hungarian tradition marks in particular his last compositions, Violin Concerto (1992) and the setting of Sándor Weöres’s poems titled Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel (With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles, 2000).

Kurtág’s career likewise has been marked by links to the traditions. The renewal of his creativity too is connected to 1956: in 1957–58 the opportunity arose for him to attend composition classes taken by Milhaud and Messiaen, and there he met Marianne Stein, the art psychologist, whose therapy quickly altered his thinking about composition. His experiences with Ligeti in Cologne on the way home from Paris had similar meaning for him. In the music that he wrote after that he worked out the principal features of his style: larger cycles consisting of movements giving a fragmented impression of Webernian brevity, melodic forms formed of huge intervals or tightly bound phrases and heightened expressivity. Kurtág’s music is a descent to Hell: a kind of determined desire to communicate that will brook no interference manifested in it with elemental force, while it defies all analytical approach. His first large-scale composition, Bornemisza Péter mondásai(The Sayings of Peter Bornemisza, 1968) was, however, created not only by virtue of its choice of texts but also through its allusions to Monteverdi’s stile concitato and Schütz’s vocal concerti and in the spirit of Hungarian tradition. Bornemisza had already shown that Kurtág had vocal composition in his blood, but in the next few years – a critical period for the composer – he did not compose for the voice at all. The piano teacher Marianne Teöke roused him from his stagnation in 1973 by asking him to write piano pieces for her pupils. At the same time, the experimental attitude of the Új Zenei Stúdió (New Music Studio) which was then being formed had a significant effect on the shaping of the series Játékok (Games, 1973). 

The liberating effect of the piano pieces and his identifying himself with Russian language and culture are shown by the compositions which brought Kurtág international recognition – Omaggio a Luigi Nono (1979), A boldogult R. V. Truszova üzenetei (The Messages of the Late R. V. Trusova, 1976–80) and Jelenetek egy regényből (Scenes from a Novel, 1979–82). His commitment to vocal music remained, and after the Russian cycles he turned to Hungarian (József Attila-töredékek ‘Fragments from Attila József’, 1982), German (Kafka-töredékek, ‘Fragments from Kafka’, 1985–87), English (What is the Word, 1971), French (… pas à pas – nulle part, 1993–97) and Romanian (Colinda-Balada, 2008). As well as enriching his choice of languages, he also capitalized on his experiences in Játékok and turned more and more consciously towards musical traditions: the majority of his instrumental compositions date from the seventies and later, among them Hommage à Robert Schumann (1975–1990), … quasi una fantasia… (1987–88) and Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky (1988–89), a kind of memorial piece in which quotations, allusions, references, memories and ‘messages’ – to borrow the typical titles of Kurtág’s compositions of 2003 – play a decisive part.


Experimental and postmodern music in Hungary

At the end of the sixties a new generation of Hungarian composers appeared, ten years younger than those born in the thirties. Initially Zoltán Jeney (1943–), László Sáry (1940–) and László Vidovszky (1944–) followed on the path of their seniors, but in 1970, after the first experimental composer workshop, the Új Zenei Stúdió, had been set up in Hungary, their attention turned to contemporary American music – John Cage, Christian Wolff, La Monte Young and Steve Reich – with their methods based on the accidental and their experiments with minimal music. They encountered stiff opposition in the musical world, as it was their wish, with the aid of a medium alien to Hungarian tradition – though no doubt at the instigation of Dezső Tandori’s experimental poetry – to split from the now ingrained linguistic stock in trade and the traditional nineteenth-century esthetic ideals that were still valid in the Hungary of the 1960s, such as subjectivity and self-expression. They appeared first in symbolic fashion with joint improvisations – Undisturbed (1974), Hommage à Kurtág (1975) – but a kind of performance-quality was at least of some importance to them (Vidovszky: Autokoncert, 1972;Schroeder halála, ‘The Death of Schroeder’, 1974–75), the technique of the guided accidental (Jeney: A szem mozgásai, ‘Eye Movements’, I–III, 1973), or the use of completely bound structures (Jeney: Orfeusz kertje, ‘The Garden of Orpheus’, 1974; Apollónhoz, ‘To Apollo’, 1978), and the use of minimal music (Jeney: Madárhívogató, ‘Bird-lure’, 1982; Sáry: Kotyogó kő egy korsóban, ‘Stone Rattling in a Jug’, 1978; Kánon a felkelő naphoz, ‘Canon to the Rising Sun’, 1982). 

From the mid-seventies, however, the interest of the members of Új Zenei Stúdió also turned towards tradition, because they considered that the study of tradition might be a valid form of experimentation. Out of this came Vidovszky’s Etudes for MIDI-piano (1990–), Sáry’s playful Kreatív zene gyakorlatai (Creative Musical Exercises, 1999), the Három madrigálkomédia (Three Madrigal-comedies, 1963–1990) of Péter Eötvös (1944–), who had been associated with the Stúdió from its inception, his Atlantis (1995), and his opera Három nővér (Three Sisters, 1996–97), which was a great international success, then his composition titled IMA (2002) and his concerto CAP-KO (2005) in memory of Bartók, and above all, Zoltán Jeney’s masterpiece Halotti szertartás (Funeral Rite, 1987–2005). Of more than three hours duration, Halotti szertartás may be taken as a compendium of twentieth-century Hungarian music; it follows the course of the medieval funeral rite, and alludes to the whole tradition of musical history (Gregorian chant, Hungarian folk music, medieval polyphony, Mozart, Russian liturgical music, Bartók, Stravinsky and Ligeti), but is characterized by an experimental attitude and all-pervading construction. 

The turning to tradition of Új Zenei Stúdió coincided with the appearance of postmodern music in Hungary. From the seventies and eighties on, Hungarian composition had been marked much rather by a multiplicity of styles and the emergence of original creative personalities than by the dominance of certain tendencies. This was when Group 180 was formed; following the example of Új Zenei Stúdió, it functioned as a workshop and did much to popularize Steve Reich and other American minimalists in Hungary. Likewise in the seventies, serious experiments with electronic music began in Hungary, at the workshop of László Dubrovay (1943–), Iván Patachich (1922–1993) and Zoltán Pongrácz (1912–2007). It was this time that neotonalists appeared in Hungary – the so-called ‘Four’: Miklós Csemiczky (1954–), György Orbán (1947–), György Selmeczi (1952–) and János Vajda (1949–), who entered the lists for the emancipation of ‘retro’ styles and an easily acceptable, though popularity-seeking, musical language. 

Of the ‘thirties’ generation, József Soproni (1930–) blossomed in the seventies with his piano-cycle Jegyzetlapok (Note-cards, 1974–78), which had much in common with Játékok. His art was a search for sensitive, refined, sounds, and, on the basis of his later choice of genre (symphonies, piano sonatas and string quartets), in many respects classical. József Sári (1935–), however, only found his own original musical concept in the eighties and nineties; Elidegenített idézetek(Alienated Quotations, 1982); Időmalom (Mill of Time, 1983) and Ballada (1989), are built on structures transparent yet complex, which refer to musical historical tradition as a culture that had foundered.

Of the older generation of composers, however, the most original of the period was beyond all doubt the pupil of Kodály and Petrassi, András Szőllősy. Not only did his international reputation made ample recompense for his late start, but so did the mature style of his works, reflecting an independent way of life unequalled in Hungarian music history. Examples may be found in his 3rd and 4th Concerti (1968 and 1970) and Musica per Orchestra (1972). It is not as if Szőllősy’s music were not permeated by European tradition: Pro somno Igoris Stravinsky quieto (1978), Planctus Mariae (1982), Fabula Phaedri (1982), Miserere (1984), Paesaggio con morti (1987), Quartetto per archi (1988) and Passacaglia Achatio Máthé, in memoriam (1997) refer to the whole music-historical and cultural past, and most of them – with chorales and tolling of bells at significant moments in the works – represent the form of the poetry of death at the end of the twentieth century as part of a great European tradition. Szőllősy’s work – like the œuvre of Kurtág and Ligeti, and Jeney’s Halotti szertartás – sums up the main aim of twentieth-century Hungarian composing: the intention to produce a musical style which would be at the same time modern in European terms and traditional in the national sense, and thus its musical world would be incomparably original.


Selected bibliography

Barna, István: Szervánszky Endre. (Budapest, 1965)
Beckles Willson, Rachel: Ligeti, Kurtág and Hungarian Music during the Cold War. (Cambridge, 2007)
Breuer, János: Fejezetek Lajtha Lászlóról. (Budapest, 1992)
Contemporary Hungarian Composers. (Budapest, 1979)
Dalos, Anna: Folklorisztikus nemzeti klasszicizmus. Egy fogalom elméleti forrásairól. Magyar zene XL/2 (2002. május): 191–199.
Dalos, Anna: „It is not Kodály-school, but Hungarian.” About the Concept of the Kodály-School. The Hungarian Quarterly 48/186(2007 Summer): 146–159.  
Durkó Zsolt. Ed. Gerencsér Rita. (Budapest, 2005)
Földes, Imre: Harmincasok. Beszélgetések magyar zeneszerzőkkel. (Budapest, 1969)
Kroó, György: A magyar zeneszerzés 30 éve. (Budapest, 1975)
Kurtág György. Ed. Varga Bálint András. (Budapest, 2009)
Ligeti György - Gesammelte Schriften. Ed. Monika Monika Lichtenfeld (Schott, 2007)
Hungarian Composers. Ed. Berlász Melinda. Lajos Bárdos, Attila Bozay, Boldizsár Csiky, János Decsényi, Ernő Dohnányi, Zsolt Durkó, Ferenc Farkas, Pál Járdányi, Zoltán Jeney, Pál Kadosa, György Kósa, György Kurtág, Rudolf Maros, József Sári, András Szőllősy, Erzsébet Szőnyi, László Vidovszky. (Budapest, 1998–2009)
Molnár, Antal: Az új magyar zene (Budapest,1926)
Molnár, Antal: A ma zenéje. (Budapest, 1937)
Molnár, Antal: Az új muzsika szelleme. (Budapest, 1947)
Roelcke, Eckhard: Träumen Sie in Farbe? György Ligeti im Gespräch (Vienna, 2005).
Szőllősy András. Ed. Kárpáti János. (Budapest, 2005)
Tallián, Tibor: Musik in Ungarn. Zeiten, Schicksale, Werke. (Budapest, 1999)
Tallián, Tibor: Weiner László. (Budapest, 1994)
Ujfalussy, József: „Ein Vorwort zum Zeitgenössischen ungarischen Musikschaffen.” Österreichische Musikzeitschrift XXI/11 (1966. november): 615–619.
Várnai, Péter: Beszélgetések Ligeti Györggyel. (Budapest, 1979)


Translated by Bernard Adams

This essay, which appeared in the book Music in Hungary. An Illustrated History (ed. János Kárpáti; Budapest: Rózsavölgyi, 2011.) is published with the permission of the Rózsavölgyi Publishing House.