The Hungarian Folk Song in the 18th Century*

By Domokos, Mária; Paksa, Katalin | Studia Musicologica, March 2008 | Go to article overview

The Hungarian Folk Song in the 18th Century*


Domokos, Mária, Paksa, Katalin, Studia Musicologica


Abstract: In Hungary, the concept of "folk song" was clarified at the beginning of the 20th century only, accordingly, there were no "folk songs" noted down in the 18th century. Still, the number of music sources relating to folk music increased significantly in the 18th century. As a result of their scientific analysis the melodic parallels of some five hundred 18th-century tunes were found in the central folk music collection of the Institute for Musicology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. These melodic parallels involve 153 folk song types. In a specific era of folk culture there is always a coexistence of elements and styles of different age. The sources also contain examples of the descending pentatonic styles (that either originates or developed from oriental roots), of the lament style and of the medieval and early modern tunes. Of particular interest are the songs that first appeared in the 17th century, then undergone significant changes in form and rich collection of variants developed around them. The most remarkable result of our research is that contrary to former beliefs regarding its insignificance, the 18th century enriched the Hungarian folk music with some sixty new melody types. One of the most interesting groups of this rather mixed collection of songs is that of the songs in a major key with a narrow compass that seems to be the most characteristic music of the time. Plagal songs in a major key with perceptive functional chords behind their melodies also entered Hungarian tradition at this time. Plagal tunes, unfamiliar to Hungarian folk music, were sometimes transformed into descending tunes. The antecedents of the new Hungarian folk song style hardly feature in these sources - this style probably developed in the late 19th century. However, among the popular art songs that flourished from the 1830s onwards we found about a dozen melody types with a partial or full similarity to 18th-century melodies.

Keywords: historical folk music research, comparative method of musicology, melodiáriums of college students, "verbunkos" music, popular art songs

The term "folk song" was the product of the 19th century, but the real meaning of the term was clarified even later, at the beginning of the 20th century. Thus it is obvious that no folk songs were written down in the 18th century. In the last third of the century, which is identified with the new epoch of the Enlightenment called "Sturm und Drang", folk poetry was discovered - first in German speaking regions - as a source for the revival of literature under the inspiration of Goethe's and Herder's writings. Influenced by the new theory, which spread also in Hungary, an advertisement was published in the Pozsonyi Magyar Hírmondó [Hungarian News of Pozsony (today Bratislava)] in 1782 to collect

old poems favoured by the common people, called Volkslieder [folk songs]? He who has eyes must see the treasures hidden even in the songs sung at the merry table by our dear folks relishing their mother tongue.1

At around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries the interest in the "folk song" began to arise among the most educated people. Benedek Virág, a poet and priest with a classical education wrote in a letter of 1802 to Kazinczy:2

Please, write down for me one or two verses of the songs of the kind which is sung by prankish lassies while spinning.3

Mihály Csokonai Vitéz4 warned his literary colleagues in the Appendix to the "Anacreontic Songs" in 1803:

You should not be satisfied with studying the foreign writers but go and find the simple native workers of your homeland in their woods or on their Scythian plains, and listen carefully to the singing of the village maid and the humble dosser-carrier ?5

His poems, stage plays, and the song inserts of the latter, clearly testify to Csokonai's familiarity with folk tradition. It is a great loss that his collection of several hundred songs has disappeared, his "Old and new Hungarian songs of the folks (Volkslieder), collected here and there from written or unwritten sources upon the inspiration of other refined nations, to save them - for posterity. …

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