2 October 2011

The History of the Gipsy Band 1904-1944

The gypsy bands with which we are familiar today began to form in the decades around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Their evolution and transformation have been steady ever since, a process without breaks or milestones. The turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, offers a convenient point of orientation. I begin here with the year 1904 and end with 1944, in other words with the end of World War II, a year which obviously represented a significant moment in the history of the gypsy ensemble. From this point on the displacing force of new trends, such as jazz and the increasing presence of the folk music movement from the 1930s, as well as contemporaneous politics, more specifically the cultural policies of the regime, made it evident that the gypsy music, as distinct from authenic Roma music, would cease to have the role it had previously played.

In the life of gypsy music and gypsy musicians, much as in the life of society as a whole, signs of changes between the last decades of the 19th century and World War I were barely noticeable. Until the war, diversions and entertainment that involved gypsy music were pervaded with the spirit of the so-called “happy times of peace” (a term used in Hungarian history to refer to the relatively prosperous period between the Compromise of 1867 and the outbreak of war in 1914). This spirit was rarely criticized, but there were some voices of dissent. For example, Marián Réthei Prikkel, a linguist and ethnographer traced the origins of the idea of „making merry in tears”, which he criticized ferociously and dismissed as laughable. He was referring to occasions when the gypsy musicians, in response to a beckon on the part of the people (he referred to them as “victims”) gathered to feast or celebrate, would draw closer to the table, feign an expression of sorrow and gloom, and begin playing a maudlin tune (he coined the term “búzöngemény,” which one could translate as “sorrowful twanging”), such as Eltörött a hegedûm (My Violin is Broken) or Lehullott a rezgõ nyárfa ezüst színû levele (The Silver Coloured Leaves of the Shaking Poplar Have Fallen). A similar writing by Sándor Hevesi, the famous theatre director, an article rich in content, is more than mere mocking dismissal. It constitutes a portrayal of the place of gypsy music in Hungarian culture that remains accurate to this day. Zoltán Kodály, later to become one of the most influential Hungarian composers of the 20th century and a prominent figure in the research of Hungarian folk music, was twenty-three at the time the article was published, and Béla Bartók, who was to rise to similar if not even greater prominence, was twenty-four, and both were still unknown. Decades later, at the height of their careers, their remarks on this subject essentially harmonized with the views of Hevesi. One can therefore consider Hevesi’s assessment as a kind of principal thread of a survey of the accounts of the activities of gypsy musicians and gypsy music that appeared in the press over the course of roughly forty years, from the beginning of the 20th century to the outbreak of World War II.

The gypsy bands with which we are familiar today began to form in the decades around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Their evolution and transformation have been steady ever since, a process without breaks or milestones. The turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, offers a convenient point of orientation. I begin here with the year 1904 and end with 1944, in other words with the end of World War II, a year which obviously represented a significant moment in the history of the gypsy ensemble. From this point on the displacing force of new trends, such as jazz and the increasing presence of the folk music movement from the 1930s, as well as contemporaneous politics, more specifically the cultural policies of the regime, made it evident that the gypsy music, as distinct from authenic Roma music, would cease to have the role it had previously played.

In the life of gypsy music and gypsy musicians, much as in the life of society as a whole, signs of changes between the last decades of the 19th century and World War I were barely noticeable. Until the war, diversions and entertainment that involved gypsy music were pervaded with the spirit of the so-called “happy times of peace” (a term used in Hungarian history to refer to the relatively prosperous period between the Compromise of 1867 and the outbreak of war in 1914). This spirit was rarely criticized, but there were some voices of dissent. For example, Marián Réthei Prikkel, a linguist and ethnographer traced the origins of the idea of „making merry in tears”, which he criticized ferociously and dismissed as laughable. He was referring to occasions when the gypsy musicians, in response to a beckon on the part of the people (he referred to them as “victims”) gathered to feast or celebrate, would draw closer to the table, feign an expression of sorrow and gloom, and begin playing a maudlin tune (he coined the term “búzöngemény,” which one could translate as “sorrowful twanging”), such as Eltörött a hegedûm (My Violin is Broken) or Lehullott a rezgõ nyárfa ezüst színû levele (The Silver Coloured Leaves of the Shaking Poplar Have Fallen). A similar writing by Sándor Hevesi, the famous theatre director, an article rich in content, is more than mere mocking dismissal. It constitutes a portrayal of the place of gypsy music in Hungarian culture that remains accurate to this day. Zoltán Kodály, later to become one of the most influential Hungarian composers of the 20th century and a prominent figure in the research of Hungarian folk music, was twenty-three at the time the article was published, and Béla Bartók, who was to rise to similar if not even greater prominence, was twenty-four, and both were still unknown. Decades later, at the height of their careers, their remarks on this subject essentially harmonized with the views of Hevesi. One can therefore consider Hevesi’s assessment as a kind of principal thread of a survey of the accounts of the activities of gypsy musicians and gypsy music that appeared in the press over the course of roughly forty years, from the beginning of the 20th century to the outbreak of World War II.

The meaning of “gypsy music” is often unclear to Hungarians and non-Hungarians alike. Hevesi makes a contention that may be useful in order to clarify the concept, at least as it has been understood: “As the Gypsy, despite all his musical talent, is only capable of reproducing, he was unable to develop further the music he had received from the Hungarians.” One could perhaps rephrase this statement in order to avoid the shades of deterministic thinking and simply observe that it was not the role of gypsy bands to offer innovation. But furt hermore, a musician can only “reproduce” songs, verses, and dramatic works well, in other words perform well, if he or she is creative. The perfect performer must have talents similar to the composer in order to recreate the work according to his or her intentions. In this sense the best gypsy musicians are creative talents, and there are no more talented gypsy musicians than there are Roma artists in other branches of the creative arts. Why, then, have Hungarian gypsy musicians been more successful than other musicians? The answer lies not (simply) in their creative power, but also in their ability to adapt to the tastes of their audiences. There is much truth in the contention made by Kálmán Csathó, according to which “the gypsy ensemble is only an instrument, the real artist of which is the revelling Hungarian gentleman, who is able to direct it”.

With the same amount of ambition as a multitude of Hungarian composers of music in the csárdás style and the so-called nóta (19th century popular song), many gypsy musicians were able to achieve the status of significant composers on the basis of a handful of successful compositions, but following the death of famous gypsy violinist and composer János Bihari in 1827 only Pista Dankó, who died on the eve of the 20th century, was able to compose works that can be considered timeless. Of his more than five hundred melodies, roughly eighteen or twenty became popular and enduring. This ratio, as disproportional as it may seem, was in fact not worse than that of the famous Hungarian Nóta-composers – as Simonffy, Szentirmay, Dóczy, Loránd Fráter, Árpád Balázs... Few people would be familiar today with the two melodies of the gypsy band leader Sándor Bunkó (from the city of Szatmárnémeti, today Satu Mare in Romania), which at one time were “available at all booksellers” for three crowns, or the book of melodies by gypsy band leader Sándor Borbély, which at one time “could be found on the piano in the house of more than one gentleman”. Not to mention the thousands of nóta and csárdás that were attentively evoked by their composers, who would then proudly mention them when the opportunity arose without, still, ever managing to convince the public to accept them, even for a short time. The creation of a multitude of original but for the most part worthless compositions was the task not only of band leaders, but also of average musicians as well. It also became fashionable for gypsy musicians hoping to win recognition to send gentlemen or foreigners of high rank a work composed as an expression of respect or esteem on the occasion of a celebration or festivity. József Bura, an elderly band leader from the city of Nagyvárad (today Oradea in Romania), sent Archduke Francis Ferdinand “something pretty”. But instead of the acknowledgment he hoped to receive (in the form of banknotes, diamond cuff-links, etc.), he was only sent a thank-you note written in German. The double-bass player Sándor Bokor from Arad had even less good fortune when he composed a march for the German Emperor William II. News of his intention spread, but the composition was blocked by the German consul-general, who returned it to him. The Coronation Remembrance March written by Károly Bura (a famous band leader from Nagyvárad who later settled in Budapest) for Charles IV on the occasion of his coronation was at least “graciously accepted” by the monarch. The band leader Jenõ Geszti of Miskolc, who in 1939 was selling tobacco as a disabled soldier, honoured three famous men with individual works. For the violinist Jenõ Hubay he wrote the Geszti Lament, for the regent Miklós Horthy the serenade entitled Waves, and for Mussolini the Benito Waltz. The contemporary press, however, makes no mention of the reactions of the men for whom these works were composed. The elderly, disabled band leader, however, probably did not find his true happiness in composition, as a remark he made to a journalist suggests. “Were I to begin again from the beginning”, he commented, “I would again be a band leader”. For there is no sentiment more lofty and sacred than to stand with a violin tucked under one’s chin in front of a band of sixteen members and, looking into the eyes of a beautiful woman, play a Hungarian nóta coming from the Hungarian soul for her.”

This notion of music “from the Hungarian soul” is one that has been and continues to be cherished by every Hungarian gypsy musician. It refers not simply to the Hungarian nóta (melody) – both instrumental and vocal – but gypsy music on the whole. Concerning the essence of this music, Hevesi writes, “Gypsies have assimilated everywhere, and Hungarian Gypsies play Hungarian music, or to be more precise music that, though it developed through foreign influences and borrowings, can however definitely be labelled as Hungarian”. The formative power of influences and borrowings from foreign music reached unwritten Hungarian instrumental music when, in the decades around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, it had to be reformed with the participation and support of higher layers of society so that it would be suitable for European tastes of the time. This was a time in which the Hungarian national movement was gathering strength. In music it is referred to as the so-called verbunkos period. There was a rapidly increasing number of gypsy ensembles that were able to fulfil the basic requirements of instrumentation and modern style harmonization and greatly expand the traditional repertoire with new Hungarian dances – the composed works that today we would most likely refer to as “verbunkos” music. Verbunkos music is a direct predecessor and close relative of the Hungarian nóta. The close relationship between the two is also manifest in the fact that in many cases texts were paired with a verbunkos or a csárdás melody, thus transforming music and text into song – nóta (which originally referred to instrumental music, not songs).

If one traces the evolution of the Hungarian nóta one can clearly see that the so-called “gypsy music” played by Hungarian gypsy musicians is perhaps the least “gypsy” of all the music that is played around the globe by gypsy ensembles.

In other words, it has essentially nothing to do with the music of the gypsy communities before they came into contact with these styles, neither in its origins nor in its development. The entertaining Hungarian music that is referred to as gypsy music around the world is a product and part of Hungarian culture of the past two centuries. We must also understand the meaning of the expression “magyarnóta” (written as one), lest anyone think that in the compound word the adjective “magyar” (“Hungarian”) implies that the “nóta” is more Hungarian than the Hungarian folksong. At the beginning of the 19th century Hungarian dances, published also in scores were called Hungarian nóta, differentiating them from foreign dance pieces, which were in fashion among the Hungarian gentry at the time. For similar reasons, the nóta, which the gentry and the bourgeoisie saw as ther own folk songs, were referred to as “national songs”, for these songs expressed national affiliation, in contrast with songs pervaded by a foreign (Biedermeier) spirit, which were also popular among members of these two social strata, particularly around the beginning of the century.

In light of all this, it is quite understandable why virtually all of Hungarian society felt a greater attachment to gypsy music than to any other kind of music, even during the traumatic decades of the interwar period, regarding it as Hungarian national music. In addition, in its own distinct way it has always been capable of expressing everything that Hungarians have sought to express in song. One is then compelled to ask, how is it that in spite of this gypsy music became a symbol of backwardness, its undeniable magic and international popularity notwithstanding? The answer may well be simply that for too long it was mistaken by too many people for the sole form of Hungarian musical culture. Hevesi commented on this: “the Hungarian public must at long last be liberated from the gypsy spell, it should continue to honour and esteem the gypsy, enjoy his music at the tableside, but no longer should see in him the sole and exclusive musician”. Naturally one can hardly blame the gypsy musicians for the fact that the charm of their music has been enduring. The very task of the gypsy musician has been to hold audiences captive with the allure of their music and to express with the help of violin something that cannot be put in words. gypsy musicians attentively saw to this task throughout the 20th century. In a traditional village – in the first half of the 20th century there were still great many such settlements – gypsy musicians were needed only for dance. In contrast to peasant musicians, who played bagpipes, hurdy-gurdies, clarinets, zithers, and other such instruments and who could hardly be considered professional musicians, the gypsy musician was a kind of specialist with professional ambitions, who knew the dance customs of the village and without fail was able to provide the appropriate music. The press, however, did not concern itself with gypsy musicians who played peasant instrumental music. What they played (and continue to play today in some places in Transylvania) was folk music, which for the Hungarian and international audience simply did not qualify as “gypsy” music.

The “folk music” of the gentry, the bourgeoisie, and city dwellers, as it was played by gypsy musicians, is by and large identical everywhere. The majority of gypsy musicians in principle play the same repertoire in the same style. A properly trained gypsy musician could join local gypsy musicians anywhere in the country and play his or her part in the ensemble as if it were a matter of routine, the band leader playing whatever repertoire has been requested and the violist, cimbalom player and bass-player providing the respective accompaniment. The difference lies in the individual talents and preparedness of the musicians, as well as in the desires of the audience and their preferences with regards to the different parts of the always-at-hand repertoire.

The vast majority of ensembles and audiences were satisfied with gypsy music in the strict sense – the nóta and the csárdás. A more demanding audience accustomed to a very good gypsy ensemble might request the better known, more popular compositions from the music literature and international dance music.

In the press one finds frequent mention of the treasures of Hungarian nóta known to and played by gypsy musicians. The majority of the most popular nóta are from before World War I and were written by known and anonymous composers of the 19th century. Mention of the composer is generally omitted, for the nóta spread like folk songs, without being written down, and neither the audience nor the musicians make note of the composer. Works that were part of a larger series of compositions were exceptional in this regard, as were works by composers, either living or having recently passed away, who had risen to unusual fame, composers such as Pista Dankó, József Dóczy, Loránd Fráter, and Árpád Balázs. Among the frequently mentioned nóta, Lehullott a rezgõ nyárfa ezüst színû levele by Pali Rácz the Elder was particularly popular. It became the virtually obligatory nóta for the funeral of a gypsy musician, but because of its weepy, sentimental text it is also often played as an expression of the sorrows of unrequited love. (Often it is the text of a nóta that captures the imagination of the audience, yet usually only the composer of the melody is mentioned. This is particularly striking in the case of Lehullott a rezgõ nyárfa ezüst színû levele, the melody of which was originally composed as instrumental music, a “jurist csárdás” for a particular occasion, and only later was coupled with a text. The author of the text is most likely the playwright Sándor Lukácsy.) The claim was often made that, together with Képeddel alszom el, képeddel ébredek (I go to Sleep with the Image of your Face, I wake up with the Image of Your Face), this was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite song. Allegedly she even sang it herself. In any event the royal family was fond of gypsy music. Musicians who had the opportunity to entertain royalty on several occasions claimed that Francis Joseph liked Vékony deszkakerítés (Thin Lath Fence). One of Crown Prince Rudolph’s favourite nóta was Édesanyám is volt nékem (I had a Mother too). Nearly everyone in the period in question had a nóta, a personal message expressed with a nóta. Endre Ady, one of the most prominent Hungarian poets of the first half of the 20th century, was known to have several favourite nóta: Kilencet ütött az óra, este van (The Clock has Struck Nine, it is Evening), Lement a nap a maga járásán (The Sun has Descended on its Walk). Miklós Horthy also allegedly had a favourite nóta. In 1924, at the train station of Debrecen, Imre Magyari had played the nóta that begins Nem akar az ökörcsorda legelni (The Herd of Oxen Doesn’t want to Graze) for Horthy, and the Regent thanked him for not having forgotten “his old dear nóta”. Musicians had to know their frequent guests’ favourite nóta, especially when their guests were figures of renown. If they did not know but nevertheless guessed correctly, they were rewarded handsomely. Musicians often think back with pleasure on the times when the revelling gentleman would tear a thousand-note in half, stick one half of it to the band leader’s forehead, and give him the other half when, after having played many nóta, he hit upon the one the gentleman particularly wished to hear.

Before World War I an affluent gentleman not only had a favourite nóta, but often had a professional gypsy musician under his patronage. The Archduke Joseph himself had a gypsy musician named Marci Banda, for instance, and Lajos Pongrácz of Kolozsvár enjoyed the patronage of the Crown Prince Rudolph.

In the city of Szeged, Lajos Urbán, who played in the service of Count Ráday, later became famous as “Kukac” (Maggot), a nickname given him by the count. Imre Magyari was patronized by Count (and Prime Minister from 1903–1905 and 1913–1917) István Tisza. To serve a man of high rank was a form of rank in and of itself. The gypsy musician would happily profess to work in the service of a gentleman, even if he had only played for him once. From the end of the 19th century it was no longer shameful for a “gentleman” to take the band leader’s bow in his hand. Thus there were the so-called gentleman band leaders. Newspapers, however, make no mention of “gentlemanly” second violinists, bass-players or cimbalom players, not simply because this was not considered a rank (unlike the position of band leader), but also because in order to be able to play the accompaniment one also had to know how to harmonize. The choice to become a band leader instead of taking a post in the military or assuming a position in the civil service was not always motivated simply by the craving for a life of merrymaking and diversion. For example, Ernõ Kondor, a wealthy landowner who then became the owner of a cabaret, was forced by his increasingly dire financial circumstances to become a band leader. The hussar captain Loránd Fráter, who retired early, and the high ranking civil servant Árpád Balázs were lead by their ambitions as authors of nóta to lead one of the more renowned gypsy ensembles, not just as violinists but also as singers, for the most part performing their own songs.

As of the beginning of the 20th century the gypsy music “concert” also became increasingly fashionable. When a better gypsy ensemble left its city or village for the summer season and went abroad, or simply moved to another city within Hungary, it usually gave a “farewell concert”. Concerts became increasingly frequent, not simply on festive occasions, but as part of everyday life. The bulk of the programme of such concerts was the same music performed in the evenings in coffee houses and restaurants, but for the more demanding members of the audience fragments from operas and operettas “adapted” by so-called gypsy conductors for gypsy orchestras were also made part of the repertoire, as were other, more challenging compositions learned from scores. Naturally this involved the creation of more theatrical and arguably less subtle versions of some of the finest compositions of the European tradition, a development not necessarily to be applauded. According to Hevesi, “the more independent the gypsy musician became in the heart of Hungarian society, the more he widened his sphere of activity, and slowly he became the interpreter of foreign music in Hungary [...] it is certain, however, that the Hungarian gypsy playing the overture to Tannhäuser cannot be taken too seriously – and while it is undoubted that gypsy musical culture shows clear signs of advancement over the years, we can be absolutely certain that gypsy music will never reach the level of true culture music – if for no other reason because the coffeehouse or cabaret can never be a concert hall”.

From the articles that appeared in the newspapers at the time one has the impression that World War I, the tremendous suffering and devastation that it caused for gypsy musicians notwithstanding had little effect on the form and popularity of gypsy music. Musicians qualified to be soldiers were drafted and sent to the front just like other citizens. They too were among the injured, the disabled, the fallen, but there were many who were able to enjoy the advantages of their status as musicians even on the front, for soldiers, primarily officers, created opportunities for gypsy musicians to offer entertainment. They strove to make sure the musician would remain safe and sound, preferring to give them positions related to the provision of food or posting them to the regiment staff. When a high ranking visitor came to the front, the gypsy ensemble that enjoyed preferential treatment played music at the table during the lunch given in his honour. After successful military actions the troops and officers celebrated with the participation of gypsy musicians. Near the trenches one also found the violin of the gypsy musician, which served to offer consolation, a reminder of home, and pretext for tears. At the beginning of the war a resourceful gypsy musician, a prisoner of war in a hospital in Moscow, was even able to entice a fellow wounded foreign officer to pay him money for his violin playing. There were musicians who even sent home some of the money they made at the front. “Mysterious sources” even suggest that Jancsi Vajda, a gypsy musician from Szeged, was watched with fear by the enemy. “Beware of that flank”, the enemy generals allegedly exclaimed, “which includes Jancsi Vajda, because the greatest danger comes from there”. Gypsy musicians played for soldiers back home as well, for those leaving for the front, for those who had returned, and for those who lay wounded in military hospitals. In Nagyvárad and presumably in other cities as well gypsy musicians did their military service in uniform during the day and in the evening played music in formal wear in a restaurant, mostly for military officers indulging in a bit of revelry. Reports of the successes of gypsy musicians on the front frequently arrived with the request that they be prominently displayed in the newspapers. It is perhaps not surprising, however, that the playful, even humorous reports concerning gypsy musicians came only as long as the journalists and the readers felt confident of eventual victory. With this in mind it is easier to comprehend why there are no traces of the activities of gypsy musicians from the time of World War II. In the years immediately preceding the war and the years of the war itself journalists who wrote on gypsy-subject were concerned primarily with reminiscences and events having to do with the territories that had been reannexed, namely Northern Transylvania, territories in the Southern part of what is today Slovakia, and parts of the region known as Vajdaság or Voivodina (today belonging to Serbia).

As of the beginning of the 20th century there were always more gypsy musicians than could have been able to earn a livelihood through music making. During World War I the sense of high spirits that had pervaded the happy times of peace dwindled, and many gypsy bands, members of whom had gone to the front, were simply no longer able to function. Prohibitions against music making became common and many families of musicians were left without a breadwinner. But these sufferings came to seem insignificant in comparison with what the population, including gypsy musicians, had to endure following the war as a consequence of the pillaging of the country and the dramatic changes made to the borders in accordance with the Versailles-Trianon treaties, which left roughly one-half of the population outside of the country and ceded roughly two-thirds of its territory to the neighbouring countries. Even before World War I, there had been competition and strive among gypsy musicians sparked by the fear of losing their jobs. Locals drove out bands from other regions and musicians living in the same settlement would insult and challenge one another to a “bow duel”. Local musicians organized strikes, for instance in Temesvár (now Timiºoara in Romania) or Arad. They demanded that the money they were paid for performing not be collected by passing around a tray, but rather in accordance with contracts signed by restaurant and café owners. It was customary that the band leader would get twice as much of the money collected in a tray as the other musicians. A band consisting of seven players would therefore divide the money eight ways. But following the War, as the practice of using contracts became more widespread, this proportion changed to the disadvantage of the band members. The contracts were negotiated with the band leader, and as there were too many musicians, he could alter the members of his band to his liking, and it was also up to his discretion how much he paid individual members. The introduction of royalties for composers and authors in the interwar period placed additional burdens on the performers. In order to be able to play a more recently composed work that was subject to royalties, such as dance pieces or operetta fragments, the performers had to pay royalties, even if the composition was played only once. In 1921 of the 3,000 Gypsy musicians in Budapest, 2,000 were unemployed. Gypsy musicians found it both difficult and not always alluring to find other forms of employment and therefore often suffered penury. The National Association of Hungarian Folk Musicians (which ceased to exist in 1918) and its successor, the National Association of Hungarian Gypsy Musicians, were unable to do much to address the woes of most gypsy musicians.

Restaurant and café life essentially remained the same during the War years and afterwards. During the war the number of soldiers and officers among the customers increased. Among the latter there were often many Germans, for whom the musicians’ repertoire included more waltzes, and on occasion the Wacht am Rhein was even performed. A vivid description from the pen of a German war correspondent from Berlin offers a portrayal of the revellers in cafés and the behaviour of gypsy band leaders. The evening began as if the musicians were “harnessed nags”. The guests did not concern themselves with them, instead they spoke loudly so that they would be able to hear one another. The band leader appeared bored. When he was offered some wine, he disdainfully approached the table. One of the gentlemen of the village who had been drinking champagne called to him. “He approach[ed] his victim in a swaying and sidling manner… the nóta burst forth”, and the merrymaking in tears began.

Complaints were often made about the rapidly spreading new fashion, international dance music – or what is collectively referred to as jazz. And alongside this formidable foe, gypsy music had other rivals as well, such as the increasing number of amateur ensembles, the gramophone (which offered a substitute for live music), and the radio (which after 1925 rapidly improved and became increasingly popular), though for a long time gypsy music was the most popular part of the radio programs. As a survey done in 1941–43 reveals, the majority of radio listeners (77.6 per cent) voted for gypsy music. At the beginning primarily performances by some of the better gypsy bands in restaurants were broadcast without any kind of editing, but in March of 1934, after long procrastination, the musicians finally agreed to play an edited programme the quality of which was to be monitored.

As in earlier times, the lives and fates of gypsy musicians were the subject of particularly keen interest, for they were seen by the great majority of Hungarians as the caretakers and cultivators of Hungarian music. People wanted them to remain visible and wanted to know about the events of their daily lives, including their performances, their comings and goings, their rivalries, their financial distresses, their illnesses, their deaths, and even their burials. Newspaper articles evince a mixture of compassion, recognition, sensationalism, naïve admiration, and on occasion no small measure of malice. During their travels abroad – in Europe, America, even in Asia and Africa – they met with reigning princes, and they brought back treasures from the fairy-tale distant lands only rarely seen by the common man, including not only wealth and jewels, but also stories. The more incredible the story was the more enthusiastic the newspapers back in Hungary were to publish it, and the Hungarian public had reason to be proud of the gypsy musicians’ international fame. The accounts make mention of royal feasts, in which the seating arrangement was deserving of the ensemble’s great reputation: “one gypsy, one king”. Real life stories of famous love affairs and marriages added to the plausibility of these brilliant tales, tales of affairs between a gypsy band leader and a duchess, a countess, a baroness or a wealthy girl of the bourgeoisie. And the stories involved not only women from other parts of the world, but also Hungarian women, such as a Countess of the illustrious Festetich family who married a gypsy musician named Rudi Nyári. Rudi’s brother József Nyári, also a gypsy band leader, also married a countess, though not a Hungarian but a Polish one. Women of rank abroad were less prejudiced against gypsy than women in Hungary, and they surrendered with greater ease to the entreatings of a dashing gypsy band leader “artist” in his hussar outfit. One young gypsy musician of Budapest offered a succinct explanation when asked about the respect shown to gypsy musicians abroad: “here at home, it’s hey, Gypsy! Abroad it’s sir, artist.”

As early as 1905 Hevesi had recommended Hungarian culture rid itself of the tired romantic cult of the Gypsy: “Abroad the Gypsy is practically the embodiment of a Romanticism that still encircles us and from which it should be our primary duty to rid ourselves.” Opinion abroad did nothing other than interpret and expand in its own manner the romantic absurdities with which the history and activity of Hungarian gypsy musicians became encrusted over the course of the 19th century. Fervent commemorators who adorned our past with novelistic motifs placed real or fictional gypsy musicians in places in which there was never any trace of them having been according to authoritative historical documents. Prince Ferenc II Rákóczi and his generals never hired a single gypsy musician, yet either Panna Czinka (who died in 1772) or a fictitious older man named Czinka were alleged to have consoled and encouraged the Prince during his exile in Rodostó (today Tekirdag¡ in Turkey) by playing on the violin. In addition, Czinka (whether Panna or the old man) was claimed to have composed Rákóczi’s Lament and sent it home from Tekirdag¡. Of course it behoved Panna Czinka to compose musical pieces, but those have since been lost… The other gypsy musician who has grown into a mythical character is János Bihari. He in fact did write short verbunkos melodies, but the Rákóczi March ascribed to him is not among them! The repeated commemorations of the other famous gypsy musicians – Károly Boka, Pali Rácz, Pista Dankó – embellish rather than document the lives of the people in question.

In 1937 the anniversary of the appearance of the Roma (Gypsies) in Hungary was celebrated. In a news journal in Prague a series of articles was published on the history of gypsy musicians, and other papers also printed articles on this five-hundred year past. According to the press, gypsy musicians arrived together in masses with other gypsy so that there would be enough perhaps to form a gypsy band in King Matthias’ court to sing of the great military exploits of the king. Historians offer a slightly different account. The musicians did not come as an entourage of Roma (for they would not have made a living there as musicians), but rather turned up in Hungary scattered, two or three at a time earning a livelihood as wandering musicians, roughly simultaneously with their former masters, the Turks, who had now occupied the country. And their numbers remained small, hardly worth mention, until the 18th century.

According to a parody the gypsy band leader candidate for Parliament in 1910 performed his policy speech for the constituents of Nagyida on the violin. The citizens knew the texts of the melodies he played well and had no difficulty following the long speech, improvised on the basis of the texts signalled by the melodies. In other words, around 1910 people in Hungary knew a lot of songs, and the quantity of well-known songs did not decrease in the following decades either. In the first half of the 20th century an astounding number of tasteless, dreadfully flawed songs were written, and even if only a fraction of them ever came to light (and even if only for a short period of time), they were enough to justify dismissive views of nóta (even if one takes into consideration that they were composed by people of all ranks and stations, and not merely members of the gentry). For the most part these awful songs spread in an illegal manner, as indicated, for instance, by the title of a newspaper article: “They pull the band’s tooth for free – Hungarian nóta will regret it…”. The dilettante author, a dentist or member of some other profession, is ready to pay so that his bad song will have an audience. In the restaurant the band plays a lamentably bad song. A guest asks the band leader, “why are you playing such trash?” “There sits a tall, slender man. It is his melody.” “But if the song is bad?” “Yes, but he shaves three of the musicians for free every day if we play his song every evening.”

According to tradition only the audience has the right and privilege to sing. The musician needs not so much as know the text of the song, and indeed for the most part does not. He would stumble if he were to try to recall anything after the first line. He does not sing in front of or together with his audience, for he is allowed neither to sing nor for that matter to dance. A “singing gypsy” was looked down on by his peers. Yet the reveller who sings is beloved and envied by all. According to an anecdotic recollection during the period of elections a wealthy landowner of Bihar County heard a young man singing beautifully in the café and immediately made him district administrator.

In the first half of the 20th century neither nóta nor gypsy music in general was looked down on by writers and artists. The deserted old gypsy musician with his violin under his arm slid over next to the poet sitting among his friends at the tavern: “I have a song… I thought maybe you could make a text to go along with it, my dear Gyulus!” And immediately the text is written with a dedication. “Gyuluska” – major 20th century Hungarian poet Gyula Juhász – even dedicated the text to the then famous band leader of Szeged, Lajos Urbán. Ady was fond of gypsy music, and he was a frequent visitor to the Magyari house in Debrecen. He was friends with Pista Dankó and even wrote a poem about him. On 29 May, 1930 in FTC football stadium in Budapest an enormous concert was held in honour of Hungarian nóta, with the participation of 1,000 gypsy musicians who had to play precisely 101 nóta. The famous novelist Zsigmond Móricz, who went to the concert, held a bitter view of the experience: “Hey, Gypsy, dog Gypsy…, you played the country away!” Yet he also knew that for the lover of gypsy music a single gypsy musician playing literally into the ear of the person being entertained could express more than one thousand playing in concert. Kodály and Bartók were not enthusiasts of Hungarian nóta, yet neither were they oblivious of its value. Kodály studied Hungarian nóta extensively and knew it perhaps better than anyone else. He knew and even loved the best part of gypsy style music, as indeed some of his compositions indicate (the Galanta Dances, for instance, or the Kálló Double Dance). Bartók deliberately shunned gypsy music, but in his polemical essay Gypsy music, Hungarian music? he writes that this music is much more interesting than the mass of music imported from the West, and he expresses his wish that gypsy musicians would “maintain their place for a long time” against “foreign rabble music”.

On 17 March, 1942 an article was published in Somogy Newspaper with the provocative title, “The cannons of the war of independence of the Hungarian folksong have been fired”. The article recounts a lecture given at a course on Hungarian nóta. According to the author, “gypsy music was the music of the 19th century gentleman. That century has vanished, and with it gypsy music and the fake gypsy folk song will also disappear.” Sergio Failoni, Italian music director of the Budapest Opera House and enthusiast of Bartók and Kodály, made similar, poorly thought-through contentions at roughly the same time: “In Hungary, preconception confuses the caterwauling of gypsy music with genuine Hungarian folk music, thereby valuing the refuse of art over great masterpieces.”

Aladár Tóth, an esteemed music critic of the time, who was likewise a devotee and comrade of Bartók and Kodály, held an entirely different view concerning the value of gypsy music. He knew that gypsy music, like any other genre, must be judged on the basis of the performances of its finest representatives. On 23 February, 1930 in the daily Pesti Hírlap he recalled the performances of Béla Radics, a gypsy band leader whose playing embodied all the values of gypsy music: “he knew the nóta of the taverns reeking of wine, he knew the music that was appropriate for champagne restaurants… For the elderly he played like an old man, for the young, like a youth… he played for famous ‘professionals’: composers, violinists… He did not turn a deaf ear to foreign sounds: he played all of the golden age of the Viennese waltz, the quadrille or the polka, the Boston waltz, the syrupy French waltz… and lastly his bow, although with a kind of congenial reluctance, danced to jazz rhythms as well.” He made the insightful observation that “gypsy music was a “life-music”, a performing art the score of which cannot be written down and which thrived on serving the moment”. One could mention at least five or six other band leaders among Radics’ contemporaries who could also be considered the best. Imre Magyari, a gypsy musician who incidentally was highly regarded by Kodály, was unquestionably among them.

Thus there is a great deal to love and to preserve in gypsy music, which was created in Hungary and intended to speak both to the body and to the mind.

If it came to seem outdated, this is in part because even at the beginning of the 20th century it occupied the position in the hearts of the bourgeoisie that Western music should have occupied. “High music”, which more fortunate nations could develop locally, had to be transplanted to Hungary from foreign soil, at least until Bartók and Kodály began to discover the virtually untapped wealth of the musical traditions of the Hungarian peasantry. This was why in 1905 Sándor Hevesi, as part of his patrol “around Hungarian culture”, made a stop at the Music Academy, an institution that was “frequently reproached and denigrated and many times branded with the stamp of being unpatriotic”.

Of course the Academy represented an important contribution to musical culture and education in Hungary, its alleged “foreignness” or even “unpatriotic-ness” notwithstanding. It was in this institute that Bartók and Kodály studied in the early years of the 20th century. But it is perhaps worth noting, as expressive of the situation of formal music education in Hungary at the time, that their professor of composition, Hans Koessler, did not speak Hungarian.

Translation by Thomas Cooper




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