Bringing Hungarian Village Music to the World Stage
By Peter Anick
A Conversation with Members of the Budapest Folk Ensemble Orchestra
This interview appears courtesy of Fiddler Magazine, a quarterly publication
covering all aspects of fiddle music. Upcoming issues feature the Budapest
Ensemble (Summer 2000) and Gypsy fiddling (Fall 2000). For more
information, contact P.O. Box 101, North Sydney, N.S.,
Canada B2A 3M1; phone: (902) 794-2558; email:
firstname.lastname@example.org; web: http://www.fiddle.com.
Contributor Peter Anick is co-author of Mel Bay's "Old Time Fiddling Across
America" and performs with the Massachusetts-based bands WayStation
and Acoustic Planet.
Just as the American folk music revival of the
1960’s renewed urban Americans’ interest in their country’s folk
heritage, the Hungarian "dance house" movement of the 1970’s
reacquainted urban Hungarians with the traditional music and dances
of the Hungarian villages. Through instruction at dance houses and
music camps, a new generation of Hungarians has learned to dance the
csárdás, the spirited couple dance which was at the height of
fashion some two hundred years ago. To provide authentic live music
for the dance houses, many urban musicians have learned to play the
traditional string music that accompanies the romantic and fiery
dances. The Budapest Ensemble, under the leadership of artistic
director Zoltán Zsuráfszki, has now brought the dance house to the
stage with its production of "Csárdás! The Tango of the East".
Remaining true to folk traditions, the production presents a
dazzling selection of music and dance from Central Europe through a
series of play-party games that relate a story. There’s a men’s
dance competition, a romantic courtship duet, a quest through the
Carpathian Basin for the abducted bride, a wedding - all accompanied
by some of the wildest fiddling that has ever been heard outside
Hungary. The "village orchestra" in the production features two
violins, a viola, cymbalom (dulcimer) and double bass, along with an
occasional clarinet, bagpipes, jaw harp, drum, and an odd
cello-shaped stringed instrument beat with a stick!
I caught this Hungarian "Riverdance" when their
world tour came to Boston’s Symphony Hall. After the show, I chatted
with members of the orchestra about Hungarian folk fiddle styles,
the dance houses, and village traditions. The conversation included
first violinist István Papp Gázsa, second violinist Álmos Gáspár,
violist Péter Árendás and company manager Gusztáv Takách. Péter and
Gusztáv kindly took on the role of translators.
Péter: We play traditional Hungarian folk music. So
the main goal is to play as traditional as possible. We learned this
style of music in the villages with all the Gypsy musicians that
live in the villages in Hungary. By "Hungary", we mean the Hungary
as it was before the First World War. It was larger then, and many
Hungarian people live outside today’s Hungary. This includes
Slovakia and Transylvania. For example, Gázsa and Álmos, they are
from Transylvania. So if we wanted to learn this music, we had to
find people in villages not only in Hungary but all around Hungary.
In Transylvania, the tradition has survived up till now. If tomorrow
you would go to Transylvania, you would find old musicians, old
fiddle players, old viola players or double bass players who learned
this music not from notes, but from his father, from his grandfather
and his great grandfather, and so on. We want to try to get this
style of music. In this style, the violin players play the melody.
They are improvising, meaning that we learn many many melodies and
now we use them. For example, "Csárdás! The Tango of the East" was a
program of fixed melodies, but if we played elsewhere, he (the first
violin player) would improvise one melody after another, as he
wanted. He is the boss of the group.
The viola playing is a different style than in
classical music. I use only three strings, and the three strings are
in one level (i.e., the bridge is flat). This is why I can play
chords. I play only chords and keep rhythm with my instrument. I
don’t play melody. There are many different styles among west, east
or middle Hungary. There are parts of Transylvania, for example,
where they only use major chords and that’s a very old style. Other
parts use major chords, minor chords, seventh chords.
Do you play all three strings at the same time?
Yes. Or if I play the other viola, the four string
viola, I play either two or three strings together.
Is the bridge flat on that one too?
Not as much. It’s less curved than in classical
What are the notes of the strings?
The four-string viola is the same as in classical
music. So the deepest is C, then D and G and A. The three-string
viola, I miss the C. So I have only G, D and A, and the A is an
octave lower. I play chords and give the rhythm, together with the
Now we are going to place a piece from middle
Transylvania. It’s a very old style. In the village, the music goes
with the dance. So the musicians play, and mostly they start with
some slow music and after, faster and faster. There are couple
dances for a man and a woman, a boy and a girl, but there are other
dances for only the men. There is a suite of dances, most of the
Who decides when to change the speed of the
The violin player, or the dancers. Somebody comes
and says, "I want to do it faster!" And he gives the rhythm, just
like in the show. There is constant communication between dancers
and the violinist.
Each village has its own dance habits, but mostly
it begins with a slow part and it goes ever faster.
Would every village have its own tunes?
Yes. And sometimes they have the same melodies in
the same region, but every village has its own version. Different
ways of ornamenting.
(Gázsa and Péter play a suite of dance tunes from
the middle Transylvanian village of Magyarszovát.)
That can last for hours. The people in the village
want to dance. The music starts, a very slow dance, it lasts a
quarter hour. They are singing. Everybody dances a slow dance. After
a little, faster music, they start dancing faster and faster. It
lasts one hour, one and a half hours.
For one dance?
Yes. They call it a couple dance. It’s always the
same couple that dances together in this suite. They don’t switch
partners. It’s not like the Turks or Romanians or Bulgarians. They
dance in circles or in lines. The Hungarians dance in couples. Or
the men alone.
It lasts one hour. After a little break, some men’s
dance. They dance alone, to show off. Then another couple dance, and
so on. A wedding lasts two days, without sleeping for the musicians.
Non-stop music. The dancers can drink and sleep, no problem. The
musicians don’t stop.
Can you play in your sleep?
Yes! (laughter) And the musicians in the villages,
or, for example, us, we learned many hundreds of melodies and we use
these melodies. What we just played now, I didn’t know what he (the
violinist) will play. He started, I listened to him. We’ve played
for many years together, so just one or two notes is enough for me
to know what he is playing. That was an old style from Transylvania,
and we will now play another style from Hungary, a new style.
Gusztáv: Now he is going to play on the four-string
viola and you’ll see the difference in accompaniment.
Now would that first tune be considered a csárdás
It was a slow csárdás. A csárda is an
inn, a village inn. And every dance which they danced in the inn was
called a csárdás, a pub dance. There are thousands of
Péter: Okay, now we’ll play another style. It’s not
so old. It’s from the eighteenth century. The other one was much
older, the melody and style of playing. This one’s from the
northeast part of Hungary, called Szatmár.
Gusztáv: This part was not so isolated during the
history. It was much more open, open to influences. The bands played
not only for the peasants but also for nobles. There were more
influences, not only from geography but also social.
Would the influences come from classical music?
Yes. From the cities. The villages were so isolated
even thirty years ago. There was no radio, television, no influence
from outside. That’s why it could survive so long. No electricity.
Did people refer to the songs by name?
Most of them have texts, lyrics. The band would
begin to play and most of the people would sing. It’s very
complicated. We have the rhythm of each song, we have six syllables
or seven or nine, and we have a family of lyrics. And whichever
matches with the number of syllables, you can use it and sing to
So you can sing the same words to different
You can improvise, again, with the lyrics. Most of
the people in the village know many many lyrics. Most of them have
stories, like a ballad. Most of them are love songs, they can sing
about soldier’s lives, recruiting songs, a variety of lyrics.
Songs for recruiting for the army?
Yes, two hundred years ago it was a new policy to
recruit soldiers for the Austria-Hungarian army. This was by playing
music and drinking wine. The recruiting official came with a band of
musicians and that was the way they recruited the peasants into the
army. It was a big deal because once they agreed, they went into the
army for three, or ten, or twenty years.
(Gázsa and Péter, now joined by Álmos on second
violin, play a slow and fast csárdás from the Szatmár region of
This is a "new" style csárdás. New style means two
hundred years old!
So it is harmonically more complex. And the second
violin is playing a counterpoint?
Álmos: We are playing in thirds, but not always.
When I want to play, when it’s most beautiful.
Do you improvise your accompaniment or do you have
it worked out?
Gusztáv: He improvises. Gázsa is the leading
violinist and he invents, just as he is playing. So this is always a
creative work. They can also switch and then he (Álmos) leads.
Do you improvise during the show?
Péter: In the show, the roles are fixed. But for
weddings, and dance houses… Do you know about dance houses?
Please talk a little about dance houses.
Many people come together and enjoy dance houses,
but not for pop music, for folk music. They know the Hungarian folk
dances and musicians know Hungarian folk music and we enjoy it
together. And, for example, some dancers come and say, "Oh please
now play for us some Transylvanian music." So they call out some
region, western part of Hungary or east part. And now we start and
play for an hour and they dance.
Gusztáv: The musicians are prepared for these
different kinds of requests. So if they are asked to play
Transylvanian music from middle Transylvania, they play this kind of
music. But if they are asked to play Gyimes, this requires the "hit
gardon". (The hit gardon is a cello-shaped percussion instrument
with two thick strings that are beat with a stick, and a thin string
which is plucked.) They have this instrument there and for this
particular dance, they use this instrument. Or the bagpipe for
western Hungary. The most popular band is the strings - the violin,
viola, and double bass. You can find it almost all around Hungary.
But there are special instruments in special parts. For the very
east part of Hungary, the Gyimes, they know only the violin and the
"hit gardon". The north part is the bagpipe, or the west part. Those
parts where the people are very poor, they have no money to pay
three, four, five musicians. If they have less money, they only have
one bagpiper. That was enough. Other parts, where the people were
not so poor, they can pay five musicians - two violin players,
viola, cymbalom, and double bass. So it depends on the money.
Were any of the tunes you played in the concert
tonight composed pieces, where the composer is known?
What is the relationship between city music, like
the "Csardas of Monte", and the music that you played?
Gusztáv: Nobody knows who invented it, so it goes
back hundreds of years. This is the definition of folk music in
Hungary - you don’t know the composer. This is why you find one
variation in one region and another in another region. They don’t
learn it from notes. It goes from one violin to the other. With
Monte and Brahms, it is composed music. Monte was an Italian, Brahms
a German. They must have heard it somewhere in a village and they
composed it for themselves. The urban Gypsies mostly play composed
music. They don’t even know this kind of music. As we told you
before, in folk music you can switch the lyrics from one song to
another, but in composed music it doesn’t work. Once you have
composed music, this is the lyrics.
Péter: In traditional Hungarian folk songs, the
texts are like very beautiful poems.
Can you talk about the different kinds of
ornamentation that you use?
(Gázsa demonstrates by playing a highly ornamented
version of a slow dance from Szék, in the Transylvanian Heath. Many
notes are decorated with a tight trill. Open strings are
occasionally bowed along with a grace note on the string below,
fingered so as to produce a note roughly a half step below the open
string. Gázsa then plays the same melody as it might be heard in
Szatmár. This time, there are no trills. Instead, glissando,
typically in the form of downward slides, is liberally applied to
the longer melody notes.)
Were most of these tunes played by Gypsies in these
Gusztáv: In ninety percent of the cases, yes. There
are peasant musicians as well, although dominantly it is in Gypsy
hands. They are fun-loving people and they didn’t like to work. It
was easier to earn their living playing music at the weddings and
such. The village inhabitant, he had to go to work in the fields. He
didn’t have time for playing music and having fun in this way. The
Gypsy had time.
So the Gypsy learned the music of the peasant.
Yes. But they played traditional, authentic
Hungarian folk music. There is a great difference between village
Gypsy and urban Gypsy. The urban Gypsy dresses in red, very sharp.
The village Gypsy, it’s very simple.
Péter: Like us in the program. Our clothes are very
simple clothes, like village Gypsies.
Do the villagers and Gypsies have a good
Yes, they are on good terms. This is the village
Gypsies’ main job, so it means they have to know everything about
the music and about the people in the village. The Gypsy musicians
must know what that person’s favorite melody is, and if he comes to
dance, they play his favorite melody.
Now we are working with a big program called "The
Final Hour". We continuously call these musicians and bands to
Budapest and make recordings. For three years, we have recorded more
than sixty different groups. It means that in 1999, there are
village bands, old musicians that cannot read or write the
Are they passing it down to their children?
Some of them, yes, but mostly it’s the final hour.
Did you yourselves have parents who played?
No. We learned it from the Gypsies in the villages.
I met this music when I was fifteen. In the dance houses, I met
other urban musicians. I loved it, and afterwards I went to the
villages and I learned this music.
Gusztáv: This is a revival.
Are the people in the villages surprised to find
people from the cities interested in their music?
In the beginning, yes they were. Now they are used
to it, depending upon which region you are in. Sometimes there are
funny stories. He went to the northeastern part of Hungary, and he
asked some villagers, "Where are the Gypsy musicians?" And they
laughed at him. "You are looking for the Gypsies? What for? You are
coming from Budapest to us!?" They were surprised. They didn’t know
what it was about these Gypsies.
And what kind of music do the Gypsies play for
They don’t play it on these instruments. They are
singing, snapping their fingers, keeping rhythm with two spoons,
percussion, like castanets.
But they don’t play the fiddle?
Not for themselves. There was a Gypsy tune in the
show, but this was transposed for this show onto the violin. They
usually would sing it, snap their fingers, and the guys would
vocalize "di, dah, hoh, hey, hoh, chee …." - traditional Gypsy folk
music. So, there are three different things. This was traditional
Gypsy folk music in villages where mostly Gypsy people live. Others
in the city play Gypsy music, but that’s not folk music. They play
it in the cafes and the restaurants. And the third, what we play, is
the traditional Hungarian folk music, which is for Hungarian people
and is played by the Gypsies in the villages, but it is not Gypsy
music (laughter)! It’s very complicated. Now we’re completely
confused and we can have some beer.
Fiddler Magazine wishes to thank Jessica Norris at
World Music and Kálmán Magyar of Centrum Management for their
assistance in arranging this interview. For more information on the
Budapest Ensemble and other Hungarian musical events, contact the
American Hungarian Folklore Centrum at PO Box 262 Bogota, NJ 07603,
tel: 201-836-4869, email: email@example.com, web: http://www.magyar.org. For information on
other world string music coming to the Boston area, contact World
Music at 720 Mass. Ave. Cambridge, MA 02139, tel: 617-876-4275, web: