Revisiting the Folk Music of Hungary by Zoltán Kodály

Penny Tan  | July 2020 | Hong Kong 


Hungarian folk music has been widely associated with gypsy music, and thus we know very little of its true origins. In the preface to Zoltán Kodály’s concise volume Folk Music of Hungary (published in 1960), the author readily asserts that the music performed by gypsy bands or heard in their arrangements was the source of the confusion with genuine Hungarian music. Brahms and Liszt, in their respective works, Hungarian Dances and Hungarian Rhapsodies, had also been led to mistake gypsy tunes for Hungarian folk melodies. However, it is understandably difficult to distinguish authentic Hungarian folk music from its many adaptations because it has received many influences and undergone developments of its own. Kodály supplies the reader with a detailed analysis of Hungarian music, tracing its history from the origins of the primitive folk song to its evolution into the new folk song, with explanations of the types of influences that have assimilated into Hungarian music.

The author

Kodály was a prominent figure in Hungarian music who had a great interest in the folk songs of his native country, Hungary, and collected them for publication with his close friend Béla Bartók. In 1906, Kodály wrote a thesis on Hungarian folk song titled Strophic Construction in Hungarian Folk Song after having visited remote villages in 1905 to collect folk songs by recording them using phonograph cylinders. As Hungarian folk music was often overshadowed by the more popular European music tradition, Kodály wanted to bring folk music into the limelight by incorporating folk melodies in some of his compositions.

Early collections of folk music

It was extremely difficult to trace the history of traditional Hungarian folk music as it had accompanied the life of the population for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. There had been little documentation of the music of the peasantry as most Hungarians were musically illiterate and songs had been passed from mouth to mouth. The very first folk song collections contained a mixture of the poetry of oral tradition and popular pieces by known writers, and a variety of music styles, such as old folk tunes, hymns, new art songs, and individual compositions, were recorded together without differentiation. There also seemed to be a barrier between the educated classes and the peasants, which rendered song-collecting a fruitless task. Where songs were recorded, texts were often noted down without the melodies, although collectors were aware that the two were inseparable components of folk song. It was not until 1924 that a more systematic collection was assembled in the form of Bartók’s publication Hungarian Folk Music, with some 300 tunes. Ten years later, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences brought together a complete compilation of folk tunes, which consists of four volumes: Gyermekjátékok (Children’s Games), 1951; Jeles napok (Feast Days), 1952; Lakodalom (Wedding Songs), 1955; and Párosítók (Pairing Songs), 1959. The whole publication was given the name Corpus Musicae Popularis Hungaricae.

Folk tradition

The folk tradition was represented by the masses, whose songs and poetry had been disregarded in favour of those of the middle classes. After the Turkish wars, there was a need for the Hungarians to rediscover their cultural identity, in which folk music and folk poetry played an important role. The folk tradition was constituted by a whole range of songs that belonged to different groups among the peasants, stratified by age, sex, social conditions, education level, religion and district. For instance, young people had their own songs that the older generation did not know, and similarly the old sang tunes that the young did not. Certain types of songs, such as those for mourning, called dirges, were sung by women only. Men had a smaller song repertory, though old men in Transylvania knew more songs and sang more. Children also had songs of their own, such as those that accompanied the games they played, which tended to be more rhythmic and derived from adult songs. The wealthy and the poor also distinguished themselves in their songs and would each have their own judgements about these songs.

Connections between neighbouring peoples

It can be seen that the development of Hungarian music was closely related to the language and the people, and similar characteristics could be found in the music of neighbouring peoples. The music of the Mari and the Chuvash peoples, who lived in the Volga region, showed elements that were common among the three groups. The use of the pentatonic system, which developed among Africans, Native Americans, Celts and the Chinese, was characteristic of Hungarian music, though some variations exist due to European influence. Traces of the heptatonic scales were detected in tunes where some individual notes of a tune may be sung a semitone higher or lower, but the melodic contour would remain clearly pentatonic. In Mari music, however, the pentatonic is the only tonal system used.

Another significant feature that correlates with the pentatonic scale is the repetition of the first half of a tune a fifth lower, called the fifth construction. This can be expressed as A5A5AA or A5B5AB (if the second part of the first phrase is different). In the second half of the tune, there may be extraneous notes that are not exact fifths of their corresponding notes in the first half because a new pentatonic scheme has been introduced. This occurs when the tonic note is used in the first phrase of the tune. Instead, often the lower note next to the note that would be the exact fifth would be adopted. There is a related type of fifth construction of a smaller scale in Mari songs, of only eight bars in length and spanning one octave. Its form is A5BAB, where the melody of the second line drops to the pitch of the final line.

In terms of verse-form, mediaeval hymn poetry and the Western AABAAB form have been assimilated into Hungarian tunes. The Western form may have an Eastern parallel found in some Mari and Chuvash songs. Most Hungarian tunes have a strict eleven syllables per line, whereas those in Mari and Chuvash melodies could range from six to fifteen. The eleven-syllabled lines of Hungarian tunes also have no difference in rhythm.

Relationship with gypsy music

The music of gypsies was primarily based on material found in Hungarian peasant music and played in a style that had nothing to do with traditional folksong. The gypsies played music written by Hungarian composers, which was popular art music, not the songs of the peasants. In his Hungarian Rhapsodies, Liszt incorporated such melodies played by gypsy bands, thinking that they were Hungarian folk tunes. The Hungarian dance csárdás was a major influence on the Rhapsodies, which are marked by a variation in tempo from lassú (slow) to friska (fast). In his works, Liszt also used the “gypsy scale”, which is the same as a harmonic minor scale but with a raised fourth. This scale, used in Hungarian popular music, has an Arabic origin and may have been brought into Hungary by the gypsies.

Brahms’s Hungarian Dances were also influenced by gypsy music, with Dance No. 5 out of the twenty-one perhaps being the most well-known. It was based on the csárdás by Hungarian composer Béla Kéler, and, like Liszt, Brahms had mistaken it for traditional folksong. Brahms had first written these dances for the piano but later expanded them as orchestral pieces. A chance meeting with the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi provided the inspiration for the composition of this set of dances. There was a dispute surrounding the history of Hungarian dance music with regard to whether it originated from the Romani people or the Hungarians. At the time the majority thought it came from the gypsies.

Influence from church music

Hungarian folk music also adopted elements of the Gregorian chant brought into Hungary through the practice of Christianity. In their own songs, the peasants modified tunes they heard from Gregorian psalms, which indicates that they had frequent opportunities to hear them. They sang hymns in their day-to-day activities, from working in the fields to staying in their homes and courtyards, whereas church music was confined to worship only for the educated classes. As church music had printed books with fixed texts, variants were confined to the tunes. Many hymns have melodies that are secular in origin.

There were instances where two versions of a text–sacred and secular–existed for the same tune. However, the peasants did not realise this and thought they were separate songs because of significant differences in tempo and rhythm. For example, a church hymn from 1647 has the same tune as a folk ballad called “Julis Benke”, with variants of both sacred and secular versions of the text. By the same token, the same text could be found with multiple tunes. A popular hymn, “Cur mundus militat”, with the text “Mit bízik a világ”, has three tunes. A folk ballad of German origin, “Biró Szép Anna”, can be heard in the first half of one of these three tunes. A melody set to the same text from a Transylvanian hymnbook also shares similarities. Finally, the funeral hymn “Harc ember élete” also uses this text.

Foreign hymns have also been assimilated into the secular folk song through their melodies, and Hungarian versions have been found. An example is a tune preserved in a thirteenth-century Spanish manuscript that had come into Hungary via the Czechs. This turned into a song that was sung in the spinning rooms of the Zobor region of Hungary. It could be concluded that Western European influences on Hungarian tunes came from contacts between hymns and the folk tradition.

The popular art song and the development of new folk music

As the original form of folk song, which was known almost exclusively to the older generation, gradually dissipated, a new form of modern folk music started to emerge. The tunes that were created greatly resembled one another, owing to their fixed style, though no two were completely identical. The most popular structure was the ABBA form, in which the pitch of B is a fifth higher than A, corresponding to the use of the fifth construction in old folk songs. The new folk songs contained lines of up to twenty-five syllables as a result of influence from the long and complicated style of the popular art songs.

The popular art song became prevalent in Hungary from the middle of the nineteenth century and was performed by gypsy bands and ballad singers. The Hungarian peasants heard these songs in popular theatres and adapted certain elements in their own songs. In terms of tonality, they transformed the minor idioms of arts songs, which reflected the hopeless resignation of the middle classes into Dorian, Aeolian or Mixolydian idioms. It must be pointed out, however, that the pentatonic system remained in use in the new songs. The use of exceptional intervals such as sevenths or diminished fifths in art music was resisted in folk music and the choice of intervals is affected by the pentatonic quality in Hungarian songs.

It is inevitable that the old song tradition would gradually diminish as time passed, but the art song quickened this process by introducing new trends. An example is the preference for the simplification of the melody, in which ornamentation such as the use of melisma is substantially reduced. Instead, the newer folk songs, as well as art songs themselves, became more syllabic, whereas in the middle of the nineteenth century melismatic writing had been a typical feature. This transformation led to a regression in vocal ability and decrease in melodic interest, which is something of a pity.


Although the folk music of Hungary has evolved substantially from its original form through various influences, it has maintained the essential qualities of its musical language, which are the use of the pentatonic scale and the transposition of the melody by a fifth. True understanding of folk music, even by Hungarians themselves, is still lacking because no existing record is able to provide an accurate representation of the songs of the peasants, since few literate people had the opportunity to hear them first hand. In the concluding chapter to his basic introduction to Hungarian folk music, Kodály was confident that before long the educated classes of Hungary would be able to restore the folk tradition from its artistic form of the time.