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Hungarian Gypsy Music: Whose Heritage?
Submitted by: News on 6th March, 2003 - 19:20 - #221

Bálint Sárosi, is the author of Gypsy Music, Corvina Press, 1978, and Folk Music: Hungarian Musical Idiom, Corvina Books, 1986 From the current Hungarian Quarterly Article.Two French authors have been making an attempt to pronounce judgement on an issue long since considered resolved and settled. Like Liszt almost a century and a half ago, they interpret literally the use of the term "Gypsy music" to describe folkbased Hungarian popular music, and regard the popular Hungarian musical idiom of the 19th and 20th centuries as the handi work of the Gypsies. Before taking a look at the two studies, let us first examine whether there are any aspects of 19th-century Hungarian popular music which might be classified as part of a specifically Gypsy tradition.

The Hungarian instrumental dance music of the early 19th century --so-called "verbunkos" music--along with Hungarian popular songs ("magyar nóta" in Hungarian) and the csárdás, are referred to even by Hungarians themselves using one word, cigányzene (Gypsy music), if a Gypsy band happens to be playing them. Anyone familiar with Hungarian culture will need no explanation of the components of this term. Cigányzene or cigány zene-- does it matter whether it is written as one word or as two? Translated into English or French, however, both of these variants can only be rendered in one way, using two words: "Gypsy music", or "musique tsigane".
In the last few decades we have come to know a great deal not
only about "cigány zene", but also about "cigány zene"--in other
words the Gypsies' own music--largely thanks to research done
in Hungary and to the efforts of Gypsy folk groups operating
in Hungary. Foreigners may perhaps wonder how it is possible
for one ethnic group simultaneously to have two such distinct musical traditions in a country as small as Hungary. The latter happens to be expressly vocal music which bore no relation whatever to the 19th century romantic bourgeois thinking and feeling of Hungarian folk music. The fact is, however, that
a growing number of Gypsies have taken a liking to this Hungarian folk music. This music--which is part of Hungarian culture--is generally thought of as their own musical idiom by Gypsies, in much the same way as most Gypsies
in Hungary think of Hungarian as their native language. But the music played and liked by Gypsies--called Gypsy music--is only their music in the sense in which the Hungarian spoken by them is their language.

That part of Hungary's oral musical tradition which had been rendered
suitable for consumption by the middle classes was considered
by Liszt to be the invention of the Gypsies. He and his contemporaries,
highly educated but unfamiliar with folk traditions, were ignorant
of traditional Gypsy music; and if they had ever heard it, they certainly would not have regarded it as music. From what they noticed of the Gypsies, it would have been easy to imagine that every Gypsy went about with a fiddle under his arm. In reality, however, then and always, only a very small proportion
of Gypsies were involved with music--and moreover, especially at that time, not with the music of their own people. In 1782, when the first census was taken in Hungary (on an area more than three times the present), there were 43,787 Gypsies on record, of whom 1582 were musicians, i.e. 3.6 per cent. (Nowadays
the ratio is less than two per thousand, although it is also true to say that "Gypsy music" has been in sharp decline over the past fifty years.) The same period, the latter decades of the 18th century, saw the start of the era of verbunkos music, which was to continue into the middle of the 19th century and
was the first great period of glory for the Gypsy musicians of Hungary. It was this glory which so enraptured Liszt and led him to write his Hungarian Rhapsodies, followed--as a kind of explanation of the Rhapsodies--by his book on "The Gypsies and their music in Hungary" (Des Bohémiens et de leur musique
en Hongrie, Paris, 1859). According to generally familiar documentary evidence, the Hungarian national movement gave a great boost to Gypsy musicians. Even if there had been anything authentically Gypsy in their music prior to that time, from then on their success depended on strict conformity to the requirements of
their Hungarian audience. It is inconceivable, even in jest, that Hungarians would have converted from Hungarian to Gypsy music precisely at the time of the national movement, at a time when people were particularly sensitive to ensuring that every thing--language, dress, dance and also music-- was traditionally
Hungarian, while at the same time in line with current European taste. In his book Liszt nevertheless resolutely asserts the view that Hungarian music was brought (from where? one wonders) and wrought by the Gypsies. His views could hardly be the fruit of observation, since the people who assisted him, on his visits home, to collect the raw material relating to Hungary for his
book, likewise knew very little about the mechanisms by which a musical tradition is formed. Liszt describes the Gypsy musicians as he wanted, in his romantic imagination, to see himself. His book to this day provides a model and a reference work for all those who want to give the Gypsies a wedding cake, rose-tinted picture of themselves.

The Hungarians were not ashamed to call their musical entertainers by their real
name for all the world to hear. They felt no need to hide them behind
a façade of "Hungarianness"; they trained them and tutored them, derived pleasure from their foreign tours and followed with keen interest their not always unambiguous successes abroad. They cursed their botch-ups, but they also--and the record bears witness primarily to this--admired the suavely flamboyant style of the best performers. They generously conferred the title
"Gypsy music" even on music learnt, note for note, from a score, if it appeared on a "Gypsy" programme. Over the course of a century and a half the epithet "Gypsy" became imbued with respect within the profession, even among musicians who otherwise would not have taken kindly to being cosidered Gypsies on the street; it meant musician (or, as the famous Bihari was known in the
first half of the 19th century, Hungarian folk musician). It is quite a different story in the case of other peoples where the recognized masters of musical entertainment are likewise traditionally Gypsies. In the case of the Turks, the Greeks, the Albanians and the Romanians, the music played by the Gypsy musicians is called "Turkish", "Greek", "Albanian"
or "Romanian" respectively. And this is entirely as it should be, unless one harbours the absurd notion of robbing all these different nations
of their musical traditions and attributing as many types of
music to the Gypsies alone. No one needs imports by instrumentalists
to satisfy any need they may feel for traditional music. And in any case, where would they have found so many different types of music, each perfectly suited to the culture of the people in question? On the other hand, it is not uncommon to find the organization, i.e. the performance, of musical entertainment
en trusted to alien itinerants. In such cases it is naturally
not the employer who adapts but vice-versa. The instrumentalist adjusts and together with the locals, carries on whatever it is that they have devised and developed, in the manner dictated by them.

Throughout human history the occupation of entertainer, and thus also that of musical entertainer, has generally been regarded as a lowly one. The only people willing to engage in such an activity were poor people, living on the fringe of
society and with little chance or expectation of gaining respect in society, capable of complying totally with the taste of the audience, indeed capable of complete self-abasement for the sake of earning a living. The host community has
never been interested in whether or to what extent its musicians were authentically foreign; it just wants the music to reflect faithfully the customary or required attitudes. In Miklós Markó's album of Gypsy musicians
(1896 and 1927 respectively) one finds only Hungarian gentlemen. In their dress
and their demeanour, they represent the social classes they serve, i.e., the Hungarian gentry and middle classes. The one-time alien itinerants have
themselves become firmly- rooted "locals". To be able to assess
properly the music played by them-- particularly if one takes
into account the role of rural Gypsy musicians too--it is essential
to have a thorough understanding of the whole of the Hungarian musical tradition, both written and unwritten, since that is the context in which it emerged and developed. At the same time, it is not possible to identify any single element of this music which might produce the conclusion that it is of specifically Gypsy origin. The repertoire and style of rural musicians is closely tied to local (and mainly vocal) traditions and customs.

Among the town musicians--the exponents of "Gypsy music"--on the other hand, the main quality criterion from the middle of the 19th century onwards has
been the number of excerpts from opera, operetta and other popular pieces of
international music learnt from a score. Verbunkos music, which characterized
their first period of widespread success and became the fashionable instrumental music of the early 19th century, developed in the late 18th and early 19th
centuries out of traditional Hungarian dance music, which had been played mostly
by non-Gypsies (shepherds, peasants and wandering musicians of various ethnic origin) and principally on the bagpipes. This music must originally have
been of a kind known and liked by rural folk, since the verbunkos dances (from the German Werbung = recruiting) were organized primarily to entice village lads to the colours. Verbunkos music went out of fashion in the second half of the 19th century; at its demise sheet music was needed to revive the few tunes
which are still played now and then by musicians today. The folk-based popular music--the Hungarian nóta (slow lyrical air) and the csárdás--the music of the masses considered to be the typical Hungarian musical idiom from the middle of the 19th century--was, like the earlier verbunkos music, also mainly
the work of Hungarian amateurs. From the moment it was conceived, it also quite naturally became part of the Gypsy musicians' repertoire. It is this musical repertoire which the world nowadays knows as "Gypsy music" in a more literal sense. Among the many dozen of composers there were of course a few Gypsy musicians--after all, they regard this style of music as their own. No-one would
deny that János Bihari (1764-1827), the famous verbunkos composer, or Pista Dankó (1858-1903) were Gypsy musicians; but anyone who is familiar with their work knows--as they themselves knew--that it was not Gypsy music they were composing, but verbunkos music in the case of the former and, in that of the latter, the nóta, i.e. Hungarian popular song.

Alain Antonietto's ambitious-sounding article appeared in issue 1/1994, a special issue on music, of Études Tsiganes, an academic journal published twice yearly in Paris covering issues relating to Gypsies. The title of the article is "The History of Central European Instrumental Gypsy Music". Antonietto has published articles relating to Hungarian Gypsy music on a number of occasions
in earlier issues of Études Tsiganes (1985, 1986 and 1987).

When the aforementioned issue of Études Tsigane
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