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Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 7 Social Validation

BartóK, Janáček

CHAPTER 7 Social Validation
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Of all the non-Germanic nations within the polyglot Hapsburg Empire, the Hungarians—or Magyars, to name them in their own exotic tongue of proud Central Asian descent—were the most successful in maintaining a distinct political, linguistic, and cultural identity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They had a history of independence, and an indigenous dynastic aristocracy—recall the Eszterházy family, Haydn’s employers—whose hereditary rights the Austrian rulers were for the most part careful to respect. In return for that respect they earned loyalty. For many Magyars, Austrian suzerainty meant liberation and protection from the Turks. It also promised the reunification, even the enlargement, of the old Hungarian kingdom, a process that was completed in 1711.

The Austrian emperor was at first only nominally the king of the Magyars, who maintained their traditional social administration, centered on large and politically autonomous baronial counties and estates like Eszterháza. Ironically enough, real political strife with the Austrians only began with the reformist reign of Joseph II (r. 1765–90), often regarded as the most liberal of the Hapsburg emperors; for among Joseph’s reforms was the centralization of the imperial government, which threatened the autonomy of the Hungarian counties. (Among other things, the proposed reforms would have made German the only legal language in the empire.) The solution sought by the Hungarian nobles was a constitution that would guarantee their rights as citizens. Thus Hungarian nationalism was joined in an especially conspicuous way with political liberalism—or at least what passed for liberalism within a basically feudal context.

Chapter 7 Social Validation

fig. 7-1 Lajos Kossuth, by Francis d’Avignon.

Matters flared briefly into armed conflict in 1849. Lajos (or Louis) Kossuth (1802–94), a zealous politician unsatisfied with the parliamentary government granted by the Austrians the previous year (in which he was the finance minister), declared a Magyar republic with himself as president. He was beset with rebellions from the large German, Slavic, and Romanian minorities, who felt secure under Austrian imperial rule and feared repression at the hands of Magyar nationalists. These uprisings, plus the intervention of Russia on the side of its sister empire, forced Kossuth into exile—and into legend as a martyr to the cause of freedom. He lived on for more than forty years, mainly in England and Italy. A fiery orator, he made several lucrative speaking trips to the United States, where he was billed as the Hungarian Patrick Henry or Nathan Hale. Shortly before his death he was given amnesty, which he refused. Nevertheless, his body was returned to Budapest and given a heroic burial.

For a while after Kossuth’s attempted revolution, Hungary suffered reprisals and was ruled like an occupied territory. That only made nationalistic aspirations seethe. A compromise—the great Ausgleich, or settlement—was reached after the Austrian crown suffered a military defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1866, and needed to regain the loyalty of its minorities. Hungary was granted its own constitution, its own parliament, its own legal code in its own language, its own currency and postal system, and what is more, political dominance over many of the other non-German parts of the empire, including Slovakia, the Balkan regions of Slovenia and Croatia, Transylvania (a partly Romanian- speaking district in the Carpathians) and Ruthenia (where the local population spoke Ukrainian). All of these territories and more were now administered not from Vienna but from Budapest.

The emperor Franz Joseph I, already in the nineteenth year of his reign, came to Budapest to be separately crowned King of Hungary in 1867, and his empire officially became “Austria-Hungary.” His title became “Seine kaiserliche und königliche Majestät” (“His imperial and royal majesty”) in specific recognition of Hungary’s nearly coequal status, and “k.u.k.” became the official designation of all the centralized institutions that remained, notably the armed forces. Yet although it was widely heralded as a victory for the Hungarian nation, the Ausgleich once again mainly served the political and economic interests of the nobility and the haute bourgeoisie (“urban elite class”).

As long as Austria-Hungary lasted, the voting population of the Hungarian sector never exceeded six percent, and the proportion of titled aristocrats to the total population was the highest in Europe. The Ausgleich did not still bourgeois nationalism; indeed, Hungarian nationalism became a complicated and contentious thing, with many classes within a rigidly stratified society claiming to be the “true” Hungarian nation. Self-avowed nationalist politics covered the whole political spectrum from aristocratic reaction to revolutionary socialism.

Like its political counterpart, cultural nationalism and its reflections in the arts burgeoned and fermented as the turn of century approached, and reached in the early decades of the new century a maximalist phase that looked like a modernist revolution. In music, the change was especially pronounced: a new model of “Hungarianness,” entailing a new source in folklore and a new musical style, was advanced, and correlated with other, more cosmopolitan manifestations of modernist style. In no other country did modernism so successfully ally itself with domestic (as opposed to exotic) nationalism. The qualification is necessary because we have encountered a seemingly similar alliance in Russian music like Stravinsky’s. But that was an alliance of expedience, made strictly for export purposes, and addressed a foreign audience. The new Hungarian product arose in response to needs at home, and had far less to do with the merchandising of exoticism.

The old Hungarian nobility had long “possessed” (i.e., patronized and cultivated) a distinctive music, the so-called magyar nóta (“Hungarian tune”), which in educated Hungarian circles was regarded as a stylistic emblem of the national identity. It was also recognized abroad by composers, at first chiefly Viennese, who occasionally imitated it for effect, and by their audiences, who relished it as the style hongrois (“Hungarian style”). It was also known, especially abroad, as the “Gypsy style,” because outside of Hungary (and in Hungarian urban centers as well) it was known mainly through performances by Gypsy violinists, whose distinctive playing style—heavily inflected with emotionally laden sforzandos, glissandos, and rubatos—was an integral part of the experience.

Ex. 7-1 begins with an actual magyar nóta, written down in a manner that tries to convey something of its performance style and published as a piano solo in 1832. (Only the right-hand part, containing the melody, is given.) Like most published magyar nótak, it has two linked parts, slow (lassú) and fast (friss). Next comes a little garland of Viennese imitations (of either the lassú or the friss), beginning with a pair of extracts from the earliest famous one, the “Rondo all’ongarese” (“Rondo in Hungarian style”) that caps a piano trio by Haydn, first published in 1795.

Chapter 7 Social ValidationChapter 7 Social Validation

ex. 7-1a Magyar nóta and style hongrois, Ignác Ruzitska, Búcsuzó és friss magyar (Farewell and Fast Hungarian)

Chapter 7 Social Validation

ex. 7-1b Magyar nóta and style hongrois, Franz Joseph Haydn, Rondo all’ongarese, the last minore (piano right hand)

Chapter 7 Social Validation

ex. 7-1c Magyar nóta and style hongrois, Franz Schubert, “Great” Symphony in C, II, mm. 160–166 (oboe)

Chapter 7 Social Validation

ex. 7-1d Magyar nóta and style hongrois, Johannes Brahms, Hungarian Dance no. 5 (1869), mm. 33–48 (Primo right hand)

From these examples, many (though not all) of the characteristics of the style hongrois can be deduced: dotted rhythms, syncopations, augmented seconds, distinctive cadence patterns, and so forth. Apart from the cadence patterns, perhaps, none of these characteristics were uniquely the property of the style hongrois. Like most stylistic “signifiers,” it was not a single trait but a pliable cluster. That gave it great flexibility: two melodies could be equally obvious exemplifications of the Hungarian cluster without necessarily having any specific traits in common.

Of course there was also a native Hungarian “school” of composers who employed the magyar nóta style in works cast in the larger vocal and instrumental forms of European art music. One was Mihály Mosonyi (1815–70), who was given the name Michael Brand at birth, but who translated it into its Hungarian equivalent as an act of patriotism. He composed two symphonies, a piano concerto, a large number of chamber and piano works, and three operas, all with the avowed purpose of “creating, alongside the German, Italian, and French currents in music, a fourth world-famous style, the Hungarian,”1 but he never gained the sort of international reputation that would have realized such an ambition.

By common consent the “national composer” of Hungary during the nineteenth century was Franz (or Ferenc) Erkel (1810–93), an opera specialist, whose “historical dramatic opera” Bánk bán (1861) occupied a hallowed place in Hungarian culture analogous to that of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar in Russia. The patriotic play by József Katona on which it was based, written in 1815, was twice banned by the Austrian censors for the way it used a thirteenth-century revolt against foreign infiltration as an allegory of contemporary Hungarian resistance to the Hapsburgs. Ex. 7-2 shows the climax of a tragic duet between the title character (heroic tenor), and his doomed wife Melinda. The magyar nóta idiom here assumes a high dramatic posture, in which the dominating musical figures are descending dotted sequences typical of Gypsy violin music, and “noble” short-long rhythms derived from the distinctive accentual patterns of the Hungarian language.

Chapter 7 Social Validation

ex. 7-2 Franz Erkel, Bánk bán, Act II, scene 1, duet

Inevitably, though, the greatest figure associated with the style hongrois in the nineteenth century, and its chief ambassador to the world at large, was Franz Liszt. Although he was surely the most cosmopolitan of all musicians, and the adopted standard bearer for the New German School with its universalist agenda, Liszt was nevertheless of Hungarian birth, and eager to take creative (and commercial) advantage of the fact. Most of his compositions in the style hongrois were virtuoso vehicles—nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies, a Hungarian Fantasia with orchestra, and the like—in which he translated the Gypsy violin idiom, just as he had the Paganini idiom, into perfect keyboardese (replete with tremolo effects to evoke the accompanying cimbalom or Hungarian dulcimer).

Later in life, Liszt occasionally used the idiom more “seriously,” as in a set of Hungarian Historical Portraits for piano (composed between 1870 and 1885) dedicated to seven Hungarian patriots (including Mosonyi, but not the still-banned Kossuth), or the grandiose Hungarian Coronation Mass for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, expressly composed for the separate crowning of Franz Joseph in 1867. The Hungarian coloring in the Mass is most pronounced precisely at the most solemn moment, the Benedictus, where (following the exalted example of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) Liszt entrusted a wordless prayer (already heard in the Offertory) to the solo violin (Ex. 7-3).

Previously, Liszt had written (or had his companion, Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein write) a substantial book, Des bohémiens et de leur musique en Hongrie (1859, published in English as The Gipsy in Music), in which he characterized the style hongrois as “a great movement” in art, on an expressive and formal par with all other European musics. This was one of the classic statements for music of Johann Gottfried von Herder’s early Romantic ideal—or the old Herderian ambivalence which insisted on assigning equal value both to the specific idiosyncrasies and to the common humanity of all particular cultures. The purpose of writing the book was to explicate an exotic idiom that European audiences might find baffling, and at the same time to celebrate and demonstrate its universal validity. The chief merit of the music, and for a romantic there could be no higher one, was its immediacy and authenticity of expression. “In the very act of passing the bow across the violin-strings,” Liszt enthused, “a natural inspiration suggested itself; and, without any search for them, there came rhythms, cadences, modulations, melodies and tonal discourses.” The Gypsy violinist “revealed that golden ray of interior light proper to himself, which otherwise the world would never have known or suspected.” Hungary’s role, in Liszt’s view, was nurturing rather than creative; but that was enough to make the Gypsy idiom truly Hungarian.

The Gypsy art can never be separated from Hungary, whose arms it must forever bear on seal and banner. To Hungary it owes a life passed entirely within its limits and in its atmosphere. To Hungary also the attainment of its virility and maturity are due, dependent as these were upon appreciation of its noble elements. It has also Hungary to thank for supply of its greatest needs—comprehension and sympathy. The haughtiness of its rhythms, their imposing dignity and sudden cries, remindful of those of a startled steed at sound of the trumpet—all from the very first, went straight to the Hungarian heart.2

Chapter 7 Social Validation

ex. 7-3 Franz Liszt, Hungarian Coronation Mass, violin solo from Benedictus

Jonathan Bellman, a historian of the style hongrois, has pointed out that by attributing the actual origin of the magyar nóta to the Gypsies, rather than just its propagation through performance, Liszt committed an offensive error in Hungarian eyes. As Bellman put it, “Hungary only understood the rhythms, in Liszt’s view—it did not produce them.”3 And yet the Hungarian language, in which every word (even foreign ones) are pronounced with a strong accent on the first syllable, seems the obvious source of those “haughty rhythms” Liszt celebrated. Liszt, who was brought up speaking German and who made French, the international tongue of European aristocracy and diplomacy, the vehicle of his mature career, was never fluent in the vernacular of the country of his birth and may not have been equipped to appreciate its relationship to the music he described. But he got the part about haughtiness right; for that is the aristocratic posture par excellence, and as we know, the magyar nóta was most actively patronized and promoted by the Hungarian gentry or small-landowner class.


(1) Ferenc Bónis, “Mosonyi, Mihály,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XVII (2nd ed.; New York: Grove, 2001), p. 184.

(2) Franz Liszt, Des Bohémiens et de leur musique en Hongrie (1859); quoted in Jonathan Bellman, The Style Hongrois in the Music of Western Europe (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993), p. 179.

(3) Bellman, Style Hongrois, p. 179.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Social Validation." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Social Validation. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Social Validation." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-007.xml