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Index of Greatest Hungarian Composers

Hungarian Musical Life
Bartok, Bela
Dohnanyi, Erns von
Kodaly, Zoltan
Liszt, Ferencz
Ormandy, Eugene
Szigeti, Jozsef


At a crossroads of east and west, Hungary developed a unique musical life mixing Turkic and Magyar folk survivals with Gypsy elements. Converted to western Christianity in the 11th century, Hungary shared the liturgical chant, polyphony and secular song of medieval Catholic Europe, and many leading musicians of the era were drawn to the Hungarian court. Partial Turkish conquest and the spread of Protestantism in the 16th century brought new diversity but also awakened a sense of national identity and of a need to preserve Hungarian traditions.

After 1700, under the rule of the Habsburgs, Hungary was drawn into an Austrian cultural world, and its elite became part of baroque cosmopolitan life. Leading Austrian composers held court or church posts in Hungarian territories--most notably Franz Josef Haydn, who served the Hungarian ESTERHAZY family.

Nineteenth-century national strivings and uprisings stimulated a vigorous rebirth of Hungarian cultural consciousness, with active musical organizations developing. Hungarian by birth, Franz LISZT was an international figure with ambiguous ties to his homeland; his use of traditional Hungarian music, although he mistakenly confused it with Gypsy elements, did stir interest in the national musical heritage. A more frank nationalist, Ferenc Erkel (1810-93), produced the national anthem and the great national opera, Hunyadi Laszlo (1844).

The Germanized late-romantic movement produced such composers as Ernst von DOHNANYI and Leo Weiner (1885-1960). In the 20th century, a drastic reappraisal of the true traditions of Hungarian folk music launched the nation's two greatest composers. Bela BARTOK and Zoltan KODALY, who did pioneering ethno-musical fieldwork in the countryside. A prolific folk-inspired composer, Kodaly was most influential as a teacher: making music and choral singing a focus in Hungarian schools, he created a training system acclaimed around the world. From folklore, Bartok drew a sense of rhythm and color that helped make him one of the boldest personalities of all 20th-century music.

Despite the upheavals of wars and politics, Hungary has continued to produce musicians of excellence. Among its composers, Gyorgy LIGETI has won particular international success. Conductors of Hungarian origin have included Sir Georg SOLTI, Georg SZELL, and Fritz Reiner.

Bartok, Bela b. Mar. 25, 1881, d. Sept. 26, 1945, was one of the greatest and most influential composers of the 20th century. A Hungarian, he studied piano and composition at the Budapest Academy of Music, where he was appointed professor of piano in 1907.

Embittered by the hostile reception of his early works, Bartok began to collect Hungarian and other folk music. Until 1936 he traversed the Balkans, Turkey, and parts of North Africa searching for indigenous material, and with his friend, the composer Zoltan KODALY, he produced a series of important studies, anthologies, and arrangements of folk songs.

During the 1920s, Budapest audiences became less hostile to Bartok's music, and performances of his one-act opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1911), and ballets The Wooden Prince (1914-16) and The Miraculous Mandarin (1919) were well received. Bartok traveled widely in Europe as a pianist, and in 1927-28 he toured the United States.

The Piano Sonata of 1926 initiated Bartok's most fruitful period, which includes the Mikrokosmos (1926-37); the Piano Concertos Nos. 1 (1927) and 2 (1931); the String Quartets Nos. 3-6 (1927-39, the most important contributions to the genre by a 20th-century composer); Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936); and the Violin Concerto No. 2 (1937-38).

In 1940, Bartok went to the United States, where he remained until his death. These years were full of disappointment, financial hardship, and illness. Nevertheless, during this time he completed the Concerto for Orchestra (1943), and nearly all of the Piano Concerto No. 3. Bartok died of leukemia in New York City.

The stark strength of Bartok's music, particularly the rhythmic drive of his fast movements, derives in large part from his affinity for folk music. His harmony is often dissonant, full of irregular chords and tone clusters; many of his melodies are based on the folk patterns of the pentatonic (5-tone) scale. The characteristic percussive quality and novel tone color of his music are achieved with traditional instruments.

Dohnanyi, Ernst von b. July 27, 1877, d. Feb. 9, 1960, was a Hungarian pianist, composer, and teacher. After studies in Pozsony (now Bratislava) and briefly with Eugen d'Albert in Budapest, he made his debut as a pianist in Berlin in 1897 and began giving concerts in Europe and the United States.

Dohnanyi subsequently taught (1908-15) piano at the High School for Music in Berlin and became (1919) associate director of the National Hungarian Royal Franz Liszt Academy. From 1918 to 1944 he was president of the Philharmonic Orchestra Society of Budapest.

Exiled from Hungary in 1948, he emigrated to the United States. Among his compositions, which are mostly instrumental and were influenced by Johannes Brahms and Hungarian folk music, the Variations on a Nursery Song for piano and orchestra and the Suite in F-Sharp Minor for orchestra are the best known. His grandson Christoph is a noted conductor.




Kodaly, Zoltan (1882 - 1967) composer and ethnomusicologist of the 20th century. As a scholar of Magyar music, Kodaly collected, arranged, and published folk songs and wrote extensively about Hungarian folk music. As a teacher at the Academy of Music in Budapest, he inspired dozens of students, some of whom became well-known musicians. Kodaly later specialized in teaching children, and his methods have been organized into the widely used Kodaly Method. He collaborated with Bartok in studies of folk music; his compositions were influenced by Bartok's style, although Kodaly used folk elements, harmony, and rhythm more conservatively than Bartok. One of Kodaly's most popular works is the orchestral suite Hary Janos (1926). His other compositions include a symphony, a concerto for orchestra, music for the stage, chamber music, solos for piano and other instruments, folk-song arrangements, choral music, songs, church music, and educational music. He is also the author of books on pedagogic and historical subjects. In the summer of 1965, Kodaly was composer-in-residence at Dartmouth College




Liszt ,Franz (Ferencz) b. Raiding, Hungary, Oct. 22, 1811, d. July 31, 1886, was one of the most celebrated pianists of the 19th century and one of its most innovative composers. As a small child he showed immense musical gifts. At the age of 10 he moved with his family to Vienna, where he studied with Carl Czerny and Antonio Salieri and played for Beethoven. In 1823 his family moved to Paris, but Liszt was denied admission to the conservatory because of his youth and foreign origin. He had no further formal piano instruction, though he studied composition with Ferdinando Paer and Anton Reicha.

Liszt toured for several years as a recitalist before he settled (1834) in Geneva, Switzerland, with the Countess Marie d'Agoult. One of their three children, Cosima, married the conductor Hans von Bulow and then Richard Wagner; another, Blandine, married Emile Ollivier, premier of France at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. In 1839, Liszt embarked on a series of concert tours throughout Europe.

In 1844, Liszt was appointed musical director in Weimar; he settled there in 1848 and abandoned concertizing to devote himself to conducting and composition. From these Weimar years come his best-known large compositions: the two piano concertos, the Totentanz (Dance of Death) for piano and orchestra, the Dante Symphony (1856), and the monumental Faust Symphony (1854-57). Liszt also invented a new form, the SYMPHONIC POEM, an orchestral composition that follows a literary or other program; it consists of a single movement, generally organized either as a loose sonata form, as in Tasso, or as a one-movement symphony, as in Les Preludes . Eleven of his twelve symphonic poems date from his first Weimar period. Liszt unified his larger works by deriving their thematic materials from one or more short motifs. The Hungarian Rhapsodies, Liszt's best-known solo piano works, were based on Hungarian urban popular music rather than folk music.

Liszt left Weimar for Rome in 1859 with the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, whom he met on a concert tour in Russia in 1847 and with whom he lived until 1863. After they separated, Liszt turned to writing religious music, including two masses, the Legends for piano, and the oratorio Christus (1863). In 1865 he received minor orders and was made an abbe by Pope Pius IX. Liszt returned to Weimar in 1869, but after his appointment as president of the New Hungarian Academy of Music in Budapest in 1875 he divided his time between Budapest, Weimar, and Rome.

The works of Liszt's late years, misunderstood by his contemporaries, are surprisingly modern in concept and anticipate many of the devices of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Bela Bartok, and the Austrian expressionists. He died while attending the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany.

Liszt was one of the great altruists in the history of music: he performed the large piano works of Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin when they were physically unable to do so; he provided opportunities for Hector Berlioz, Wagner, and Camille Saint-Saens to have their music performed; and he also arranged for piano much music in other media--from Bach's organ works to Wagner's originally written operas. His piano writing incorporates both the orchestral style of Beethoven and the delicate pianistic effects of Chopin. He was a distinguished piano teacher, with pupils from all over Europe and the United States.

Though many of Liszt's works contain passages of bombast or sentimentality, his innovations in harmony, musical form, and writing for the piano make him one of the most important and influential composers of the 19th century.

Ormandy, Eugene b. Budapest, Hungary, Nov. 18, 1899, d. Mar. 12, 1985, for more than four decades (1938-80), was permanent conductor of the PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA. He went to the United States in 1921 for a violin concert tour, which failed to materialize, and then became concertmaster of the Capitol Theater Orchestra in New York City, which he later conducted (1924-25). Brief assignments followed before he assumed (1931) leadership of the Minneapolis Symphony. In 1936 he was appointed associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Leopold Stokowski, whom he succeeded as music director and principal conductor in 1938. Subsequently, Ormandy's name became almost synonymous with that of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Without attempting to match his predecessor's flamboyance, Ormandy retained the lush 'Philadelphia sound' and maintained the orchestra's high level of excellence. His international tours with the orchestra were unqualified successes, earning the orchestra a reputation for virtuosity.


Szigeti, Joseph (Joska), The great Hungarian violinist, b. Sept. 5, 1892, d. Feb. 19, 1973, studied with Jeno Hubay in Budapest, where he made his debut in 1902 at the Royal Academy of Music. His first commercial recordings date from 1909, and his art is well documented by the phonograph. In 1940 he settled in the United States, becoming a citizen in 1951. Renowned for lucid and intense performances of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, Szigeti was also an ardent champion of modern works: the names of Busoni and Bartok, with whom he often appeared, and of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Bloch figured prominently in his programs. His playing, sometimes called cerebral, was no less remarkable for its elegance and color than for its intelligence.

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