Magyar Music

The most important part of the national music of Hungary is so called because it proceeds from the Magyar portion of the inhabitants.

‘The so-called Hungarian style of music,’ said the writer of two articles on the  subject in the Monthly Musical Record for February and March 1877, ‘as it has come to be recognized, cannot by any means be regarded as indigenous, but may most properly be briefly defined as the product of a commixture of several races. More than one fourth of the population of Hungary proper (i.e., Transleithan Hungary, as it has come to be called since its union with the Austrian empire in 1869) consists of Magyars, the descendants of the ancient Scythians of the Tartar-Mongolian stock, who, after wandering from the Ural mountains to the Caspian Sea, and thence to Kiev, established themselves in Hungary in the 9th century.’

‘The remainder of the population is made up of Slavs, Germans, Wallachians, Jews and Gypsies. Of this mixed population, the Magyars, as the dominant lords of the soil, and the Gypsies, as the privileged musicians of the country, were in the main regarded as the joint originators of the national style.’

This latter popularity, together with the scale which is characteristic of the music of Hungary in common with many other nations of Eastern Europe – a scale with two superfluous seconds, or the harmonic minor with a sharp fourth – c, d, e flat, f sharp, g, a flat, b, c – seem to indicate an Asiatic origin. (The ordinary European scales were also in use.) These two chief characteristics will be examined in order.

The Rhythms of Magyar Origin

The great distinctive feature of the bar rhythms is syncopation, generally consisting of the accentuation of the second quaver in the bar of 2-4 time (the rhythm sometimes extending over larger spaces, as in No. 2 of the ‘Ungarische Tanze’ of Brahms, bars 1-2, 5-6, etc., where the syncopation extends over two bars. Even where the melody is without syncopation, the accompaniment almost always has it. The phrase-rhythms are not confined to strains of 4 and 8 bars, but phrases of 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8 bars, are not unfrequently to be met with.

As examples of 3 and 6 bar rhythms may be cited the third and first of Brahm’s ‘Ungarische Tanze,’ and of 7 bar rhythm.

3/4 time and consequently 6/8 time is almost unknown in genuine Magyar music, although some modern Hungarian composers have introduced it in slow movements.

The Turns and Embellishments Added to the Melody of Gypsy and Oriental Origin

This peculiarity has been observed by travelers in India, who said that in the performance of the natives any embellishments and ‘fioriture’ are permitted to be introduced at the will of the performer, provided only that the time of the melody remains intact.

But the importance of Hungarian music lies not so much in its intrinsic beauty or interest, as in the use made of it by the great classical masters, and the influence which it exercised on their works. The first composer of note who embodies the Hungarian peculiarities is Haydn. The most obvious instance of course is the well-known ‘Rondo all Ongarese’, or ‘Gypsy Rondo’ in the Trio No. 1 in G major; but besides this avowedly Hungarian composition there are many passages in his works which show that the years during which he held the post of conductor on Prince Esterhazy’s private (and almost entirely Hungarian) band, were not without their effect.

In the work of three men, belonging to two very different schools, Hungarian characteristics are most commonly and most skillfully used. It is enough to cite the names of Liszt, Brahms, and Joachim.

The following are some of the most important Magyar compositions:


  • The Csardas (the name derived from Csarda, an inn on the Puszta (plain), where this dance was first performed. It was introduced into Hungary from Bohemia by Csermak, and was very quickly adopted as a national dance. Every Csardas consists of two movements, – a Lassu’, or slow movement, andante maestoso, and a ‘Friss’, or quickstep, allegro vivace. These two alternate at the will of the dancers, a sign being given to the musicians when a change is wished.
  • The ‘Kor-tancz’ or Society Dance, of which a part consists of a Toborzo, or Recruiting dance. A great number of these were arranged or composed by Lavotta.
  • The ‘Kanasz-tancz’, or Swineherd’s Dance, was danced by the lower classes only.


Among national Magyar operas – i.e., operas of which the libretti are founded on national historic events, and the music is characterised by Magyar rhythms, etc.:

  • Hunyady Laszlo by Franz Erkel
  • Bathori Maria by Franz Erkel
  • Bank Ban by Franz Erkel
  • Brankovies by Franz Erkel
  • Ilka by Doppler

Besides these two composers, the names of Mocsonyi, Csaszar, Fay, and Bartha.