Ancient music: Renaissance music in Hungary


The history of Hungarian Renaissance music is singular, and it can be traced back to the historical situation of the country - namely to the long and continuous wars (Turkish occupation, struggle with the Habsburg House, internal fights). When taking the essence and extremely condensing it, one can establish that historical and war songs were characteristic instead of composed-edited instrumental and vocal music.

The Golden Era of King Matthias

When delimitating the time frame of renaissance, the beginning - although it can already be sensed to a small extent at the time of Sigmund (Zsigmond)(1387 to 1437) - is actually the reign of King Matthias (Hunyadi Mátyás) (1458 to 1490) and unfortunately it significantly differs from the following ages. Our pity, of course, does not concern King Matthias, for if the mentality and prosperous political status started by him could have had a continuation, Hungary could boast today of a quite rich Renaissance heritage. But it was not the case. Matthias and his wife Beatrix were enthusiastic and discerning lovers and supporters of music as well as of other branches of arts and of science. Even the most significant musicians of that time turned up or served at their court. They were from the Netherlands, from Italy and France: Johannes de Stokhem, Jacques Barbireau, Stefano de Salerno, and Bisth, Mecchino, Bonnus, Cornuel. The reigning couple could get even Pietro Bono, who was considered to be the best lute-player of that time, to play at court for 1 or 2 years, but for this they needed the relationships of Beatrix (they had to ask Ercole d'Este, Prince of Ferrara for him) and some diplomacy. And Johannes Tinctoris, though never had direct contact to Buda, was the music teacher of Beatrix in the 1470's and dedicated his Terminorium e diffinitorium (along with some other compositions) to her. It may be important to know that historical songs were already highly respected at court at that time. Even Italian humanist Galeotto Marzio (1427 to 1492) reports his experiences relating this - he got them at the table of Matthias. He relates these performers of heroic songs with lute accompaniment to the roman scops.

The decline of Hungarian Renaissance

Though Ulaszlo II (Jagello Ulászló) (1490 to 1516) even surpassed Matthias' luxury and employed the best musicians of Europe and at the time of his son Louis II (Lajos) (1506 to 1526) even Adrian Willaert was the guest of the court, the country was continually weakened financially as well as politically. With the disastrous defeat at Mohacs, the decline became irreversible: the land was divided into two, and later three parts and the Turkish ruled until 1699. The continuous wars were not favourable to arts: they cut spiritual and financial resources, hindered the forming of music workshops and scared away the masters and the makers of musical instruments. Those who wanted to study music needed to go abroad.

Preserved music

National composed instrumental music was hardly preserved for posterity. Even our best known Renaissance dance music pieces were left to us in foreign adaptations - such as Jacob Paix: Ungarescha, Wolf Heckel: Ungarischer Tanz etc. The first organ tablet books with Hungarian sources originate from the second half of the 17th century; they follow Renaissance in their style, but they belong to another age: Codex Kajon (1634 to 71), The virginal book of Lőcse (around 1660 to 70), Codex Vietoris (around 1680), Stark's virginal book of Sopron (1689 to 90).

Valentin Bakfark (Bakfark Bálint)

This lack is richly compensated by Valentin Bakfark (Bakfark Bálint) (1507? to 1576) who was a lute player and composer with a peerless talent. His fantasias represent the best of the genre in the literature of lute and they project the coming fugue. One has to notice, however, that he, too, spent most of his life outside Hungary, so his pieces were not composed and published here. It was in vain that he received land from Sigmund John (János Zsigmond), who were also a gifted lute player; it seems that the poor national music world could not satisfy him and keep him home.

About religious music

If we look for vocal music other than historical songs, we can find church music rather than secular kind. The first print with notes in Hungary, entitled Odae cum harmoniis, came out in 1548, from Saxon reformer John Honterus (printed in the printing press founded by him). It can be counted among the exceptions in certain aspects and contains 21 compositions in four voices, written to the rhythm of antique metrical forms. The compositions are not based on Hungarian melodies but on German humanist ones (especially of Tritonius) and their relation to church is beyond dispute. The composer of the remaining three voices is unknown - it may be Honterus himself. The Eperjes gradual (1635 to 1650) that contains Gregorian songs and compositions in four voices is totally ecclesiastical and as for the date, it also exceeds Renaissance a bit. The songbooks form a new category in church music, as the person to whom they relate is mostly not the writer but only the one who collected the songs involved. It happens that the songbook is published merely with the words - we are not interested in this kind, of course. The songbook of Istvan Galszecsi from 1536 is the first print with notes in Hungarian language, published in Krakow: it is a work containing Gregorian hymns and German chorals in Hungarian, but only fragments are left of it. The songbook of Gal Huszar (Huszár Gál) (1560) has 107 Hungarian Protestant songs with 49 melodies. The songbook of Peter Bornemisza (Bornemissza Péter)(1582) is worth mentioning as well as the Cantus Catolici (1651, edited by Benedek Szollosi Szöllősi Benedek).

The tradition of historical songs

Historical songs - the most characteristic expression of Hungarian Renaissance music - go back to the ancient times before Renaissance and do not disappear after it is gone. Song recital still exists in our days. This is the only genre that remained even among the hardest storms and difficulties, as remembrance, historiography and encouragement were always needed. Our minstrels used their music instruments for accompaniment that was probably simple, improvised and consisted of melody variations. This presumption stems from the fact that there is no accompaniment anywhere noted down, nor any reference to it; even to the differentiation of the l instruments is not much significance given: violinists and lutenists (citharaedi) do not form separate categories. According to their Medieval name they were called jokulators, minstrels or gleemen. The songs were often printed with just the words and even if there is some melody marking, the writer of the poem sometimes mentions that the song does not have to be sung to the given melody.

Our first printed (Krakow) historical song with notes, the De introductione Scyttarum of Andras Farkas (Farkas András) originates from 1538. The Hoffgreff songbook containing biblical stories was published in 1553 in Kolozsvár (Cluj). Further authors, without the intention of being comprehensive: Andras Valkai, Ambrus Göröncsi, Gaspar Heltai, Peter Bornemisza, Peter Ilosvai, Andras Batizi, Ferenc Wathay.

Sebastian Tinodi (Tinódi Sebestyén)

The undoubtedly most significant representative of this genre is Sebastian Tinodi (Tinódi Sebestyén) (1510 to 1556). He composes all of his melodies of a high standard himself, consistently attaching them to the poems. 24 of his melodies survived and more than 13,000 lines of poetry and with a few exceptions, they can all be found in his main work Cronica, printed in 1554 in Kolozsvar (Cluj). His descriptions of the events are so accurate that even historiography used them later. By his own account, he was not willing to alter what he believed to be true, and if there was something untruthful in his description, it was the fault of the person who informed him.


To sum up, it can be stated that European musical practice had always been present among our aristocracy, but because of the circumstances it could never spread extensively.

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