The power of folklore – to see and to let be seen through Bartók’s eyes

Ágnes Herczku’s presentation at a conference organised by the Charta XXI Reconciliation Movement- European Parliament, Brussels, 27 November, 2013 The presentation will soon appear in a forthcoming publication of the Charta XXI Movement.

Let me welcome you all to this conference organised by the Charta XXI Reconciliation Movement. It is an honour for me to have the opportunity to share my ideas with you at such a high-level forum. My name is Ágnes Herczku, soloist of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. The organisers of this conference have been aware that both my job and personal interests inspire me to regularly go to collect songs beyond the borders of Hungary, similarly to Béla Bartók. This allows me to gather personal experience of the people in the neighbouring countries.
First I was driven by sheer curiosity, without studying textbooks, however, as time passed, I also started to develop interest in how and why the ’great’ ones, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály were collecting music. Having read their publications, Bartók’s first of all, I was not only amazed by their knowledge; the fact that they managed to remain steadfast, humane and candid with a truly European spirit even at the most tragic historical moments, had a great impact on me too. My presentation is driven by Béla Bartók’s idea of the brotherhood of peoples:


„My own true guiding idea, -of which I have been fully conscious since I found myself as a composer, is the brotherhood of peoples, brotherhood in spite of all wars and conflicts. I try- to the best of my ability- to serve this idea in my music; therefore I don’t reject any influence, be it Slovakian, Romanian, Arabic or from any other sources. The source must only be clean, fresh and healthy.”[1]


However, please, do not expect me to pathetically spread the word of devoted and unconditional love through tastefully chosen folk songs for half an hour to carry the message of some romantic idea in my presentation.  No, this is not our mission. There are serious reasons why today, in the middle of Europe in the 21. century, there is a need for a reconciliation conference between our closest neighbours. It means that there is a problem.


It is commonplace to say that however painful it may be to remove an ulcer, it is inevitable to do so in order to help it heal. I would rather prefer to give you an example related to arts though. In Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers about three sisters, two of the sisters’ relationship is rapidly destroyed when they dig up childhood grievances, although they both acknowledge the blame.  It seems they completely ‘destroy’ each other. This empty and demolished area of emotions can be the start of something new though. This could be the beginning of a new relationship filled with real content.


Please do not feel discouraged though: by the necessity to destroy our present relationship for the sake of renewal, I do not mean the revision of Trianon. There is, however, urgent need for dialogue between our historians which requires another initiative, another conference. As regards to my limited and specific knowledge of social sciences and the time limits of my presentation, I will talk to you about problems and suggest possible solutions in a rather straightforward way. Please listen with an open heart!


‘Sine qua non clichés’  


  1. understanding and love require us to get to know each other mutually (we like the things we know about)
  2. we are afraid of the unknown and fear triggers aggression
  3. in order to get to know ourselves better, we have to be aware of other cultures
  4. uniqueness is best observed through differences
  5. learning about other cultures can be enriching for us

Are we familiar with our neighbours’ cultures? Do we know our own culture at all? If you were asked to describe your country’s folk music in three sentences, would you be able to answer the question? (The question concerns our Hungarian guests, as well). What makes Hungarian folk music Hungarian, Slovak folk music Slovak and Romanian folk music Romanian? I am rather sceptical: average people would get embarrassed by questions related to their own cultures, not to mention questions concerning others’. But let me help you…


A guide to folk songs and Bartók’s mentality

All three nations have songs occurring only in their countries with characteristics nowhere else to be found, while there are a number of songs we have borrowed from each other and shaped it in our own image.

Bartók’s complex definition, among others, describes the term ‘folk song’ in the following, rather simple way: folk songs were sung in a certain territory by many for a long time in the same way and were transmitted through an oral tradition; To further refine the question though, in a narrower sense[2], folk music is peasant music as it was preserved, carried, refined and transmitted by peasants, unlike town music; it carries a particular style; it has a power to assimilate and reshape recent musical trends in line with its own style[3] “it spontaneously satisfies musical instinct and is therefore a natural phenomenon”… it embodies the most excellent artistic perfection. Folk songs are classical demonstrations of how a musical idea can be expressed the best possible way through humbleness.[4] 

Bartók’s folk music collecting trips started in 1906 following Kodály’s instructions and he showed interest in the music of neighbouring peoples from the very beginning. At that time, before World War I, he gained his inspiration from a pure source.[5] As he says: „… I discovered peasant music in its heyday in Hungary, just like it was in the case of the Slovaks, Ruthenians and Romanians.[6]


Let us move from the north to the south:


  1. The main characteristics of Slovak folk music

Bartók examined 15 000 melodies- including notes, the number of melody lines, the last note of the main caesura, the number of syllables and ambitus- which, in 1920 led to the creation of a theory still regarded as a reference point today. [7]

a, old-style songs are usually related to certain occasions: wedding songs, harvest songs, hay songs, cradle songs etc. melodies called valaská (different variations of the same melody), predominantly parlando rubato songs. These usually consist of isometric 6-syllable lines sung in Mixolidyan scale about peasantry and are to be found north of Zólyom County (Zvolen) in Slovakia influenced by the vlach colonisation[8] which resulted in the occurrence of different variations in Slovakia.

Example: Joj, Zajali, zajali


b, Moravian melodies and the tempo giusto variations of valaská melodies evolved into 6-7-8 or more syllables with an isometric structure, a group of melodies of homogeneous style

Example: Ked’som bola– melody 16 (BBÍ/3, p. 191)

c, New-style folk songs; usually 4 lines with structures like ABAA, ABBA, AAvAvA, AA5BA, ABCA etc. The first and last lines are always identical with a strong influence of the Hungarian new style, often sung in two-part with parallel third Example: Takaja do tanca… Elment a szeretőm… (AABA)

(My love is gone)- two-part in Hungarian too

As a natural consequence of Hungarians and Slovaks living together over a thousand years, we gave and borrowed a number of songs as well. One of the most well-known examples to demonstrate this, is a song called Megkötöm lovamat (I tie my horse). It is important to note that the Slovak version of the song inspired the Slovak national anthem.


Example: Megkötöm lovamat… -Azt mondják, nem adnak… (B.B. used it as an inspiration for his 10 Easy Pieces for Piano)- Kopala studienku pozerala do nej

I tie my horse… They say they won’t give me…

(Ironically enough, most Hungarians would mention this among the top five Hungarian folk songs due to beat-pop stars like János Bródy and Zsuzsa Koncz who earned the song popularity with a version (If I were a rose) of strong political message against the one-party system).

  1. The main characteristics of Hungarian folk music[9]

Having studied 7000 melodies (apart from variations), the Bartók-system, a classification based on scientific research emerged from Béla Vikár, Zoltán Kodály, László Lajtha, Antal Molnár and Bartók’s collection experience. It was first published in 1933, it is still regarded as a main reference point that has not been challenged by subsequent findings.

a, old style: predominantly parlando rubato rhythm, four melody lines, strophes, isometric lines, 6-7-8-9-10-11-12 syllables, pentatonic scale (Asian, Northern Turkish-Tatar origins), descending melodic line, well-known across the Carpathian Basin, even in Moldova

Example (for descending fifth too): Fölszállott a páva… 6 lines (The peacock has flown onto to the wall of the county hall)

Istenem, Istenem… 12 lines (My God, my God)

b, melodies without homogeneous character: Western European influence through Czech-Moravian-Slovak transmission (not through German), old songs performed on special occasions- wedding, harvest and matchmaking melodies of often funny, impertinent content.

Example: Arass rózsám, arass, megadom a garast, ha én meg nem adom ihajla… (Harvest, my sweetheart, harvest); Little bird…

c, new-style melodies started to appear in the second half of the nineteenth century. They are characterised by tempo giusto rhythm and are based on 10-11 syllable old–style melodies with major scale and AABA, ABBA, AA5BA etc. patterns (the first and last lines are identical). These melodies have had an influence on Slovak and Ruthenian music while it had no impact on Romanian and South Slavic melodies.

Example: Udvaromon hármat fordult a kocsi (The car has been to my garden three times) (ABBvA)

  1. The main characteristics of Romanian folk music[10]

Some of the main elements of Bartók’s observations between 1917 and 1934:

a, Romanian folk music cannot be defined by territorial homogeneity and is mainly concentrated in Bihor, Hunyad (Hunedoara) and Máramaros (Maramureş). The folklore in Hunyad and Bihor has not been affected by any foreign melodies and, in terms of style, it is thus regarded as the most characteristic form of Romanian folk music. (Bartók had the opportunity to listen to 8000 recordings from Southern Romania only after the writing had already been published).

b, It has two main musical dialects: Máramaros (Maramureş)-Ugocsa (Ugocea) in the north and 1. Banat in the south (also called refrain dialect) 2. Bihor 3. Phrygian cadence in Alsó-Fehér (Alba de Jos), Hunyad (Hunedoara) Szeben (Sibiu) County. The third concerns the Mezőség (Câmpia Transilvaniei) and Kis-Küküllő (Târnava Mică) and Nagy-Küküllő (Târnava Mare) where old pentatonic Székely melodies with 8 syllables were found.

Example: Árva vagyok apa nélkül (variation 43a) (I am but a fatherless orphan)- Haida mandra…(BBÍ/3. pp. 251. 43b)

c, The four important types of Romanian folklore include colinde (carols); funeral songs, instrumental dance melodies; melodies not related to special occasions (doina). The text of Romanian folk songs usually consists of 8-syllable lines (extension to 11 syllables e.g. „trai, lai lai”).


Example: Bună veste, gazdă-n casă… (colinda)

d, Hora lungă (long song), the oldest form of Romanian folklore, first occurred before World War I in Romania and Máramaros-Ugocsa-, homogeneous character

e, The melodies in Máramaros, unlike in other regions, are sung in a dance-like dotted rhythm, except for hora lungă.

Example: Jocul Bărbătesc- Hej tu măndru…

f, Hungarian new-style had no influence on Romanian folk music.

How could Bartók decide whose music has been borrowed from neighbouring peoples? He was guided by the law of large numbers and geographical distribution. If a melody in Slovakia, for instance, is sung in a number of variations but in a region of mixed population Hungarians are familiar with only a limited number of variations, most probably, Hungarians borrowed the melody from Slovaks. He also concludes that Hungarian pentatonic scale was taken over by Romanians from the Mezőség who then incorporated it in their music. On the one hand, he argues that the scale shows clear resemblance to the music of the Volga-Finnic Cheremis, on the other hand, he points out that Hungarian pentatonic melodies are structured by strophes of 6-7-8-9-10-11-12-syllable lines while in Romania there is only an 8-line variant. These arguments based on research clearly show that Bartók’s intention was not to label Romanian, or in a similar case, Slovak folk music as Hungarian. It is important to note that at the end of every comparative study, Bartók admits that there are still undiscovered areas and that he does not exclude that future research might reinterpret his findings.

Bartók’s classification of folk music is still considered as the main guiding principle for Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian ethnomusicologists. The discipline has, of course, gone through enormous development, with results confirming and refining Bartók’s findings.

Although Bartók sought to reveal the truth[11] and, being a real scientist, he avoided forming an opinion in the lack of adequate knowledge, he had to face a lot of heavy criticism. At home he was accused of being a „traitor” and „unpatriotic poisoning the well” while in Romania he was labelled as a „dangerous chauvinist”, a supporter of „Hungarian revisionism”. In Slovakia the third volume of Slovak folk songs could not be published until his death as the decision makers found the large proportion of new-style Hungarian melodies exaggerating. However, there have always been experts to defend his views, like the Hungarian Folklore Association or the Romanian Composers’ Association.

“I should like to point out- Bartók writes to Vinko Žganec, Croatian ethnomusicologist that there is nothing humiliating in the fact that one nation, or especially a small region such as the Muraköz, falls in one respect or the other under the influence of their neighbours on this side or that. The people of the Muraköz could still remain, and in fact have remained Croatian, just as, for instance, the Slovenes have remained Slovenes, however much their folk music has been Germanized. (…) The most pleasing of all things would be if each country, each region, even each village could produce something of its own, original, unique. But this is impossible, for people –whether they speak the same language or not- come into contact with one another. It is these interactions that we, as research workers, must endeavour to unravel with the most impartiality.”[12]

Let me now quote from Bartók’s love letter written in 1907 to a young violinist, Stefi Geyer:

„Something else about life’s meaning (…) to a certain extent, almost everybody and everything has something to live for, even mosquitos and fleas do. My purpose, for instance, is to give people small pleasures and, in general, to collect folk songs for the benefit of a group of debauched people pretending to be gentlemen, called Hungarian intellectuals (…)”.[13]

The letter conveys Bartók’s commitment and humbleness mixed with bitter irony to express the composer’s critical and unbiased opinion of a society and a social class that he was also a member of. Bartók, in a letter written to a good friend called Ioan Buşiţia, a secondary school teacher from Belényes (Beiuș)in 1912, emphasises the importance of collaboration and condemns dissension:

„I am sending you a book of poetry by Endre Ady, our youngest and most respected poet since Petőfi and Arany. Let me call your attention to the poems on pages 30, 34, 38, 44 (…). The first poem says that all Hungarians, Romanians and Slovaks in this country should unite as they have become brothers through shared misery. No other poet has dared to express it before.”[14]

Bartók was driven by the motivation of thorough understanding which nothing could better demonstrate than the fact that he was learning Slovak, Romanian and Ruthenian in order to be able to take notes on the spot and to discover textual connections immediately. He mastered Romanian and developed good comprehension skills in Slovak and Ruthenian so that no interpreter was necessary when writing down the text of a song. (Unfortunately, my language skills fall far behind that level, however, I pay attention to the right pronunciation and the meaning of the text, taking prosodic rules into consideration when performing foreign melodies).

Most importantly, neither World War I, nor the Treaty of Trianon, nor World War II could break Béla Bartók’s strong character. It could have happened differently though: his hometown became part of Romania and his second home, Bratislava was “lost” too. Many would agree that these events could have triggered negative feelings in him towards Slovaks and Romanians but they did not. He was extremely worried about the Romanian-Hungarian friendship[15], he was concerned about the fragile nature of human relations and that he might lose his job, a world where he feels most comfortable: a world of peaceful and open-hearted people be it near the Ipoly (Ipel), in Bihor or Somogy.


Despite our significantly better opportunities today, we rarely care about each other out of pure curiosity and conviction, with an open mind. What leads to such disagreements? Why is there a need for such conferences?

Others’ experience

As I mentioned earlier, I collect folk tunes alone, especially from Hungarians. I have been to Slovakia to collect Ruthenian melodies with Mr Gergely Agócs and I have done research among the Roma in the Bodrogköz, Szabolcs as well as Kis-Küküllő and Székelyland in Romania among the Hungarian Roma. I have been to Hungarian families in Moldavia, to the Gyimes (Ghimeş), the Mezőség (Câmpia Transilvaniei) and Kalotaszeg (Țara Călatei) with special attention to the villages of the latter two dialects. Preparing for this conference, I visited some of the families I regularly meet this September and I carried out a small-scale opinion poll. The majority of the respondents were peasant women: some of them have hardly ever left their villages; some of them live in a village of mixed population; some in villages of purely Hungarian population. To the question whether they have ever had problems with their Romanian neighbours or with Romanians in general, they all said they had never had any, not even during Ceausescu’s time. When asked though what they think about multicultural marriages they said they preferred Hungarians marrying Hungarians. “Why? Because people like to stick to their own traditions- said Mrs Eke from Buza. This utterance carries the question of identity and, to some extent, religion, a major issue in villages. If love proves to be stronger than traditions, boys will inherit their father’s while girls their mother’s religion. (Catholic-Protestant marriages in Hungary work in the same way. Let us be hopeful that this unique form of democracy is being followed and that even bilingual children are raised in such families).

As far as I am concerned, throughout my song collecting trips and concert tours I rarely got in touch with Romanians but whenever I did, be it when asking for information in a village or changing a tyre on the motorway, I carry nice memories of it. I have also talked to Zoltán Kallós, Kossuth-prize winner ethnographer and ethnomusicologist, who probably everyone has heard about. “Válaszút (Rascruci)- says Uncle Zoli– before Ceausescu used to be a village of mixed population forming a small community without any problems. There used to be two pubs in the village with Romanians dancing in the bigger one and Hungarians in the smaller one at a time, what is more, advanced dancers sometimes joined each other’s group. This small community ceased to exist during the Ceausescu regime and musicians were told what songs they were allowed to play at weddings. In mixed villages, dance events were prohibited and continuity could not be upheld any more. The old musicians and dancers died and after 40 years young people had no opportunities to learn these dances. Whenever someone was singing in Hungarian, ‘securitate’ ordered an interrogation on what they had sung and why they had done so. Ms Mari Eke from Buza was one of them. They searched my premises, destroyed my manuscripts and took some of my letters. Even Romanian folklorists were stigmatised and called nationalist, ‘narodnik’. It was apparent these days that average Romanians were influenced negatively and were turned against the Hungarians.” – And what is it like today? – I asked- “Here in Válaszút we do not face any difficulties. Only those pretend to be superior who have been misled by politics and TV programmes.” Unfortunately, he did not clarify what he exactly meant by this.

The other intellectual I talked to was a classical musician from Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), also familiar with the peasant music of a number of Székely villages. He pointed out that there is an idea recently emerging, holding together more and more people these days: “we are Transylvanians”. This is an identity independent from nationality (usually emphasised by the Romanians from Transylvania, according to him). In my understanding, it implies the need for belonging together, in this case, determined by geography, to take a stand against the lack of unity. One may wonder though: not everyone in Romania comes from Transylvania; the people living in areas with mixed population face this problem in a different way than those in ethnically homogeneous villages; the inhabitants of villages maintain more personal relations with each other than those of cities.

Of course I asked him about the territorial autonomy of Székelyland too. He said it was not just the matter of ethnicity and culture but it also raises economic issues. He mentioned disproportionate payback as an example: it means that “compared to the contribution of the Székely counties to Romania’s economy, they are paid back a disproportionately little amount from Bucharest, the money being rather paid to the poorest counties”. This issue is not insignificant. In general, we shall say that there are no major difficulties to make ends meet, the people are usually not involved in issues related to minority and ethnicity and they are “not looking for someone to blame”. This is the case in Germany, Northern-Ireland and France too.

It is not my task to do justice, let me share my views on this though: I stand up for the preservation of the culture, the language and the rights of my nation within and beyond the borders Hungary. I do not know if in Romania autonomy is the only way to create and safeguard these principles or whether “law” should provide access to language learning from crèche to university, the use of mother tongue in public administration, institutions and theatre etc. As I have never lived there, I cannot realistically assess the situation. Many of us are still bothered by the memories of the South Slavic war that makes me worried. I do not want this. What is the problem with bilingual product labels for potatoes and carrots in a market place in Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mures) for instance? Is it too provocative? Would it lead to the declaration of the „union of Transylvania”, its re-annexation to Hungary? Would Romanians’ territorial and cultural integrity be infringed if Hungarians enforced their minority rights? Let me give you an interesting example before I draw the final conclusions of my presentation: I have travelled to Finland several times with my musician colleagues where the names of towns are indicated in Swedish as well. –„Do Swedish people live here by any chance?- we were wondering.- No.- Why is it necessary then?- To help Swedish people find their way here (Swedish speakers comprise 6% of the Finnish population)”- he said.

As I went to collect songs in Slovakia only a couple of times, in the lack of personal experience, I asked Gergely Agócs, ethnomusicologist-folklorist, a colleague of mine from Fülek (Fil’akovo) who lives in Budapest but, due to his work and family, feels himself at home in both countries, and has thus a better overview of the situation than average Hungarians from Upper Hungary.

From Upper Hungary… Upper Hungary- Horné Uhorsko used to be the northern part of the Kingdom of Hungary; during the Turkish occupation the Kingdom of Hungary with the narrow western part of the Carpathian Basin; from the 19th century- Horná zem. Slovaks cannot come to terms with this expression due to a conflict dating back to World War I. Can we, Hungarians make people realise that Slovaks, Ruthenians and Poles have always lived in Upper Hungary (Felvidék) to imply that we do not only mean Hungarians from Upper Hungary by this term? Are Slovaks aware that the border between Slovakia and the Czech Republic used to be the border of the Kingdom of Hungary? Are they aware that national borders, in this case the borders of the Kingdom of Hungary, play a role in shaping history and nations?

There have always been and will always be extremists who a, like to sing “Upper Hungary will be ours” waving their hands and who b, call those irredentist who prefer going on a trip or collecting songs in Upper Hungary instead of South Slovakia. When I am learning songs from Upper Hungary, by the term I mean to describe the dialect, and within that, its typical characters, villages, singers, musicians; Hungarians, who sing the parallel of songs in Slovakian as well, and the other way around, Slovaks too; but I also think of the Ruthenian women living in the village of Kyjov in the area once called Sáros County (Šariš) In our history lessons we learn about the thousand-year living together. As far as I know, in your case, dear audience of Slovak nationality, it is called thousand-year oppression.

Could this be the root of our problems? For centuries, all our kings took the remonstrance of Saint Stephen seriously (“a monolingual country is weak and vulnerable”). The Slovaks fighting heroically against Turkish oppression received titles of Hungarian nobility and became a member of the Hungarian nation, just like any other Hungarian nobleman. And they did not even have to learn Hungarian. Of course the terms ‘nation-national-nationality’ have received a different meaning by the 19th century, they are not related to nobility anymore but rather to the intellectual-cultural community. During the times of the Monarchy, Hungarian leaders had to make compromises with Vienna towards the minorities, however, they wanted to express their power at the same time. Undoubtedly, the measures of Albert Apponyi were a big step backwards compared to the minority policy of József Eötvös and the minority laws of 1868. But should 800 years prior to that and the future too be lost as a result of these – legitimate – grievances? A couple of years ago we produced a traditional folklore show with the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, involving Hungarian and Slovakian artists, as well. It is entitled: Highland Treasures. A production comprised of Hungarian and Slovak material up to 45-45% and the rest were Ruthenian songs from our own collections. Last year we brought this show to Slovakia as well with great success and appreciation. However, with a different title, in order to avoid “trouble”. Is this something normal in the 21st century?

As I already started right in the middle of things, let me continue with an even more sensitive topic: when I mentioned to Gergő Agócs that while I was analysing the Romanian-Hungarian relationship, I stumbled upon a Hungarian saying – “porridge doesn’t explode” – that slightly maliciously suggests that an actively aggressive behaviour is not typical for Romanians, he pointed out that unfortunately it was not true for Slovaks…- Many families have a »Malina Hedvig«, only they did not receive such media attention. I got the worst beating of my life at the age of 16 when Slovaks beat me for having talked Hungarian to my Hungarian friends – back then still Czechoslovakia – in Bratislava. The problem is not that we were beaten but the reasons behind. – And what do you think the reasons are? – I asked. – Why is that? Is it politics that almost always divides people everywhere? – When we blame politics – he answered – we should not think of party politics or the government but all its consequences: documentaries, the priest’s sermon, the aspiration of the church not to let Hungarian priests serve in Hungarian villages, of school-books, books, etc. As long as school-books consistently start by the “thousand year oppression”, it will be very difficult to find common ground … – A couple of years have passed since then, what do you think about the situation now? – It is interesting, – he laughed –the political representation seeks to be in line with the mood of the “public” which is still strongly anti-Hungarian, intellectuals however, tend to maintain a much better relationship among themselves, a “European way of thinking” is becoming widespread.– Do you think time is the best medicine? Once the memory of Trianon won’t be that “close”? – As long as Slovaks are afraid that we want the revision of Upper Hungary, a fear that results in an army of complexes, Hungarians will always be suspicious too.

Is that what you, dear Romanian audience, feel as well with respect to Transylvania?


Why is it so? What is the solution? What are we doing wrong? And what right?

I believe that ignorance and seclusion are the main sources of the problem. We should get to know each other and develop an open-minded attitude, to mention another commonplace. A couple of years ago, I was sitting in a seminar of György Spiró[16], who burst out saying that he finds it astonishing that us, Hungarians (even the majority of intellectuals) live in total ignorance of our neighbours. We sooner inform ourselves of the US, England, the Germans and the French than for example the Polish, whom we regard as our friends. Not to mention our close neighbours…We were speechless. Although he was absolutely right, it had never really crossed our minds. But it is still the case. As if Hungary would not be willing to accept its own geopolitical situation, pretending to be surrounded by Western European countries.

How can we measure that? The simplest way is through TV channels, through the news on TV and radio. Hotels in all the surrounding countries provide their guests access to the TV channels of the neighbouring countries. It is not the case in Hungary. We do not have a provider where one can find Slovak, Romanian, Ukrainian, Croatian etc. channels (this is why Gergő, for instance, has changed to Slovak UPC- there he has the option to watch all the Hungarian channels along with Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian and Czech ones). Or let us take cash machines: Eperjes (Prešov), where the first village with Hungarian inhabitants is about 50 kilometres away, we may choose from the following languages when withdrawing money: Slovak, Polish, German, English, French and Hungarian. Where I grew up, in Sátoraljaújhely (a border city, called Nové Mesto, on the Slovak side of the border), one has the option to carry out a transaction in Hungarian, English, German and maybe French. These gestures on our behalf are signs of incredible indifference, which I am not proud of.

Another example: over the last 20 years Hungary has been making efforts in the field of cultural diplomacy. The country has organised cultural seasons and weeks, many of which I was also invited to. Where? In Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, England. Although this is something we should organise in our neighbouring countries too. Not only cultural weeks, but Slovak, Romanian, Serbian, Croatian, Ukrainian seasons should be held.

I have left one extraordinary and absolutely positive example for the end of my presentation: the birth of the Slovak dance house movement. In 2001, Zoltán Rockenbauer, former anthropology student, then Minister of Culture, was travelling to the Czech Republic for a ministerial meeting. He suggested organising a cultural forum for our countries like the Folklore Festival of the Visegrad Cooperation Countries and he immediately offered to hold the first one in Hungary, at the Hungarian Heritage House. He assigned Gergő Agócs the task to organise the event, who invited a non-professional, a professional, and a folklore ensemble from each country. First, he took them to the National Táncház Festival, then he organised music and dance sessions for them at Buda Dance House Fonó (dance teachers speaking Slavic languages were teaching Hungarian folk dance). In the evenings, the ensembles had the chance to introduce themselves in the framework of national nights at the Hungarian House of Heritage. Although some of the guests skipped the sessions, the young Slovak guests, for instance, participated in the programmes with amazing enthusiasm. The sessions were held in March. In October, Gergő received an invitation to the first dance house in Slovakia. He was not able to attend then. In December, the number of visitors at the dance house organised at V-klub (the largest university club) in Bratislava hit a historical record. Next January, Gergő, along with Ferenc Sebő (one of the “founding fathers” of the dance house movement in Hungary) went to Slovakia and could hardly believe their eyes: countless enthusiastic, young people were celebrating their names cheeringly. A documentary has been made of the new “craze” and by that time Besztercebánya (Bistrica), Zólyom (Zvolen) and Kassa (Kosice) had joined Bratislava as well. Hungarians from Upper Hungary are invited to dance and teach at dance houses on a regular basis. What is more, since then, they have been learning Hungarian and Romanian dances from Transylvania too and many people visit the dance camps in Kalotaszentkirály (Sâncraiu), Kommandó (Comandău) and Válaszút (Răscruci). This is a grand breakthrough! It is a small but far-reaching group of young progressive intellectuals with success stories that cannot be compared to the diplomatic acts of the past 90 years.

An individual success: one of the engines of this movement is Vladimir Michalko, whose student, Peter Vajda became an Aranysarkantyú dancer not long ago. Aranysarkantyú is the first prize of the most prominent competition of the Hungarian non-professional folkdance movement. What does Zoltán Kallós usually say? “We are Hungarians as long as we speak Hungarian and dance Hungarian.” This, of course, can also be adjusted to the Slovak and Romanian culture. What Peter Vajda did – winning against Hungarians in Hungarian folkdance – goes much beyond that: he “danced across” a “bridge” to us. I can only talk about him with cheers. And the fact that he unfortunately has not been selected for this year’s “Fölszállott a páva”, a talent show which started last year on MTV (Hungarian Television), is now a real burden on our conscience. What a historic moment we have missed by that. Real content could have filled the picture as the competition has been announced for the whole Carpathian Basin. This might have been a motivation for young Romanian dancers and musicians and even more talented Slovaks to apply for the next season. If only we could understand this. For we know that Romanian folk dance has always been taught in our dance houses (dances from Méhkerék (Micherechi), Kalotaszeg and Mezőség). In Romania a lot of young people know how to dance Hungarian dances. We should seek to create opportunities to such ‘bridge building’ people and for such occasions. Bartók would be crying tears of joy now.

What could help us on the way to success? It is commonplace to say that music and dance are universal but they have the potential to eliminate linguistic difficulties; they enable people to forge relationships more effectively than anything else. (Although we have to know the text by heart in order to be able to sing folk songs at the top of our lungs, at the very beginning, I would appreciate some international ‘lalala’ as well).

Among you, are the decision makers of tomorrow, the parents of the next generation. I am not worried: with great hope I look forward to a future where responsible decisions are made by the open-hearted listeners of – among others – such an open-minded conference. Take good care of this attitude. Do not only see and listen with the eyes and ears of Bartók but act with his mentality as well! He never missed to emphasise that the culture of our nations is common – while keeping all its individual features –and he always acted according to that.

Thank you for your kind attention! Lastly, please listen to a compilation which is based on some of Béla Bartók’s 44 Duos.

Reference list

 [1] Béla Bartók’s letter to Octavian Beu. January 10, 1931. In: 99 Bartók Letters. Ferenc, L. (Ed.). (1974). 99 Bartók letters. Bucharest: Kriterion.

Octavian Beu: Romanian folklorist who started corresponding with Bartók on his radio programme about the composer.

(English translation: Demény, J. (Ed.). (1971). Béla Bartók Letters. Budapest: Corvina Press.)

[2]The concepts of folk music and folk songs raise many questions. The public tends to think that a nation’s folk music is homogeneous which is not true at all for folk music is comprised of two elements. One is folk-art music or folk music of the towns, the other is called peasant music. This is how it is in Eastern Europe, that is, in the part of the world that interests us the most.”

Hungarian version- Tallián, T. (Ed.). (1989). Béla Bartók’s Writings Vol. I. Budapest: Zenemű.(p. 138)

English version provided by the translator of the presentation

[3] “The Eastern European peasantry has gone through gradual development. Although peasants –with respect to their works of art- have been influenced by towns (Western-Europe) for shorter or longer periods, they managed to incorporate foreign elements in their lives in a way that, as a result, they have been able to create something that is different from the starting point: folk art or, in terms of music, folk music. This incorporates the requirements of spatial and time dimensions mentioned above”. (Bartók, 1920 p. 102)

Tallián, T. (Ed.). (1920). Béla Bartók’s Writings Vol. I. Budapest: Zenemű.

English version provided by the translator of the presentation

[4] Bartók, B. (1932). On the Significance of Folk Music In: Tallián, T. (Ed.). (1989). Béla Bartók’s Writings Vol. I. Budapest: Zenemű. (p 149)

[5] Bartók mentioned that speaking about a „pure source” after World War I is rather problematic: soldiers sent to war far from home spread and ’scattered’ their songs in foreign countries and ‘absorbed’ local songs at the same time. This led to the loss of homogeneity and purity in terms of style.

[6] Bartók, B. (1932). On the Significance of Folk Music In: Tallián, T. (Ed.). (1989). Béla Bartók’s Writings Vol. I. Budapest: Zenemű. (p 149)

[7] For more details see: Bartók, B. Slovak Folk Songs. In: Tallián, T. (Ed.). (1989). Béla Bartók’s Writings Vol. I. Budapest: Zenemű.(pp 166-209)

[8] The Vlachs were shepherd peoples of strong ethnic awareness in the 17th and 18th centuries. Fleeing from the Turks, form the Balkan Peninsula they reached as far as the northern territories of the Carpathian Basin, and colonised Czech and Moravian wasteland. The Vlachs were entitled to tax credits for 15 years and to further tax allowances.

[9] For more details see: Bartók, B. (1933). Hungarian Peasant Music. In: Tallián, T. (Ed.). (1989). Béla Bartók’s Writings Vol. I. Budapest: Zenemű. (pp 148-165)

[10] Bartók, B. (1934). Our Folk Music and the Folk Music of the Neighbouring Peoples. Tallián, T. (Ed.). (1989). Béla Bartók’s Writings Vol. I. Budapest: Zenemű.(pp 224-269)

[11] „Please believe me when I say that I have not been and never shall be, guided by any chauvinist bias; my sole aim is to search for the truth and to conduct my research with as much impartiality as is humanly possible. As the clearest proof of this I can point to my explicit statement […] that approximately 38 per cent of the Hungarian material is foreign, chiefly of Slovak origin” [but only 20 per cent of the Slovaks is of Hungarian origin (based on the experience of collecting- further results might modify the picture though)].

Bartók’s Letter to Vinko Žganec. In: 99 Bartók Letters. Ferenc, L. (Ed.). (1974). 99 Bartók letters. Bucharest: Kriterion. (p 134)

(English translation: Demény, J. (Ed.). (1971). Béla Bartók Letters. Budapest: Corvina Press.)

[12] Bartók’s Letter to Vinko Žganec. In: 99 Bartók Letters. Ferenc, L. (Ed.). (1974). 99 Bartók letters. Bucharest: Kriterion. (pp 134-135)

[13] Bartók’s Letter to Stefi Geyer. 6 September, 1907. In: 99 Bartók Letters. Ferenc, L. (Ed.). (1974). 99 Bartók letters. Bucharest: Kriterion. (p 60)

[14] Bartók’s Letter to Ioan Buşiţia. January, 1912. In: 99 Bartók Letters. Ferenc, L. (Ed.). (1974). 99 Bartók letters. Bucharest: Kriterion. (p 76) The mentioned poems are to be found in Endre Ady’s volume called Illés szerkerén (Elijah’s Chariot) and the first poem is Magyar jakobinus dala (Hungarian Jacobin Song).

[15]Bartók’s Letter to Ioan Buşiţia. January, 1912. In: 99 Bartók Letters. Ferenc, L. (Ed.). (1974). 99 Bartók letters. Bucharest: Kriterion. (pp 96-97)

[16] György Spiró is an author, poet, translator, literature historian and dramatist. Between 1992 and 2010 he worked as an associate professor at the faculty of Aesthetics at ELTE (Eötvös Loránd University).