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Playing Music the Hungarian Way

July 2011 6 Comments

by Devan Wardrop-Saxton

             We have been playing the same note for what feels like at least forty-five minutes: open E, over and over and over again. To my surprise, sustaining the lurching, rolling rhythm central to Hungarian folk music is taking all of my concentration, as is trying to ignore the classical training that insists that I regularize my bowstrokes from frog to tip and keep the changes smooth, lighten up and not press so hard!

            It is my first day at Dudaiskola, a tiny folk music camp tucked away in an equally tiny village south of Lake Balaton. The town is situated on a hill, the houses leading down the slope to the community buildings at the bottom. The crowning jewel of the town is the falú múzeum, a reconstruction of a traditional Hungarian village built around an old Calvinist church. It is open year-round for visitors to peek into the low-ceilinged rooms and witness the not-too-distant past, but for a week every summer it is transformed into the center of the Dudaiskola, with classes held on the grounds and elsewhere in the village. Though the word ”dudaiskola” literally means “bagpipe school” (and yes, there is no shortage of Hungarian bagpipes), it is a general folk arts camp, with music, textiles, and dancing traditional to the area taught to anyone who shows up with a willingness to learn.

            That includes two American exchange students in their last month in the country. We are both classically trained violinists brought up in the American fiddle tradition, and are incredibly excited to finally get our hands, quite literally, on the rich, fascinating music we had heard and wondered about for months as we grew close to our host families, learned to express ourselves in a new language, and became accustomed to the traditions of a culture other than our own.

            We are starting with this deceptively simple exercise because, according to our jovial bear of a fiddle teacher, this bowstroke is the foundation of a csárdás, or Hungarian pair dance. (One of my favorite things about Hungarian folk music is the marriage between music and dance; one does not learn to dance without also learning to sing, and the vast majority of “Hungarian fiddle tunes” I’ve encountered are meant to be both danced and sung, enjoyed by an entire community.) The csárdás usually has two segments: a slow introduction, or lassú, and then a faster second segment, or friss. For this week, the teacher had explained before leaving us to our repetititions, our little beginner’s class of four fiddles and two violas was going to learn local tunes, music from the county of Somogy. But in order to do that with any measure of proficiency, we first had to master this bowstroke.

            It is a variation on the most basic of bowstrokes: frog to tip, there’s your down bow, then tip to frog, there’s your up bow. Simple enough. In our exercise, each stroke lasts for two beats. However, there is a swing in momentum that subdivides the strokes further, a smooth start with a rushing jerk at the end that emphasizes the second beat of each stroke.

            Mastering this stroke is even more vital for the viola players in our midst. In Hungarian folk music, the viola is an accompaniment instrument. Similiar to the concept of fiddlers playing chords underneath whoever is soloing in a jam circle, the viola is solely chords and rhythm, usually playing fifths. To make this easier, our teacher explained, violas from Hungarian communities in Romania sometimes have a flattened bridge and only three strings. In Somogy, however (and modern Hungary in general), the more familiar four-stringed viola is the traditional instrument. The simplest pattern for viola accompaniment is as described above, a swinging 1 2 1 2, but there are myriad forms varying in complexity and depending on both the type of dance and the region it comes from.

            For the fiddles, however, who always play melody, conveying the lurching rhythm is still important. As music for very specific types of dances, clearly communicating the emphasis on particular beats is key for the musician. The rhythm, when correctly sustained underneath and through the melody, lends the music much of its personality. Here, practicing, I am secretly glad to not have to worry about melody yet; the idea of keeping this rhythm constantly in mind and letting it come through an undoubtedly complicated melody line is daunting.

            With the return of our teacher, the room falls silent, our bows released from our task. He is going to teach us our first tune, a lassú segment, but not before impressing upon us again the importance of the rhythmic foundation. We learn to sing the tune first; it’s in something like A minor, though having accompaniment of open fifths means that the tune shifts freely from mode to mode, minor to major to minor again. Interestingly, and not uncommonly, the tune used for singing is slightly different than the tune played by the instruments. The verse structure is also a conventional form: each verse consists of two phrases, and the second one is repeated before moving on to the next verse. Like many Hungarian folk songs, the words are in turns incredibly unremarkable and then suddenly sweetly poetic, a glimpse into a peasant life from generations ago. With the words in our ears, we learn the first few notes of the instrumental tune as our teacher plays us a sparser version, leaving the ornamentation that lends the music its drama and excitement for a later, more experienced time.

            The rhythm that we practiced so diligently isn’t consistent, and I still have to concentrate, but already it comes a little more naturally. Unlike the mental fight I imagined myself having over both sustaining the rhythm and crafting the melody line, the two are natural partners, each enriching the other as they wind together and become an inseparable whole. We are caught up in the process, focusing on keeping the steady, rolling rhythm pulsing beneath the tune, trying to maintain the balance between the soaring melody and that comfortable sigh of a rhythm. It’s not perfect, but after all, it is only our first day, and we are that much closer to playing Hungarian music the Hungarian way.

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about the author

Devan Wardrop-Saxton is currently a junior at Lewis & Clark College, where she studies Theatre and German and spends most of her time running gleefully from rehearsal to rehearsal and playing as much music and as many instruments as she can get her hands on!

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  • Elemér said:

    Very interesting – I wish I could have shared your experience. How far did you progress in learning to play ‘Hungarian music the Hungarian way’?

  • Red said:

    About 2 months ago I met and became friends with a delightful American-Hungarian family. I am enjoying learning to speak and read Hungarian. Since I am a fiddler and mandolin player (bluegrass, folk and Celtic genre so far), I am inspired by your wonderful article to also try my bow and pick at some Hungarian music. The possibilities are truly endless. Thanks for sharing this! All the best! Red

  • Devan said:

    Elemér: Alas, I still consider myself a Hungarian fiddle beginner, though a very enthusiastic one!

    Red: Nagyon örülök! I’m so glad to hear that! Best of luck with both the language and the music; as I’m sure you’re discovering, they’re complicated, but so lovely once you get to know them.

  • Donald said:

    Devan: If you’re interested in continuing your Hungarian folk music studies, there’s a summer camp in Washington state where you can learn this music: Ti Ti Tabor Hungarian Dance and Music Camp (http://www.tititabor.org). I grew up in Portland, though I’ve since moved to Chicago for law school, and I’ve played this music for nearly 20 years now.

  • Devan said:

    Donald: Thanks for the recommendation! I actually danced with the Kisbetyárok ensemble in Seattle my senior year of high school, and most if not all of its members attended regularly, but the timing never lined up for me to go. I will definitely check it out, though!

  • Tunde said:


    I am trying to learn Hungarian fiddling. I have a hard time finding sheet music. Any recommendations?

    Thank you for the lovely article.