Fehér Anikó: We are Roses…

“Amazing folk music”

There are many sayings about Hungarians. Probably the most well-known is Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leó Szilárd’s response to his Italian colleague, Fermi’s question: “Are there extra terrestrial beings?” which was: “Yes, they are living among us, but they call themselves Hungarians”.

Indeed, we are a unique and interesting nation. We like to amuse ourselves, eat good foods, but if we take a look at our lyrical poetry, the shocking truth is that really joyful texts are very hard to find. Most of the songs are sad, unhappy, bitter, even the dance songs. Our history is not full of events we can be proud of, but our literature, poetry, fine arts and music literature are world-famous. We gave several scientists to the world and many everyday inventions can be attributed to Hungarian inventors. Not to mention our world-famous hospitality, cuisine, and excellent, aromatic wines. So how can this be?

Folk music evolves and changes together with the language. A nation’s linguistic phenomena are also present in its music. Hungarian language has a falling intonation in most cases. The first syllable of a word is always stressed, the end being pronounced somewhat lower, without stress. It is the same with our music. Our songs generally end on the lowest or second lowest note of the tone set. Our so-called “descending songs”, which have a descending melodic line throughout, are very significant.

For the survival of folk songs there are three vital things: continuity (from one generation to the next), variation (birth of individual but generally accepted new forms) and selection (survival of accepted forms). They spread without being written down. Their medium is tradition.

Originally folk songs were not created so that one person could communicate artistic experience to someone else through them. The purpose of their performance was either to express emotions or to serve a practical purpose, for instance people danced to it or listened to it for pleasure. Obviously, nowadays the performance of folk song does not serve this original purpose, since its creative medium, the peasantry or country folk are missing: things are changing. Folk song lives only through us in artificial conditions: in folk song circles, dance hall bands and in the performances of folk musicians who visit schools. It is here that, according to the instructions of Kodály, children become acquainted with and understand musical structures through these performances. The forms, melodies and musical phenomena that had been refined through the centuries touch sensitive people and arouse emotions from them. What has been good enough for others for such a long time must be the best for us also! It is impossible not to like Hungarian folk songs!

If one wants to understand the true Hungarian disposition, it’s the easiest to do so through analysing folk songs. Kodály described Hungarian folk music as  “an organ with a hundred voices”: it has a voice for everything, every occurrence in life. Every emotion, every thought is embodied in folk songs. This study contains 125 Hungarian folk songs through which one can understand the spirit and essence of Hungarian folk music in rough outlines. There are examples for every musical or ethnographical type. In the selection of these songs I took special care to represent all regions of  Hungarian-speaking areas. At the end of the study I provide some songs connected to feasts, holidays or specific functions, as well as some children’s songs (game songs or lullabies). The analyses of these songs are different from those of other songs. I have written down the songs with  “g” as the final note as advised by Kodály (an idea originally taken from the Finnish scholar Ilmari Krohn), according to the practice of folk music research. This makes surveys easier. If there is no key signature, or only one sharp, the tonality will be a major-character mode (Ionian, Mixolydian, etc.) If the key signature is one or more flats, the tonality will be a minor-character mode.

It is my hope that you will enjoy studying these folk songs.

Analyses of folk songs can be found in the charts below them.

Over the years several methods for the categorization of folk songs have been put into practice  (those of Kodály, Bartók, Járdányi, the Catalogue of Hungarian Folk Song Types). However, none of these are complete; an all-embracing system that fulfils all requirements does not yet exist. In this collection I organized and categorized songs in a way that tries to create a balance between the aforementioned systems. I adopted elements from each system, enabling me to present the songs in an order which makes it clear how the songs evolve, how they come one after the other. I also took into consideration the excellent work of Katalin Paksa: Magyar Népzenetörténet (History of the Hungarian Folk Song).

There is an example for each important musical phenomenon, but I was careful to put here the most interesting, most beautiful songs. Dear reader, don’t be afraid to sing them, but never forget that understanding can take you even further. The charm and power of the songs will not be lost if we can understand each note of them, if we can see the true meaning of each melodic movement. I believe this understanding enhances the experience! It is fully possible to become acquainted with music though these folk songs. Even thorough music theory, which analyses everything down to the smallest details, is unable to make a didactic song out of a folk song, its power and fire can not be taken away. Folk songs can make even those musical phenomena which otherwise might look frighteningly difficult, beautiful. They make pentatonic tonality, plagal tonalities, returning melodic lines, etc. clear and understandable.

The supplementary CD provided is a great aid in learning the songs. About half of the tracks are recordings of authentic performances, the rest are my own recordings. The recorders are played by György Rakovszky, zither, hurdy-gurdy and Jew’s harp by József Biriny, and lyre and zither by Győző Inoka. Singers include József Birinyi, Sarolta Szabó, Zsuzsanna Szabó, Hanna Rakovszky, Zsófi Rakovszky and myself.

There are three important components of folk songs: melody, rhythm and text. In the first two you can find some elements which can be measured (such as tone set, podia, etc). The text is more difficult but here it is not our task to analyse texts in detail. However, we are unable to realize the correct interpretation of the song, nor its appropriate context (place and time) without at least a basic awareness of what the text is about. So I will discuss this in a few words where necessary and I provide a summary of the text of every song. I also indicate, where relevant, if the song has been incorporated into a large-scale composition.

Melodic Characteristics:

Range: marking the highest and lowest notes of the song (between which the melody moves)

Tonality: I indicate the tonality using solfa syllables (for pentatonic scales, for example) or if it is diatonic, then with the proper terminology (Dorian, Phrygian, etc.). If the tone set goes at least a third below the key-note of the tonality, then that is a plagal melody, which I will indicate. Where you see no such mark, the tonality is obviously authentic.

Cadences: three numbers, denoting the difference between the final note of each line and the final note of the last line (key-note). There is no need to indicate the cadence of the last line since it is always 1.

Form: we mark the lines by letters. Similarities between lines are marked by numbers in the upper index. A letter v (Av) in the lower index of the letter given for a line means that that line is a variant of the original line. A letter k ( Ak) points out that the similarity only occurs in the cadence, at the end of the line.

Rhythmic Characteristics:

Syllables: I give the number of syllables found in single lines. If there is only one number, it means that the numbers of syllables are the same in every line. But if only one line differs from the rest, I give the number of syllables of each line.

Podia: the number of bars in a line. Isopodic: there are the same number of bars in every line. Below that I refer to the rhythm, whether the song is iso- or heterorhythmic (the rhythm of the lines is the same, or different).

Style: it refers to large groups into which songs can be categorized. Usually we differentiate between two large groups: old style Hungarian folk songs (in which there are more stylistic layers) and new style Hungarian folk songs. Some songs that cannot fit into any of these categories are put into the category “mixed genera” as named by Béla Bartók.

Text: I give the first line of the text. If there is something special about it, I refer to it here. I also denote here if the song has been incorporated into a large-scale composition.

Texts of Hungarian folk songs have at least two different meanings. One is what we can hear and read, the other is what is hidden between the lines. When the text says: The sky has darkened there below with a deep blue hue, the singer is not speaking about the weather, but about the darkening of their own soul. The song beginning “The wild duck swims beautifully in the lake” is an example of symbolism in itself:

The wild duck swims beautifully on the lake,

My horse is grazing peacefully in the meadow,

The bell around his neck chimes beautifully,

My sweetheart, I’ll be yours soon.

Let’s see! The first line is complete happiness itself, the wild duck does what it has to do: it swims in the WATER. In the second line the horse is doing its task, on EARTH. In the third line the bell is ringing, in the AIR, while in the fourth line the fourth element appears: FIRE, the symbol of love. Well, the interaction of these elements is the way of the world, the way of Hungarians and all people, regardless of where they live. Texts of folk songs often have symbolic meanings, but it is not always possible to decipher them. Maybe this mystery, these hidden things add to their beauty. For example, rain can sometimes be good and sometimes be bad, just as life itself. But one thing is for sure, most of the texts are about nothing else but love. About love, which is sometimes happy, sometimes unattainable, sometimes sad, sometimes hopeless but is still the only thing in the world which makes human life beautiful and enables it to continue.


Bartók has divided the Hungarian-speaking areas into four big parts, based on the characteristics of folk music found there: Transdanubia (Dunántúl), Highlands (Felföld), Lowlands (Alföld) and Transylvania (Erdély). To these four, a fifth one, Moldova was later added.


Manner of performance:

I give the Italian terms used for performance practice in classical music.

It is important to mention that if I could ever begin this work again, I would probably change it in some places. After a certain point the analyses of folk songs is somewhat subjective. There can be differences or nonconformities in minor things. These things are dependent on the analyser’s musical taste, expertise and predisposition. But only after a certain point!

I would like to advise you on how best to use the book: never start to analyse a song without first singing it aloud well and heartily! After this you should look at the translation of the text to understand each and every word. Analysis can only come after this. I wish you much joy and success in your study of folk music!

Dr. Anikó Fehér (DLA)         www.feherniko.hu


Lament- and psalmodic-type old-style folk songs                                                   1-7

Old-stratum folk songs with a narrow range                                                           8-16

Mainly old-stratum, mostly pentatonic, non-fifth-changing folk songs                  17-42

Old-stratum folk songs with fifth-change or with fifth-agreement                         43-72

New-style folk songs                                                                                               73-93

Folk songs of feasts and customs                                                                            94-100

Game songs, lullabies                                                                                               101-125

On the CD supplement the first 100 songs of the collection can be heard.

CD 1:  songs 1-51

CD 2:  songs 52-100

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