Intercultural Interaction and Music

Intercultural Interaction As Seen Through Hungarian Classical Music

The basis of much Hungarian music, of any and all genres, lies in the folk music tradition; this has also been a large part of the national identity. Although the musical ideas of Hungary have been influenced by its geographic position in central Europe, and the associated links with more classically western styles, rural areas retained an understanding of more traditional styles. This allowed later Hungarian composers of the 19th C to create a classical style that was harked to both new and old. In this respect, the genesis of Hungarian classical music is almost the definition of intercultural interaction.

Johannes Brahms composed a series of 21 Hungarian Dances, the most famous of which is No. 5. These not only bear heavy resemblance to the Csardas tradition of folk dances, but No.5 is a near copy of a Csardas written by Bela Keler (1820-1882); it is believed that Brahms mistook the work for a traditional melody. Whilst this invites accusations of plagiarism in the part of Brahms it gives, for the purposes of understanding intercultural relations, an exceptionally useful example. Brahms, an Austrian, is seen to engage with what he perceives to be the traditional culture of another nation and then utilises it for exposition across the European classical sphere. As a result, an internal type gains an external proliferation in a fashion that helps to bridge deficits of understanding between cultures.

Keler is also a useful example for the explanation of the difficulties with which we are faced when describing music as Hungarian. His place of birth is Bardejov, a Slovakian town, and he was an ethnic Slovak. As such, a singularly modern perspective would place him as a Slovakian composer. However, prior to 1920, Bardejov was known as Bártfa and had existed under the aegis of the Kingdom of Hungary for many hundreds of years; the first written attestation of the town is dated to 1247, but Slovakia had been under Hungarian rule since c.1000. The cultural identity of the composer and his work is thus clouded by more recent political developments. Again, the concept of intercultural interaction comes to the fore, but this time it is used in a more intra-national sense as we attempt to understand the significance of a piece to ethnic groups within a polity.

Budapest is by some way the largest population centre in Hungary and its position on the Upper Danube has contributed to it being both wealthier and more European in nature than rural Hungary, thus it can be seen as being culturally different. With the rise of nationalist sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries composers such as Bartok looked to folk traditions to influence his compositions; he was unifying the traditions of the countryside and city classes in order to encourage national unity. Previously Liszt had harked to the music played by Roma bands when composing his Hungarian Rhapsodies , suggesting a certain continuity of nationalist ideal when Bartok when to the countryside for his research.

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Bela Bartok – Danube on Thames
London’s position as one of Europe’s eminent cities has meant that most Hungarian musicians of prominence, such as Franz Liszt and the pianist Andras Schiff, have spent time in the city. Bartok holds a particular significance because of his commemoration with both an English Heritage Blue Plaque and a bronze statue in South Kensington, marking the location at which he stayed when performing in England.

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