Sunday 20 October 2019

A winter warmer - all the way from Hungary


George Hamilton

It was the European Cross-Country championships in the Netherlands last weekend that brought back memories of a trip to the event six years ago.

It was in Budapest that Fionnuala McCormack became the first woman to retain the title, helping Ireland to a team gold medal in the process.

But it's an occasion I cannot revisit without recalling the glacial chill that forced a retreat from the festive street markets in search of a welcoming hearth and a blazing fire.

We found it in small hotel where we were soon joined by the resident musician, who unpacked his cimbalom, donned a pair of gauntlets, and started to play.

This music box on legs counts as the national instrument of Hungary. When I hear the hammers strike the strings, Zoltán Kodály comes instantly to mind.

Kodály was born in what is now Slovakia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, on tomorrow's date in 1882.

It was in Budapest that he had his formal musical education, and it was there that he met a kindred spirit in Béla Bartók.

The pair of them shared an interest in collecting folk songs, which was to become the seminal influence in both of their writing careers.

Kodály was a teacher, too, taking charge of composition classes at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest.

It was in the field of education that he made the greatest impact. The internationally recognised Kodály Method introduced the daily teaching of music at primary school, putting it at the very heart of the curriculum.

Choral music was at the core of Kodály's output. His first success was Psalmus Hungaricus, an adaptation of Psalm 55, written for the 50th anniversary of the creation of a new capital city for Hungary.

In 1873, three separate towns on either side of the Danube - Old Buda, Buda, and Pest - had been officially amalgamated as Budapest.

Psalmus Hungaricus highlighted the nation's rich musical heritage and cultural identity.

His comic opera Háry János has its roots in the folk tradition, too. It's the story of a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars - the Háry János of the title - who spends his days in a village inn, regaling anyone who'll listen with tall tales of his time as a soldier.

The tallest of those are that Napoleon's wife fell in love with him, and it was he who was responsible, single-handedly, for the defeat of the Little General.

The score emphasises that it's not to be taken too seriously, beginning with an orchestral representation of a sneeze.

In Hungary, if somebody sneezes when they're telling a story, however ridiculous it sounds, it's taken as confirmation that the story is true.

It was first staged at the Opera House in Budapest in 1926. Bartók advised that the score should be reworked for orchestra alone. That way, it would be more likely to be heard on a regular basis. The Háry János Suite was born

This got its first performance in Barcelona the following year, though you'll find some sources suggesting it was premiered in New York on this date in 1927.

Apparently, the Barcelona concert left a lot to be desired. For the six-movement suite that gives a prominent role to the cimbalom, the hugely successful Carnegie Hall performance seemed an altogether more auspicious beginning. It's been an orchestral staple ever since.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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