California Symphony Riverboat Cruise — Budapest

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We have arrived at our final destination on our musical journey down the Danube, Budapest.

In some ways the music that originated from Hungary is the most intriguing on our trip. Like goulash, the music begins to have a decidedly folksier character and it portrays a culture that has more Eastern roots than Western.

Before I talk about the three Hungarian composers most closely associated with this country, I think it’s important to talk about Johannes Brahms. While Brahms choral masterpiece, A German Requiem, made Brahms quite well known by his mid-30’s — it is his Hungarian Dances, first written for piano for 4 hands that made Brahms a household name in Europe and these pieces remained his most profitable throughout his life.

We probably know them best today in their orchestral form.

Franz Liszt

There is perhaps no greater example than Franz Liszt of the virtuoso. He was a pianist, composer, conductor, teacher, arranger, organist, author, and a vowed member of the Third Order of Saint Francis.

In the early part of the 19th century, Liszt was a renowned pianist, performing and promoting the works of the Schumann, Chopin, Berlioz, and Wagner. He then became known as a composer, practically inviting the genre of the symphonic poem, and was the first composer other than Wagner to really start pushing the envelope with harmony. He lived for 75 years (1811–1886), an extremely long life in those days and lifetime spanned the music of Beethoven to the music of Mahler.

He was first and foremost, however, a Hungarian and he was always very proud of his heritage and the music of homeland. Much of his music incorporates the sounds and rhythms of his people, but perhaps the best example are his set of Hungarian Rhapsodies and, like Brahms, they were first written for piano and then for the orchestra.

And most importantly for Tom and Jerry.

Béla Bartók (1881–1945)

Along with Zoltán Kodály, who we’ll talk about next, Bartok was part of a group of composers throughout Europe who, with the help of the new technology or recording, collected folksongs and used them in their music to not only celebrate the musical identity of their burgeoning countries, but used these simple melodies to help teach children. His Mikrokosmos a collection of graded piano pieces that he first wrote to help his son learn piano, are still considered essential repertoire for the new and young student.

Like so many composers, Bartok was a gifted pianist and was known more in the U.S. than a composer when he emigrated here in 1940. When he arrived he was in very poor health during his time in U.S. preventing him from concertizing and composing. However, in 1944, the great Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony commissioned Bartok to write what would become his greatest known work, the Concerto for Orchestra. Bartok died of leukemia in 1945.

Here’s a phenomenal performance by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Zoltán Kodály

While many of us may not know this name as well as Liszt’s or Bartok’s, Kodály’s influence might be more far reaching than the other two combined. Like Bartok, Kodaly collected and incorporated the music and folktales of Hungary into his compositions. One of Kodaly’s compositions that best exemplify this is his Háry János Suite. Take note of the very Hungarian instrument right in the middle of the orchestra, the cimbalom.

But it is the Kodály method that will forever keep his name in the pantheon of great Hungarian musical personalities. The Kodaly method is a system of music education that Kodaly developed over the course of his long life that is taught throughout the world. It is a way of physicalizing sound through hand gestures and perhaps the most memorable example of this in popular culture is this scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Coda

276 miles in the U.S. would barely get us through just a portion of most states, yet in this distance, which is what separates Prague and Budapest, we have passed through four languages — Czech, Bavarian, German, and Hungarian — and experienced four distinct cultures that remain unique to this day. Think of how much influence the music from this postage-stamp size of geography has had on the rest of world and how lucky we have been to experience this firsthand. Thank you for joining me and see you back home at the next concert!

Written by

Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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