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Between 500 and 800 a.d., the Magyar people were created in the Ural mountains of eastern Europe, when the nomadic Finno-Ugrians mixed their blood with Eastern Turks. Known in Roman times as the territory of Pannonia, Hungary’s first extensive contact with Western Europe began in the eleventh century, with the accession of the Christian King Stephen I (997?1038). From that time, Hungarian clerical scholars were sent to study in France, and dynastic marriages in the Hungarian ruling families created connections with the royal houses of every European nation, including Byzantium.
In the sixteenth century, a series of devastating political events almost brought Hungary’s artistic life to an end, and destroyed most of what evidence there was of its medieval musical culture. The imperialist Habsburgs incited civil unrest, and in 1541 the Turks conquered the city of Buda, remaining to dominate southern Hungary for the next 150 years. Iconoclasts, the Turks destroyed artworks in all forms, including liturgical manuscripts. Fortunately some of these manuscripts were copied or carried away from Hungary with fleeing monks, nuns and clerics, to border areas that are now parts of neighboring countries. The Hungarian sources that were saved undoubtedly represent only a small portion of the original number, but the remarkable consistency among them tells us that major efforts had been made to arrive at liturgical and musical uniformity.
From the eleventh century onward there is evidence of plainchant instruction in Hungarian monastic, collegiate and cathedral schools. Chant sources from the early Christian years were based on French, German and Italian models, but the imported repertory was soon enhanced in two ways—by adding ornamental flourishes in a native style to existing works, and by composing entirely new works, usually for special Hungarian feasts or liturgical practices. Elements of foreign notations were blended together, and a specifically Hungarian chant notation eventually emerged. Hungarian plainchant style is characterized by wide intervallic leaps, pentatonic tendencies and extended cadences. These traits are shared to some degree by chant dialects from many German and Bohemian areas, but the Hungarian repertoire has a flavor all its own.
The sources for the chant on this program date from the twelfth through
sixteenth centuries and follow the liturgical rite of Esztergom (Strigonium)
in the north, the seat of the archbishop of all Hungary. The opening antiphon
spes nostra, rarely found outside Hungary, is sung in procession at the opening of first Christmas Vespers on Christmas Eve. The plainchant Mass propers (the alleluia Veni domine, the introit Dum medium silentium, the gradual Speciosus forma, the offertory Letentur celi, the communion Exulta filia Syon) are taken from the three Christmas Masses (at cockcrow, at dawn, and High Mass), and the Mass for the Sunday within the Octave (eight days) of Christmas. Az idvözitöt régenten is a contrafact of the Latin Advent hymn Verbum supernum prodiens. The Office antiphon O mundi domina, for Christmas Eve, uses the same tune as the other great “O” antiphons of Advent, but with a text found only in Hungary. Gaude et letare is the closing antiphon for first Vespers of Christmas, ending with the exclamations “holy, holy, holy,” later echoed in the Isten, téged, a medieval Hungarian version of the Te Deum which is still sung today in parts of Hungary. It was probably not until the fifteenth century that Hungarian texts began occasionally to replace Latin in sacred chants and songs. After the Protestant reformation, Lutheran liturgical books were written entirely in Hungarian, including adaptations of earlier chants and new metrical songs, like the Advent hymn Mi Atyánk Atya Isten.
Sources for medieval polyphony in Hungary are very meagre. A few polyphonic pieces are found in chant manuscripts. The rest are isolated and scattered fragments, the pieces themselves often incomplete.Some were surely composed in Hungary, but concordances with non-Hungarian manuscripts make it clear that many were brought in from other countries. In any case, the polyphonic works written in and brought to Hungary don’t seem to share the mannerisms found so frequently in native plainchant. Polyphonic singing is rarely mentioned in Hungary until the later Middle Ages fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), and then only cryptically and sporadically. A very large proportion of the surviving polyphonic works are for the Christmas season, and considering the rare and special nature of polyphony in medieval Hungary, this could only have meant that Christmas was especially reverenced there.
The polyphonic works found in Hungary are of two basic types. The first kind is an archaic organum or discant style found in many parts of middle and eastern Europe. Although such works were written in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, the simplicity of the note-against-note style and the predominance of perfect intervals make them sound much older. The fifteenth-century alleluia Fuit virgo, for the feast of the Virgin Mary’s Presentation in the Temple (November 21), is written in this archaic style, as is the sixteenth-century troped sanctus Omnes unanimiter. The readings for the Christmas Office (lectio) and Mass (evangelium, or gospel) are recitation tones filled out with archaic organum. The lectio Salvator noster has been reconstructed by us using a Hungarian fragment and another setting of the same text from a contemporary Austrian manuscript. The evangelium Liber generationis is the gospel—the geneology of Jesus—with alternating chant and three-voice archaic polyphony.
The second type of medieval Hungarian polyphony dates from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century and uses more contemporary structural techniques and harmonies. The songs Novum decus oritur and Novus annus adiit are accompanied melodies. The polytextual motet Exordium quadruplate / Nate dei / Concrepet infanti / Verbum caro is written in a harmonic and contrapuntal style that seems to be in a class by itself.
From the few sources that have survived, we know that polyphonic works were brought to Hungary from elsewhere in Europe — from England, France, Germany and Italy, as well as from Hungary’s immediate neighbors — and that Hungarian composers were emulating these styles in their own compositions. But because of the lack of source material, the true importance of polyphonic music in medieval Hungary may never be known. Early chroniclers tell us that the first Hungarians sang hymns to the earth and cried out to their pagan gods. The advent of Christianity may have changed their pantheon and the object of their prayers, but the role of sacred song continued and grew in importance. The rescued remains testify to this, and to music’s place at the heart and soul of Hungary’s spiritual life.
-- Susan Hellauer
The following excerpts from Parasztbiblia: Magyar Népi Biblikus Történetek (The Peasant Bible: Bible Stories of the Hungarian People), edited by Annamária Lammel and Ilona Nagy (Budapest: Gondolat Könyvkiadó, 1985), are reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.
Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem
While awaiting the birth of Jesus, the angels lined up on the Path of Angels. It has two branches, one leads to Nazareth, the other to Bethlehem. Jesus was born of Mary. His birth was awaited for four thousand years, for a prophet had said that the Messiah would be born who would redeem the earth. The people were waiting to see who it would be. Just when Jesus was to be born, the angel appeared to Mary and Joseph, telling them to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem, for that was where the redeemer of the earth would be born. Then they went, saying goodbye to their mothers and fathers. Joachim, Mary’s father, gave them a donkey and a cow, and they went on these to Bethlehem.
No one would take them in
Then Mary and Joseph walked night and day, and when they arrived in Bethlehem, they went from house to house, but no one would take them in—can you believe it?—and they mocked them, and said to Joseph, “How could you come when the Virgin Mary is so great with child, she might deliver any hour?” The birth was to happen at just that time, and in the whole city, they couldn’t find a place where someone would take them in. But on the outskirts of town, there was an old, abandoned stable. That was where travelers usually went to get in from the rain. They had to go there to stay, no one would take them in.
It was truly cold in the stable. There was no window or door, and donkeys
were kept there. You know, they needed a fire in there. There was Mary,
who didn’t even have a bed to lie in. But they swept everything out nicely,
and then they made the manger. And when it was midnight, Jesus was born.
Such a brightness came upon them
Not long after that the angels appeared before the shepherds. They were singing, “Glory, rise, and go to the birth of Jesus. He is there in a manger.” “Do you hear that?” one shepherd says — because they were frightened when they heard the words of the angels. “Do you hear what the angel is saying? Let us rise and go to see him.” Such a brightness came upon them that they went, they all went. It was as though they followed a star. All at once, as they were walking, the star stopped over the stable. The shepherds were amazed. How was it possible that the son of God could be born in such a place? They went in to see him, and they found everything to be as the angel had told them. Then they kneeled down before him and adored him.
All three kings saw the star
Then the wise men of the Orient came: Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior. They saw the star. All three kings saw it, even though they were from different countries. They saw that star, and they said to themselves, “There must be a birth. I must go search it out.” Each one set off, and as they went on their way, all three met. They came together from three countries, but the star still went before them, and they were following the star. They traveled until the star stopped where Jesus was born. So came the three holy kings, bringing presents. One brought gold; another, frankincense; and the third, myrrh. The Virgin Mary divided up the gold among the poor. They were so poor, but still she gave away the gold, she had no need for it. The shepherds had brought gifts too. Some brought cheese, some a lamb; each brought what he could. And they say that when Jesus was born In the moon, you can see the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms. When Jesus was born, they say that he looked as big as a four- to six-month-old baby. He was such a beautiful child that they were amazed, how could he be newly born, and so big?
Many people went to see him. They looked him all over: “Well, does he walk yet?” Jesus didn’t walk. And that’s why little infants don’t have to walk. That’s why they need one or two years before they know how to walk. And they say that when Jesus was born, if Mary had married a lord or gentleman, then they would have laid the child in a cradle made of gold, and he wouldn’t have been born so poor. But still, Mary and Joseph had to go to a stable at the edge of town, and the child had to be born among all the chickens. It was at midnight that the Virgin Mary had to bear Jesus, and just at that time, a field of grapes blossomed and ripened so beautifully. This is what the Virgin Mary gave to the little Jesus: the grapes.Translation: Carol Rounds
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