08:50 26 May 2022
It’s a beautiful spring day in Budapest and I came to take a look inside the Hungarian Heritage House.
If you’ve never been there, this beautiful capital is crossed by the Blue Danube, with the castle, museums and residential quarter of Buda, and the lively and festive political heart of Pest.
Tourists are drawn to its famous spa resorts, sleek architecture, and inexpensive bars and restaurants — and yes, some are partying stags and hens.
But here in Buda, at one end of a quiet square is a grand Empire-era building that is a stronghold of the country’s folk arts. Its purpose is similar to the Primrose Hill headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society – to preserve and promote a folk tradition
Not only is the structure more imposing than Cecil Sharp House, but it seems Hungary’s centuries-old rural songs and dances are more entrenched in cultural life than our much-derided Morris Men. Here, it is a living tradition, children learn their folk heritage at school.
I saw it myself later that night. The hall’s regular Dance House session had drawn a large and enthusiastic crowd for the equivalent of a ceilidh – complete with caller, folk band, sweaty dancing and good cold beer. The women all wore fluttering skirts and tapped their feet, the men had more showy peacock movements, rhythmic slapping and kicking. Much like a good ceilidh, there is an uplifting collective joy and pride in a shared tradition that truly does not feel like a relic of the past.
The performers of the Hungarian State Folklore Ensemble in Budapest are experts in this music and in dances such as the shepherd’s dance or the jumping dance. They are all graduates in folklore from the Carpathian Basin which embraces Hungarian, Romanian, Gypsy and Slavic traditions.
London audiences have the chance to see them at Sadler’s Wells on June 3 in Liszt Mosaics, a festive dance concert centered on the life and work of Hungarian hero Franz Liszt – with musical nods to his peers Chopin and Paganini.
Director Gabor Mihalyi says the show reflects three elements: “Liszt as Hungarian, Liszt as a priest and Liszt as a virtuoso.”
It’s a glorious blend of traditional and modern dance, with music ranging from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies to religious songs such as Laudate Dominum. The Islington Hall will reverberate with devilishly fast bowing from violinists Alexandra da Costa and Istvan Pal Szalonna, haunting folksongs from Esther Pal and Gregorian chants from extraordinary singers from the Orthodox tradition – all backed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra.
“It represents his relationship with women. He loved women and women loved him back,” says Mihalyi, adding that it was not until later in his life that Liszt took a priest’s vows of celibacy. .
“Although he is the most famous Hungarian composer, it is above all his pieces for piano and orchestra that are performed all over the world. We felt a certain lack and wanted to do something based on his music in Hungary. Liszt was not a folk musician, he lived in cafes and performed in concert halls, but what connects his music to traditional folk dancing is the rhythm of the musical culture of this romantic period.”
Sitting at the crossroads of Europe, bounded today by Austria, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia, Hungary has been hostage to fortune over the centuries, invaded or occupied by the Ottomans, Habsburgs, Nazis and Soviets before emerging as a modern European country. .
After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary lost 71% of its territory and 58% of its population when borders were reassigned by the Treaty of Trianon – including parts of Slovakia and Transylvania where its folk tradition was strong.
Under the Soviets there was apparently a communist song committee to scour popular music for traces of subversion, and many Hungarian creators fled after the failed 1956 revolution – a few settling in north-west London to write in exile or open businesses such as Louis’ famous. Hampstead Patisserie.
It has not been easy to keep the flame of folk traditions alive, let alone become a big part of Hungary’s national identity.
Mihalyi speaks to the wide range of audiences at Heritage House who enjoy song and dance and celebrate “what tradition means to them”.
“Dance,” he says, “can express things that words cannot; tradition, nostalgia, memories, our relationship to God.”
“We can only be special and different from other nations if we follow our own traditions and carry on our cultural heritage.”
Liszt Mosaics is at Sadler’s Wells on June 3. Tickets to www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/liszt-mozaics-hagyomanyok-hazaa-hungarian-heritage-house/