Music and history – etudes

Music is a key element of every culture and era. While the music of primaeval cultures consisted almost exclusively of rhythm, today there are countless musical styles, among which everyone can find the ones they like best. Because we need music. We always have and always will: to calm us down, cheer us up, pulsate through us, excite us, relax us, give us hope, make us think, make us scream and laugh, touch us, turn us off and rev us up, to give us experience. Keep the melody going!

1929–1933 / The Great Depression


Although the economic difficulties afflicting the entire world meant people had little money, there was always a little bit to give to the street musicians, who smuggled at least some joy into the seeming hopelessness of everyday life with their music. Édith Piaf, the French chanson singer who would later gain world fame, was one of those to support herself in this way.

1939–1945 / World War Two


Between 1939 and 1945, musicians and singers performing in military camps and bases eased the tension built up in the spirits of the soldiers, their shows helping the troops forget, at least for a little while, the horrors they had experienced, offering hope and comfort, and evoking the memory and illusion of the happy times of peace. These artists included the celebrated star of the time Katalin Karády, who visited the front several times to cheer up the soldiers with her songs. On one such occasion, she sang the song Valahol Oroszországban (‘Somewhere in Russia’), which was also filmed. However, due to the actress’ controversial political role, the footage would only be shown after the turn of the millennium.

From 1947 / the emergence of the Eastern Bloc



In 1948, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union issued a decree that influenced music policy across the entire Eastern Bloc. The new edict required creative artists and the critics to influence each other, allowing the latter, in the spirit of partisanship, to go so far as to even suggest ideas for socialist themes to the former. Considered Stalin’s most ardent student, the Hungarian communist leader Mátyás Rákosi acted accordingly, leaving a deep mark on the country’s artistic life by conforming to the Soviet cultural policy shaped through the directives from Andrei Zhdanov. It was in this spirit that a certain urban legend about a conversation that supposedly took place between Rákosi and Zoltán Kodály in the Opera House was born:
Rákosi: “I have been hearing very bad things about you, Comrade Kodály!”
Kodály: “I have been hearing very bad things about you too, Comrade Rákosi!”

1956 / Revolution


On the night the revolution began, before fighting broke out around its building on Bródy Sándor Street, Hungarian Radio dispatched one of its vehicles to the parliament building as a precautionary measure. From the time the Hungarian Radio building was occupied until the revolution was put down, it was only from there that broadcasts were sent, via telephone lines. Radio broadcasting requires music, but given the chaotic circumstances, the staff had to leave all the audio recordings behind in the building. Fortunately, the technicians who had been sent off found an old record player, together with some records, in one of the Parliament’s club chambers. Among the recordings were the Himnusz, the Hungarian national anthem, and the equally patriotic Szózat, along with several Hungarian songs and Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. This latter piece is what was played at noon the next day, as Imre Nagy announced that all those who immediately laid down their arms would be granted amnesty. And it became one of the most played pieces over the course of the following weeks. Beethoven had written the music for Goethe’s stage play Egmont, another work thematically related to the struggle for freedom, although this coincidence was probably more due to chance than it was to the cultural education of the radio technicians.

The 1970s / ‘Goulash Communism’


Operating for 43 years between 1950 and 1993, Radio Free Europe not only offered trustworthy reporting on events beyond the Iron Curtain, it also played Western music, including some of the sounds that defined the era: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, the Doors and Tom Jones. Listening to these, young people in Hungary were able to approach the free world they longed for so much, even if it still seemed unattainable.

The Olympics


It is a well-known fact that music was an integral part of the Olympics held in ancient Greece from the very beginning. The festival-like games lasting several days regularly featured musicians with different roles. Horn players and singers led the events and played during breaks, but there was also plenty of music from others during the competitions: mainly from the drummers, because it was believed that their pulsing rhythm helped the athletes concentrate and coordinate their movements. The words ‘music’ and ‘muse’ are themselves etymologically Greek in origin. The Olympics even included some musical competitions, in which musicians, singers, and actors all got to test their skills.

The regime change


Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert in West Berlin, at the Philharmonie. The next day, he repeated the same concert in the other side of the city, at the Konzerthaus. What they played at both concerts was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Bernstein boldly altered Beethoven and Schiller’s masterpiece, and Berliners received this new version with great enthusiasm. Under his baton, the Ode to Joy (‘Freude’) became an ode to Freedom (‘Freiheit‘). “I’m sure Beethoven would give it his blessing,” said the 71-year-old maestro. After the concert, Bernstein visited the remnants of the Berlin Wall and, with the help of his friends and a hammer, knocked down some pieces of the remaining concrete slabs himself.

The Information Revolution


With the spread of the Internet and the increasingly common everyday use of smartphones and various audio players, music listening habits have also changed in a radical fashion. These days, anyone anywhere in the world with the right equipment can easily listen to or download any music they like anytime they please. We listen to music while traveling, relaxing, working, studying, or playing sports. We listen to it out of joy, out of sadness, or as a source of relaxation or for a thousand other reasons. But mostly we listen to it because we like it.