Symbolic National Poems and Songs

Often, the constitution of a country stipulates which poem, or poetic lyrics, and which tune the given country accepts as its national anthem. In Hungary public opinion and daily practice have long considered the poem National Anthem written by Ferenc Kölcsey and set to music by Ferenc Erkel as its National Anthem. This fact, however, was included in the new constitution, re-written according to the requirements of democracy and constitutionality, only after the fall of communism.

The concept of a national anthem itself was born along with the creation of the modern nation-state. It is a symbol, a poem put to music, which does not necessarily fit the literary requirements of a national anthem. In Europe, beginning in the late 18th century, the most significant national anthem model was the French Marseillaise. In 1896 Kölcsey’s poem was not the official Hungarian National Anthem, even though the small Hungarian delegation at the first modern day Olympics in Athens sang it in honor of the first Hungarian gold medalist, the swimmer Alfréd Hajós.

We know that the National Anthem was written in January, 1823, and that it did not become a national prayer overnight. The acceptance of one poem over others by the public opinion or legislation as the nation’s national anthem is a process. This process has its own story in Hungary, too, beginning with poetic and musical symbols expressing identification with the community used in previous centuries.

To some degree the medieval anthems of ‘national’ saints expressed identification with the broader community, or country. With the development of native language education, in accordance with the religious makeup of Hungarian society at the time, Protestant and Catholic cultural expressions existed side by side, which sometimes competed and other times clashed with each other. According to tradition during the 17th century wars of liberation István Bocskai’s foot soldiers sang Psalm #90 on their way to battle. This psalm was later considered the most important song of Hungarian Calvinists:

‘Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations,
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,
even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.’
(Psalm 90)

An 18th century composition by Bonifác Lancsarics, a friar of Pannonhalma, enjoyed great popularity in Hungarian Catholic circles:

(The old Hungarian National Anthem)

Our mother, Blessed Virgin, great patron of old,
in times of great need our country beseeches you thus:
Don’t forget Hungary, our ruined homeland,
don’t forget the poor Hungarians!

Open the skies to our many cries,
open your matronly mantle to protect us.
Don’t forget Hungary, our ruined homeland,
don’t forget the poor Hungarians!

With merciful eyes look upon your people,
and give blessing to your Hungarian people.
Don’t forget Hungary, our ruined homeland,
don’t forget the poor Hungarians!

Saint István left us in your keeping,
Saint László entrusted us unto you too.
Don’t forget Hungary, our ruined homeland,
don’t forget the poor Hungarians!

The religious and national content of the song form a natural unity, for the prayer to the Virgin Mary is in the name of the Hungarians.
The famous Rákóczi-song kept the yearning for independence and the traditions of the fight for freedom alive for at least a century, though it was officially banned several times. This is the first stanza:
‘Oh, good old Hungarians,
the enemy tears and tatters you so.
Your condition has become one
of broken potsherds.
Like a dear living image
you were, so beautiful,
people of Hungary.
But between the talons of the eagle
you wither, like bird-lime.
Poor Hungarians,
will you ever be whole again,
together your pieces of potsherds?
Oh, poor Hungarian nation,
when will things be well?’

This Rákóczi-song became well known and popular as a marching song in the arrangement of the French composer Berlioz, as well as in that of Franz Liszt.

If we were to hold an opinion poll about which three poems serving as national symbols are the most important, in all probability most people would first list the National Anthem by Ferenc Kölcsey followed by the poem Appeal, by Mihály Vörösmarty and Sándor Petőfi‘s poem National Song. Their birthdates are: 1823, 1836 and 1848 respectively, and they form an arch encompassing one of the most outstanding periods of Hungarian history from the dawn of the Age of Reform to March 15, 1848. Kölcsey wrote his poem in January 1823, but it was published only five years later. Vörösmarty’s ode was first published in the journal Aurora in 1836, while Petőfi’s National Song has become inseparably one with the Revolution of 1848, which began in Pest. He wrote it on March 13, the night before the great day, and together with the Twelve Points it was the first piece of writing to roll off the free press.

The literary form of Kölcsey‘s poem fits into the literary tradition of anthems, which is emphasized by the poem’s title. Classic anthems of the ancient past sing the praise of gods and rulers, while those of the Middle Ages extolled the saints. The first anthems of the modern European nation-state, such as that of the British, praised the ruler. It was this tradition that the French Marseillaise broke, in which the object of praise is the homeland, the nation, and all religious content disappears.
The Hungarian National Anthem is a prayer, a sigh of yearning, to God. In it we find the praise of the homeland as a sanctified space, and an interpretation of the nation’s past. The pleading in the fist verse is emphasized by its repetition in the last verse. In this way the first and eighth verses provide a framework for the poem, within which the poet traverses the most important lessons of Hungarian history. The first two verses of the middle six list accomplishments attained by the mercy of a gracious god: the conquest, the blessed homeland, outstanding victories. The next four verses list the punitive blows of an angry god: devastation reeked by the Mongols and the Turks, fratricidal wars, homelessness. The poet acknowledges that:

‘This is the country that your sires
have shed their blood to claim;
throughout a thousand years not one
but adds a sacred name’

In Vörösmarty’s views the fate of the nation is caught up in the tension of life-death struggles, and so he appeals to the nations of the world to make a decision. He grapples with a vision of the death of the nation. The famous prophesy of Herder, the great German scholar of the Hungarian language disappearing from the Carpathian basin within the next few years, was a threatening signal to the generation of thinkers during the Age of Reform. Yet the image of a ‘death of fortitude’ (in the language of today: a grand death, destruction) does not suggest hopelessness or despair: rather it strives to be a moral summons to the nation to mobilize, to which the answer can only be:

‘Then, Magyar, keep unshakably
your native country’s trust’
(Translation: Watson Kirkconnell)

Sándor Petőfi intended the National Song to be a wakening, an exhortation, in which he calls upon the nation:

‘Magyars, up! your country calls you!
Break the chain which now enthralls you.
Freemen be, or slaves for ever.
Choose ye, Magyars, now or never.
For by the Magyar’s God above
We truly swear
We truly swear the tyrant’s yoke
No more to bear.’
(Translated by William N. Loew and C. H. Wright)

The National Song is a work which is not only of great literary value, but one that has also played an important role in the formation of Hungarian history. Petőfi wrote the poem, one of the most well known in all of Hungarian poetry, on March 13, 1848, with the original intent of reciting it for the first time on March 19, the date the Opposition Circle had planned to celebrate the outbreak of the French Revolution. Upon receiving news of the revolutionary events in Vienna, however, Petőfi, along with other young men who routinely assembled at the Pilvax Café, decided to speed things up: on March 15 the revolution in Hungary broke out in Pest, a process Petőfi’s poem helped ignite. The poem requires strong emotional identification and an instant answer from those it addresses. An oath recited in plural grammatical construction answers the question asked over and over in the refrain. The poet and revolutionary of Pest also refer to the one-time glory of Hungary, as well as to one of the traditionally important values of national consciousness: freedom. The stark contraposition of slavery and freedom is a main element of the poem – there is no choice, either one or the other must be chosen. A poem with the strength to mobilize, the National Song became a literary monument symbolizing the Revolution of 1848. The reason it never became a march-song or rousing battle-song like the French Marseilles or the Polish ‘Poland is not lost yet’ is probably because no easy to sing tune was composed to it in time.

For a basic requirement of a National Anthem is that it can be sung, and that its music reflect and express the same content as the poem. The cult of literary works which have become symbols is intertwined with the cult of the works of music composed to them. The National Anthem is not only a prayer recited together, but praise sung together, and an integral part of communal celebrations.

The melody of the Appeal was composed in 1843 by Béni Egressy while that of the National Anthem was composed in 1844 by Ferenc Erkel. Both works, their lyrics and music, became true national symbols during the last years of the Age of Reform and during the revolutionary years of 1848-49, growing in popularity despite being banned during the time of autocracy. And both the National Anthem and the Appeal were considered the national anthem by following generations. The fact that it was Kölcsey’s poem set to music by Ferenc Erkel which became Hungary’s national anthem, is probably because it is easier to sing. By the end of the 19th century the National Anthem was the more popular of the two. It became convention to sing the National Anthem at the beginning and the Appeal at the end of national and state celebrations.

During the period of communist despotism the authorities strove to transform the national symbols. The state arms, reminiscent of the arms of the Soviet Empire and with only a narrow band of red-white-and-green, were placed in the center of the tri-colored Hungarian flag. It is no accident that during the first hours of the Revolution of 1956 the arms, a symbol of tyranny and foreign occupation, were cut out of the flag, and the red-white-and-green flag with a hole in the center became a symbol itself. Years later others followed suit: in 1989 revolutionaries of both Eastern Germany and Rumania also removed the symbol of tyranny from their flag.

In Hungary it was the dictator himself, the notorious Mátyás Rákosi, who asked the most famous composer of the time, Zoltán Kodály, to compose a new national anthem, and Gyula Illyés, the outstanding poet to write the lyrics. Neither artist was willing. During the years of communism both the National Anthem and the Appeal, along with March 15, were barely tolerated by the authorities. At celebrations only the music of the National Anthem was played, in schools listening to a recording of it took the place of singing. The anniversary of the day Soviet troops freed Hungary from German occupation in 1945, which simultaneously marked the first day of Soviet occupation, became the most important state holiday.

On October 22, 1956, university students in Szeged and Budapest drew up 12 points, modeled after the points of the Revolution of 1848, listing the demands of the Hungarian nation. One of those demands was the reinstatement of the Hungarian national symbols. Opposition movements against the communist dictatorship also voiced this demand in the hope of which Petőfi writes in the National Song:

‘The Magyar’s name will soon once more
Be honored as it was before!’
(Translated by William N. Loew and C. H. Wright)

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