National and historical symbols of Hungary

The History of the Hungarian National Anthem

The predecessors of national anthems were those pathetic poems and religious songs, which were sung in the churches of Europe from the 16th century onward. It was from these popular tunes that first the religious hymns came into being, which were later sung in large communities, and then, under favourable conditions, they did become national anthems.

In 18th century Hungary two religious songs became popular as hymns. Both of them can be found in old songbooks; one of them is entitled ’Oh, where are thou, bright star of Hungarians,’ and the other one bears the title ’ Our Virgin Mother’. It was important features of these songs that they were widely known; their content was agreed upon within the community and they struck deep common cords in all members of the given community. The songs were sung together by community members as breathed prayers.

At the beginning of the 19th century it was the Austrian imperial hymn that was sung on the occasion of official ceremonies in the country and it was considered a community song, which was to symbolize the entire nation. In the same period, the Rákóczi Song and the Rákóczi March could also be heard on special occasions, and they were meant to symbolize Hungarian national identity.

Poet Ferenc Kölcsey completed his Anthem on January 22nd 1823 and dated it accordingly. Had he not written anything else in his life, but this, his name still would be remembered as the author of this poem. According to literary historians it was not likely that Kölcsey completed the poem on that very day. Several of its ideas and phrases can be found in earlier works of the poet, while other thoughts are detectable in different works by earlier Hungarian poets. But it took Kölcsey’s exceptional sensitivity to compress all the important facts of several centuries of the nation’s history into a perfect unity of form and content. The poem features such emotional intensity that some of its interpreters see it as an example of the nation’s ultimate pessimism, while others consider it as an example of confidence in the success of the nation’s future struggles.

There is another Hungarian literary work that was to be raised to the rank of the nation’s national anthem. It was the poem Proclamation by Mihály Vörösmarty. In 1836, the year of its appearance it was praised as follows (on the pages of the almanac entitled Aurora): ’… we hope it will not be recited without attention and impact; we wish that this proclamation bear its fruit, which is action.’ The poems and the quoted commentary are authentic descriptions of contemporary thoughts, feelings,and they reflect tension as well. At the same time they serve as evidence to prove national confidence and the nation’s willingness to act.

In these circumstances there was a man of great worth, Endre Bartai, the director of the National Theatre and himself a composer, who must have sensed the greatness of both poems. He had conducted several competitions and decided to have set the words of these poems to music. He called for competitive works to the words of the Proclamation in 1843 and to the words of the Anthem in 1844. Both events excited nation-wide interest and they were a great success. The winning pieces of music were composed by Béni Egressy and Ferenc Erkel. Athough neither of these two works renders itself easily to singing, both songs became widely known and popular in no time. The winning piece of the Anthem competition composed by Ferenc Erkel, conductor of the National Theatre, was deemed to success as early as the moment of its birth. On the occasion of its debut on July 2nd, 1844, the piece was introduced on the pages of Honderű as follows: ’ ….What’s left now be given the opportunity to hear our Erkel’s beautiful national anthem as often as possible; it’s worth knowing and learning by heart because it will gain itself the popularity it deserves in the very near future and it will become a true national anthem.’

This prophecy soon came true. The words as well as the music score have been published on many occasions since that time, continually, albeit with varying frequency. It was the will of the entire Hungarian nation that really made Erkel’s work the national anthem of the Hungarian people. Unfortunately, official recognition was very slow in coming, since it was only in the 1990s that the Hungarian National Anthem by Constitution became one of our national symbols together with the Hungarian national flag and the coat-of-arms of the country. It would not be very wise to rank the national anthems of the world, but by its literary and musical merits, as well as by its unsurpassable form and content the Hungarian national anthem is an outstanding piece among them and it deserves the pride of the whole country.