William Henry Hadow: “In a Hungarian Coffee-House,” The Musical Gazette, (December, 1899), pp. 10-13.



William Henry Hadow


ALONG, low, irregular room, the walls painted a dull green, the vaulted ceiling rudely frescoed with skies and flying birds. On either hand are ranged the little white tables, which one never sees except in a coffee-house; each surrounded by a circle of guests, each bearing an appropriate array of glasses and a match-box with an economic receptacle for cigar ends. The whole place is full of men: officers from the garrison, employes of commerce or the law, casual visitors on a voyage of discovery: there must be over a hundred in all, and the only woman among them is Madame, dark-haired, buxom, and affable, directing her noiseless army of waiters from the counter.

To the Hungarian middle-class the coffee house is generally the centre of social life. Men use it for making appointments, for paying calls, for all the commonplace of daily intercourse: and the abundant evening’s leisure is spent pleasantly enough in talk that alternates with the click of the billiard balls, and the rustle of innumerable journals. Tonight, however, there is better entertainment than the most artistic cannon or the most eloquent denunciation of British policy: and talk itself is hushed, as the musicians at the far end of the room take up their instruments and prepare to begin. A few more rapid orders are given, a few silent figures flit across with beer or slivovitz or tumblers of strange coloured “grog,” and then everyone turns comfortably in his chair and settles himself to listen.

The band consists of some eight or nine performers: a few violins, a ‘cello, a doublebass, a clarinet, and, of course, the cimbal. Its leader, — here as always, a violin player, — stands in the middle: the rest sit watching him, ready to follow every change of tone or tempo that he may choose to prescribe. Now and again, one catches a short sharp word of command, some injunction as to speed or expression, but for the most part a look is amply sufficient, and the players pass from phrase to phrase, and even from melody to melody, as though they were improvising in concert. They are, indeed, the Rhapsodists of musical art, drawing for inspiration upon the rich store of national ballad, and trusting for method to a free tradition, or an impulse of the moment. Very few of them can read; none of them play from note; the whole character of their music is direct, natural, spontaneous, giving voice to a feeling that speaks because it cannot keep silence. They start very softly, so softly that one can hardly catch the opening sounds, and then of a sudden the music swells and rises with a passionate intensity that strikes to the heart like a cry of pain. It is some ballad of past suffering and oppression, some echo of “old unhappy far-off things,” so expressive, so poignant, that in a moment the tragedy has become intimate and personal. There is no stranger experience than to hear one of these preludes for the first time. The effect is totally unlike that of other music: there is little sense of metre, little even of rhythm ; the long wailing notes have become words, the quivering scale-passages have become gesture, and one can no more appraise or criticise than one can think of style when some orator at white-heat of revolution is calling men to the barricades. Here is some thing which never stops to consider whether it is artistic, which pays no heed to our aesthetic canons and laws, a pure outburst of emotion as irrepressible as a river in flood. Even our cold Western natures are stirred almost beyond control, and it is easy to imagine what answer would rise to the appeal when the time is big with crisis and men’s hearts are burning with the memory of wrong.

The prelude ends on a throbbing minor cadence, and the music passes into a plaintive, caressing melody, sad, like so many Hungarian tunes, but without despair, without defiance, crying not for vengeance but for redress. The form is of the simplest; a plain melodic stanza, free of ornament, perfect in curve and shape, and strongly marked by two characteristic features of Magyar idiom, the sharpened intervals of the scale, and the graceful rhythmic figure that flutters and poises through every bar.

There is an astonishing charm about these folk-songs: something strange and exotic in the phrase, yet something beneath the phrase which touches us on the side of our common humanity. No other nation could express itself precisely in this manner, for every land has its own language in music as it has its own language in speech, but the joys and sorrows of mankind are much the same, and they have usually found their simplest utterance in national melody. And so in hearing the tunes of another people we gain a double pleasure — a pleasure which is only lost if the language be too remote for our comprehension. Fully to enjoy Hungarian music demands no doubt a sympathy which can pass a little beyond our western limits — we must prepare ourselves for a new phrase and for idioms that are not our own — but, that once conceded, there is no national art in Europe which has more power to move and to delight.

Again, the music draws to an end, leaving us soothed and quieted after the storm of passion from which it emerged. The leader stands for a moment with his bow on the strings; his forces turn to him in ready expectation; there is a hasty word of direction, a look of intelligence, and off they plunge into a wild dance-measure that whirls and eddies in a very rapture of unrestraint. The hammers skim across the cimbal like swallows over a stream, the violins are racing the wind, faster and faster they fly, faster again and faster yet, until one grows breathless and exhausted by the bare effort of listening. Surely no one, even in Hungary, can dance to a tune like this; no muse of the many-twinkling feet could press so unruly a following into her service. And yet if it were not for the sheer physical impossibility, the call is simply irresistible; a bright vivid melody with a flicker of semiquavers across the cadence, clear and strong in accent, entrancing in rhythm, a melody to quicken the pulse and set the blood leaping in the veins. One has no time to wonder at the dash and brilliance of the playing, at the precision of attack, at the tone that never loses its quality; one is conscious only of swift movement and tingling nerves, until at last the music flashes to its close, there are three triumphant chords, and all is over.

After a short pause for recovery, one of our party who has a little Hungarian, goes up and asks permission to inspect the cimbal. A courteous gesture invites us to follow him and in another moment we are all examining the queer trapezoid-shaped box, with its strings of steel wire twisted in and out like basket-work, and its padded hammer notched in the shaft to fit the performer’s finger. They say that it is an easy instrument to learn, but this seems hardly credible; the strings look bewilderingly alike, and the higher octaves are tuned to a scale that has no name and no classification. In any case it must take a good deal of sedulous practice to attain the dexterity of those swift runs and arpeggios. Struck lightly the strings have something of a pianoforte quality; a harder blow brings out a resonant metallic clang which is admirably suited for filling a chord, and giving it body and substance. It is for this reason that the cimbal has allotted to it the lion’s share of the accompaniment. The clarinet and half the violins play in unison with the leader, the second violins add such harmonies as lie within their compass, and all the rest is an arrangement of “Basso e Cembalo” like that of the old Italian concerti.

The chief defect of the cimbal is the heavy strain which renders the strings constantly liable to slip and flatten. In this matter it is as bad as the lute, “which,” says Matheson, “if a man possessed it for eighty years he would have spent sixty in tuning.” And though enterprising makers have enriched the instrument with borrowed luxuries — pedals, dampers — I have even seen one with the indignity of a key-board — yet nothing has yet been invented which can obviate its characteristic fault. A single performance is sufficient to set it out of pitch, and then the music must needs stop while the player wrests the pins and taps gently on the offending notes and gradually coaxes the strings back into compliance. Yet after all the defect has something human about it: a scene of a quarrel and reconciliation, a moment of bad temper passing away into fresh sympathy and agreement. These men look upon their box of wires with a feeling as personal as that of a violinist for his Stradivarius, and a relation so close is lightly purchased at the cost of a few vagaries.

Our curiosity satisfied, we turn back and find the waiter hovering by our table, evidently anxious to converse with the strangers. His first question: “Are we German or Hungarian?” is a little startling, and we notice a look of suspicion on the part of our friend who has been endeavouring with modest success to act as interpreter. We answer that we are English, and the statement, passed audibly through the room, at once draws upon us an embarrassing amount of attention. Even Madame leaves her calculations for the moment to bend a look of enquiry on the remote foreigners, and we find ourselves surrounded by something like an audience as the waiter again returns to the charge. “England we suppose is a very long way off from here?” “Yes.” — Though our conjecture of twelve hundred miles is received with polite incredulity. — “And what language, now, is habitually spoken in England? Hungarian?” Another look of suspicion, but there is no trace of irony in the tone. “Not Hungarian? German then?” “Not that either?” “Indeed, only English?” And it is evident that we have sunk a little in his estimation. On this question of language the oddest views seem to prevail. I remember an old country curé who once sat next me at Budapest and informed me that Englishmen spoke a dialect of French — a dialect, he added, which he found some difficulty in understanding. Yet it may be rejoined that we are little better. We have grown out of our forefathers’ belief that all Continental nations would understand English if you spoke it loud enough; but we should be hard put to it if we were asked to enumerate the languages of Hungary and still more if we were required to tell them apart.

Our profession of nationality has aroused the interest of the band. The cimbal is once more in tune, the violins are lifted from the table where they have been lying among cigars and glasses of Pilsener, and, with a friendly nod to our interpreter, the leader marshals his force and begins afresh. Our feelings may be imagined when, in place of another rhapsody, we hear Yankee Doodle, followed by a couple of music-hall songs, that have floated on some ill wind to Ronacher;[1] and thence, through the streets of Vienna, into Hungary itself. The worst is that the musicians are evidently conscious of offering us a special pleasure, they turn furtive glances in our direction, they watch for our expression of acknowledgment and

delight. Nothing is further from their thoughts than the idea that we should prefer Hungarian poetry to English doggrel; and they heroically do violence to their own principles in order to give us an appropriate welcome. It may be stated at once that the whole fault of this lies with foreign tourists. For a decade past they have been overrunning the country and demanding that the bands should play not only German and English music, which is a crime, but bad German and English music, which is an enormity. For the Hungarian melodies and the Hungarian musicians have grown up together; they are part of the same stock; they are of one family and one kindred. The quick, eager, nervous playing is absolutely unsuited to German thought or bluff English manhood: it is wedded to a style of its own from which no divorce should be sanctioned. And when it is added that the Hungarian music is magnificent, while the foreign music comes at best from the ball-room and at worst from the off-scourings of the streets, it will be seen that a heavy responsibility rests with visitors who are not only denationalising the art, but vulgarising it in the process.

Yet the process goes on unashamed. I possess a copy of a “Sentimental Journey” in Hungary by an Austrian gentleman called Woenig, who expresses the tourist’s point of view with extreme candour. Nothing seems to have moved him so deeply as the performance, by a native band, of a song from Von

Suppe’s “Boccaccio.” “Ein deutsches Lied im fremden Lande!” he cries, “Ich sprang freudig überrascht empor dem schwarzhaarigen braunen Zauberer die Hande zu driicken” — and so forth. We mock at the English traveller who demands a beefsteak and the “Times” in an Italian village, but, at least, he is not doing any harm, only inuring himself to disappointment. But these men get what they want, and get it at a sacrifice which in another generation’s time may be irreparable. At Budapest the case is still worse. There the most famous bands play at restaurants during dinner: a fact which, if once realized, requires no further comment. Even their truest and most genuine musicans, men like Berkecs, Rádics Béla, and Bánda Marciz, have submitted in some degree to the prevailing influence, while others, not less gifted, have deliberately degraded their talents and have descended from the level of the artist to that of the street conjuror. There is, however, one consolation left. With scarcely an exception these men still play their own music in their own unapproachable fashion — their visits to Spindler and Waldteufel are episode, forgotten as soon as they are over—and then once more the sallow faces light up and the dark eyes glow, and the great tragic strain rises as though the impertinences of Art had no existence. The two styles, in short, are kept entirely separate, and the taint of the one has not yet infected the other. The tawdry music annoys for the few moments of its duration, but the few moments are soon past and one returns again to the gold and the jewels.

For see, the musicians are once more in readiness, and the opening notes strike true and passionate as at first. It is surely some sorrow of disappointed love that the strings are uttering : some overwhelming disaster that has swept across a life and left it desolate. Now they rise into a cry of denunciation, now they fall to a low broken murmer, now they surge onward in an impetuous torrent of reproach. And when the storm has burst, and the sad tender melody follows, the leader comes slowly down, playing the while, until he stands at our side and sets the music floating round us like an atmosphere. It is not music but enchantment; the violin pleads and whispers and entreats, the air is full of voices, the melody surrounds and penetrates us until it is breath of our breath and lip of our lip. We are oblivious of all except the charm, the strange potent influence that is binding us to its will: every tone and cadence finds an echo in our own thought, every note has a summons which we cannot choose but obey. At last it recedes again, softer and more remote, fading back into the land of dreams from whence it came; there is a moment of spell-bound silence; and we start from a trance to hear the Csardas leap into sound and scatter our visions with its joyous dance-measure. And so the evening wanes, and the company begins to disperse, and we, rather shamefaced as Englishmen who have been betrayed into unwonted emotion, pass out to sober ourselves under the cool night and the quiet stars.

W. H. Hadow

William Henry Hadow (*1859 — †1937) was a leading British musicologist, composer, and educational administrator. From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Hadow’stwo small volumes of Studies in Modern Music (1893–5) opened a new era in English music criticism, and while they evince certain Victorian prejudices they remain interesting reading at the end of the twentieth century. For the second volume, Hadow was able to visit both Brahms and Dvořák when compiling his biographical material. By setting music against a background of general culture, he made music criticism more accessible and helped to give music its rightful place in a liberal education. Sonata Form (1896, 2nd edn 1912) is ostensibly a textbook, but it is presented in simple terms and in flowing prose typical of Hadow. In 1897 came A Croatian Composer, in which the Slavonic origin of Joseph Haydn is asserted (this allegation was also included in his revision of Pohl’s article in the second edition of Grove’s Dictionary, 1904–10). His conclusions were later disproved, but the value of his work on Haydn’s melodic style remains. One of his most acclaimed works, The Viennese Period (vol. 5 of the Oxford History of Music, of which he was general editor from 1896), was published in 1904 (2nd edn 1931). Between 1906 and 1908 he joined with his sister Grace Eleanor Hadow in producing the three volumes of the Oxford Treasury of English Literature. As part of his desire to improve the repertory of songs, and in particular national or folk-songs in schools, his Songs of the British Islands appeared in 1903, the choice of the English material foreshadowing Stanford’s The National Song Book (1906). In 1906 he published A Course of Lectures on the History of Instrumental Forms, and in later years he published short books on Music (1924), Church Music (1926), English Music (1931), and Richard Wagner (1934) as well as a volume of Collected Essays (1928). He was an enthusiastic admirer of the Tudor music brought to light by Dr Edmund Horace Fellowes and others. ‘They call William Byrd the English Palestrina; I shall not rest until Palestrina is called the Italian Byrd!’, he once remarked.”


[1] The Viennese Theater.