The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)
The Bagpipes of Hungary
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Information: Like most every other country in Europe, Hungary had an active bagpipe tradition until the mid-20th century. Although violins and cimbalom (struck zither, similar to the Appalachian hammered dulcimer) have become widely recognized as stereotypically Hungarian instruments, it is the duda (bagpipe) that has probably played the most significant role in Hungarian musical life.
The origins of the bagpipe in Hungary are unclear, although early Hungarians may have been favorably disposed to its sound through familiarity with the nádsip, a small reed pipe associated with shamanistic rites in the ancient past. By the 16th century, however, the bagpipe was a popular instrument at all levels of Hungarian society. Favored by nobility, townspeople, soldiers, miners, peasants and herdsmen alike, they were heard at noblemen's balls, on the battlefield, at festivals, at weddings, and at work parties.
The 18th century witnessed a large influx of foreign musicians and a new musical instruments, and the bagpipe eventually lost its place of importance in town and court life to more sophisticated instruments. It survived in the villages, though here too modern fashions in musical taste hastened its decline in popularity. At last it was played almost exclusively by herders because the long hours involved in tending the stock gave them ample time to play but as the ancient practice of herding gave way to more modern agricultural techniques, the practice of bagpipe playing went with it. There are only a few older men who still play the instrument. However, with the revival of interest in folk music and dance represented by the táncház movement, many young people are searching out the remaining players in hopes of saving the tradition from extinction.
Hungarian bagpipes consist of a melody pipe with seven finger holes, a kontra pipe on which is played rhythmic accompaniment figures, and a bordö or drone pipe. The bags are of sheep, goat, or dog skin, and are inflated either by a mouth-blown pipe or a bellows.
Most pipes were richly decorated: the head of the melody pipe boasted a goat's or ram's head (occasionally a girl's face), the pipes were capped with metal bells, and the bags were covered with a second skin of animal fur.
Bagpipes and their players were the subject of a rich folklore. Because it was the instrument of animal herders, many Hungarians felt that it was beneath their dignity to play them. Bagpipers often had the reputation of being odd, eccentric, or endowed with supernatural powers. Many sources speak of the enchanting and irresistible power which the sound of the bagpipe held for people. For the well-known Verbunkos, or recruiting dance, soldiers used bagpipes to lure prospective recruits. It was widely believed that because the sound of bagpipes could lure men away from church on Sundays, that it was the devil's instrument. One popular folksong says:
He who wants to become a bagpiper
He must descend to Hell;
Big dogs live there
From which the big bagpipes are made!
Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, September 1982.
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