Research on Sacred Song in the 1950s

The Lajtha Group 15/Sep/2012 - 17/Feb/2013
In Hungarian, songs sung by a religious congregation either in church, or on other liturgical occasions, are known as "népénekek," translated for the purposes of this exhibition as "vernacular sacred songs". These include not only church songs, but also songs associated with various religious folk customs, songs of greeting, and songs sung at wakes. Most vernacular sacred songs were not folk creations; rather, they were written for the people by choirmasters and priests, and have come down to posterity in large part in the form of printed booklets or hand-written manuscripts.

 

Such songs subsequently entered folk collective consciousness and were passed down from generation to generation in forms independent of their original sheet music, undergoing heavy changes of melody and surviving in numerous versions. In some cases, the relationship between a given version of a song and the original can be demonstrated only through scientific analysis.

Though early collections of vernacular liturgical songs can be found among the phonograph recordings of Béla Vikár, the first conscious collection efforts were begun by István Volly in the 1930s. László Lajtha first joined the hunt during the years prior to the Second World War, but stopped again when the war broke out. Later, in the 1950s, when the Ministry of People's Education lent financial support to the creation of a permanent folk music research group, directed by Lajtha under the auspices of the Museum of Ethnography (known officially as the Ethnographic Audio Recording Collection, Production, and Research Group of the Ministry of Cultural and Educational Affairs), Lajtha recommenced his research into the vernacular sacred genre.
In the company of Zsuzsanna Erdélyi and Margit Tóth, Lajtha traversed Transdanubia to continue his work exploring, transcribing, and systematising vocal and instrumental folk music. In the 1950s, despite political pressure, the group collected a considerable body of sacred material. As Erdélyi recalled, "Laci made it clear that sacred subject matter should not be cause for exclusion, that the names of Jesus and the Virgin Mary should by all means be permitted in the material we collected". By the time of Lajtha's death, the group had recorded nearly 100 reels of audio tape, approximately half of which were subsequently made into disc recordings. The number of transcribed, but unrecorded Transdanubian sacred songs comes to nearly 1000. After Lajtha's death, the group recorded a further 200 tape recordings, all of which were later analysed and transcribed.

Since Kodály, a number of folk music researchers and music historians have recognised the significance of the Hungarian vernacular sacred song and have enriched our knowledge of the subject with their collecting work and publications. In an appendix to his book entitled The Hungarian Vernacular Sacred Song, László Dobszay published a series of 8 cassette tapes that provide a cohesive picture of the richness of congregational singing.
Though sacred and secular song existed side by side in folk culture, the presentation and preservation of sacred songs generally received less attention than did the collection and preservation of secular folk music tradition.

This exhibition explores the topic of the vernacular sacred song as a part of Hungarian intellectual cultural heritage through the material mapped out, collected, and documented by the Lajtha Group, with specific reference to the sheet music, notebooks, artefacts, and recordings the group left to posterity.

Curator: Krisztina Pálóczy