The Hungarian National Anthem

The unusual Hungarian National Anthem, known as the Himnusz, provides an interesting insight into Hungarian culture. Here we look at the background to the words and music, and the story of this most Hungarian of compositions.

The words were written in 1823 by a famous poet, literary critic and politician of the time, Ferenc Kölcsey. A statue is dedicated to him in Debrecen. The 8 verses of the text he wrote catalogue the country's troubled history, which are beautiful, though they can sound rather rather plaintive, for example:

„Atoning sorrow hath weighed down, Sins of past and future days." (verse 1)

„‘Neath the fort, a ruin now, Joy and pleasure erst were found"(verse 7)

„Pity, God, the Magyar, then, Long by waves of danger tossed" (Verse 8)

It was matched a little later, to music written by Erkel Ferenc, one of the most prolific composers in Hungary, the father of Hungarian grand opera (he wrote 9 from 1840-1885 and died with the tenth half-finished.) As well as being famous for the music of the National Anthem, Erkel was also the first Musical Director of the Hungarian State Opera House upon its opening in 1884 and his statue can still be seen there, to one side of the main entrance.

 

Compared to anthems of other nations, the Hungarian one is quite unusual, as it is a direct request or plea to god to „God, bless the Hungarians!"  rather  than the normal recounting of National Pride. Here is first verse in full, along with two translations:

Hungarian Lyrics

Isten, áldd meg a magyart

Jó kedvvel, bőséggel,

Nyújts feléje védő kart,

Ha küzd ellenséggel;

Bal sors akit régen tép,

Hozz rá víg esztendőt,

Megbűnhődte már e nép

A múltat s jövendőt!

 

Literal Translation

O Lord, bless the nation of Hungary

With your grace and bounty

Extend over it your guarding arm

During strife with its enemies

Long torn by ill fate

Bring upon it a time of relief

This nation has suffered for all sins

Of the past and of the future!

               

Poetic Translation

O, my God, the Magyar bless

With Thy plenty and good cheer!

With Thine aid his just cause press,

Where his foes to fight appear.

Fate, who for so long did'st frown,

Bring him happy times and ways;

Atoning sorrow hath weighed down

Sins of past and future days.

(source: wikipedia)

This first verse is the part that most Hungarian know, as it is played at official ceremonies and sung at the Olympics, mostly after any type of water sport (swimming, canoeing, kayaking, water polo are all sports that Hungarians are terribly proud of, and rightly so, as the national team routinely sweeps the field of medals.) It is quite difficult to sing, as the middle of each verse is terribly high, as you can hear in the video above, but everyone loves to give it a go.

The Anthem was not always well received though - Indeed the repeated religious references caused somewhat of a problem during the Communist regime - the anthem was maintained and played at official ceremonies, but the words were not sung. In fact, during this period 2 composers were approached to write a more politically-suitable anthem, but both refused. After the failed Hungarian uprising in 1956, the government again tried to replace the Himnusz with another popular piece of music, the Szózat, but this somehow never came to fruition (perhaps because this has a peculiar rhythm which makes it even harder to sing, than the already-challenging Himnusz.)  

For those really keen on the Anthem, there is a statue dedicated to it, in the town of Budakeszi, just north of Budapest, where the entire 8 verses of the text are carved in stone in a pillared monument hung with bells. Quite a sight.