14 Feb 2013
Singing the Psalms through adversity: Hungary
The following appeared in the 11 February issue of Christian Courier as part of my monthly "Principalities & Powers" column:
I love the Hungarian people. Among their many national virtues, they boast some of the greatest musicians, such as Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), who did so much to shape 20th-century music by drawing on their country’s unique folk idioms. There is a substantial Reformed Christian minority in Hungary, and they are well known for their love of singing the Psalms. In fact, it can be justly argued that psalm-singing carried them through four decades of communist tyranny.
Last year saw the 450th anniversary of the completion of the Genevan Psalter. Although the Psalter’s texts were originally written in French verse, they were quickly thereafter translated into a number of other languages, including German, Dutch, Czech and Hungarian. The remarkable polymath, Albert Szenczi Molnár (1574-1634), was responsible for the Hungarian version. A pastor, linguist, poet, writer and translator, Molnár (whose surname means miller) was born in Senec (Szenc), near what is today the Slovak capital of Bratislava, and would come to exercise a formative influence on the development of the Hungarian language.
Molnár travelled widely during his life, visiting and studying in a number of European centres associated with the Reformation. His metrical translation of the Psalms was inspired by the German-language Psalter of Ambrosius Lobwasser and was published in Herborn in 1607. (The Reformed Christian legal theorist Johannes Althusius had published his Politics in Herborn a few years earlier but had moved to Emden before Molnár's arrival.) Molnár died in Kolozsvár in Hungarian Transylvania, now Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Amazingly, Molnár is reputed to have completed his translation of the Genevan Psalms in less than 100 days, which must surely set a speed record, given that this would require him to translate at least a psalm-and-a-half per day. Molnár’s texts have stood the test of time and are still sung by Hungarians today. The extent to which they are sung can be judged by the increasing numbers of performances posted to such sites as youtube, the sheer number of which might lead the casual observer to assume that the entire Hungarian nation is organized into hundreds of thousands of choral groups.
One of the best-known of these is the Cantus choir of the Reformed College in Debrecen, a major centre of Reformed Christianity in eastern Hungary. The College was founded in 1538, and the Cantus in 1739. The Cantus has recorded choral performances of the Psalms, including Kodály’s arrangements of Psalms 33, 50, 114, 121, 124, 126 and 150, whose continuing popularity appears to be undimmed by the passing of the years.
Hungary suffered much in the 20th century. In 1920, following its loss in the Great War, it was deprived of nearly three-quarters of its territory, leaving nearly a third of Hungarian-speakers in the new states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, as well as in a newly enlarged Romania. During the Second World War it suffered under a pro-fascist government, followed by 40 years of communism, interrupted in 1956 by a failed effort at freedom quickly crushed by Soviet tanks. However, once Mikhail Gorbachev ended Moscow’s sphere of influence over its “allies,” Hungary was the first to move towards democracy and to begin dismantling the Iron Curtain.
After the chains of oppression had fallen away, outsiders discovered that Hungarians were still singing from the Genfi zsoltár, their sturdy voices ringing out their complaints, petitions, thanksgivings and praises to God, despite the efforts of an officially atheistic régime at silencing them. Small wonder, then, that many of us admire the Hungarians, so many of whom have persisted in giving voice to God’s Psalms in the face of such adversity.