10 Of The Greatest Hungarian Composers Of All Time

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While it might not be the first country you think of when you think of classical music, Hungary has a long and storied history as a hub for classical composers.

For centuries, Hungarian composers have been at the forefront of artistic innovation, producing works that have had a profound impact on the global classical music landscape.

From the sublime beauty of Bartók’s string quartets to the dramatic intensity of Liszt’s symphonic poems, Hungarian composers have made their mark on the world of classical music in countless ways.

In this article, we will explore the lives and works of some of the most influential and celebrated Hungarian composers of all time. Let’s get started.

1. Franz Liszt

First on our list is Franz Liszt, a renowned Hungarian composer, and pianist of the 19th century. Born in 1811 in Doborján, Hungary, he began composing music at the young age of eight and eventually started taking piano lessons and performing in concerts.

Liszt’s exceptional piano skills and compositions made him a prominent figure in the classical music world. He was known for his beautiful piano compositions, brilliant strength and energy, and intense precision.

In addition to his musical talents, Liszt was also a writer and philanthropist. He is credited with creating the symphonic poem and making innovations in harmony and thematic musical transformations.

One of Liszt’s most well-known and beloved compositions is his “Liebesträume” (“Dreams of Love”), a set of three solo piano pieces. It is a beautiful and romantic showcase of Liszt’s virtuosity and skill as a pianist and is a must-listen for fans of classical music and piano.

2. Béla Bartók

Next on our list is Béla Bartók, a 20th-century composer and pianist, who co-founded the field of ethnomusicology – the study of music from various cultural and social perspectives.

Born in 1881 in Sânnicolau Mare, in what is now considered Romania, Bartók showed huge talent as a pianist from a young age, and he studied piano under the tutelage of István Thomán, a former student of Franz Liszt.

He is widely recognized as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. He composed a wide range of music, including orchestral works, string quartets, cantatas, and piano pieces.

Bartók’s music is known for its unique blend of folk influences and for its use of unconventional tonal and rhythmic structures.

Bartók died in New York City on September 26, 1945.

3. Zoltán Kodály

Zoltán Kodály

Zoltán Kodály was a popular name around the world during the early to mid-1900s.

He was born on December 16, 1882, in Kecskemét, Hungary, and died on March 6, 1967.

He studied violin during his childhood, as his father was an amateur violinist, and eventually grew to love piano and orchestral music.

During his time collecting and recording songs in remote villages and studying Hungarian folk songs, he crossed paths with another famous composer, Béla Bartók.

The two became great friends and supporters of each other’s musical compositions.

Throughout his career, Kodály created a steady flow of music and educational works and toured. 

Kodály had a passion for music education and worked to develop better principles for teaching.

He even performed and spoke at Stanford University in 1966 during a U.S. tour.

Overall, he is most recognized as a composer, linguist, philosopher, ethnomusicologist, and sole creator of the Kodály method, which consists of a child-developmental approach to music education.

4. György Ligeti

György Ligeti by Marcel Antonisse (CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

György Ligeti is widely regarded as one of the most important avant-garde composers of the 20th century.

He was born in Transylvania, Romania, on May 28, 1923, and passed away on June 12, 2006. 

In his early years, Hungary was controlled by Communist authorities, which hindered Ligeti’s ability to push beyond musical norms and halted his musical education for a time.

The Holocaust was also raging during this period, which forced Ligeti into a labor brigade and his family into concentration camps.

Post-WWII, Ligeti continued his education at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. 

During his career, Ligeti was a professor of composition, pianist, and composer who was known for his love of different styles of music.

He is also recognized for his music featured in famous film soundtracks.

Even though he didn’t explicitly write for film, other composers used excerpts of his pieces. 

5. Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor

Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor

Leopold I served as the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia from 1658 to 1705.

He was born on June 9,1640, in Vienna, Austria, and died on May 5th, 1705.

His father, Ferdinand III, Holy Roman Emperor, was a known composer and music patron who influenced Leopold I growing up. 

Although he did not study music specifically, Leopold I inherited his father’s musical gifts and had an interest in music from an early age.

He continued in his father’s footsteps and welcomed famous musicians and composers to play in his courts, including Antonio Bertali, Johann Fux, and Giovanni Bononcini. 

His most popular pieces are sacred music, such as the Requiem Mass he wrote for one of his wives after her death.

This piece and many others showcase how much the composers of his day influenced him in his own musical works. 

6. Bálint Bakfark

Bálint Bakfark

Bálint Bakfark was a popular virtuoso lutenist and Hungarian composer in the 1500s and Renaissance era.

He was born an orphan in Brasso, Hungary, in 1526 and died in 1576. 

He had his heart set on working for the French King as his lutenist, but he discovered that the position was already filled after traveling to Paris.

Eventually, he worked as the court lutenist for Sigismund II Augustus of Jagiellon, Poland, and started touring around Europe. 

He went on to write several intriguing fantasies, madrigals, chansons, vocal motets, and polyphonic lute arrangements, all of which were favorites by the public. 

Sadly, Bakfark was a victim of the plague of 1576, and his manuscript music was burned.

Although he created a substantial amount of musical compositions, many of them were never printed.

Many times it was said that the pieces were too complex for other people to play. 

7. Karl Goldmark

Karl Goldmark

Karl Goldmark was a Jewish Hungarian composer born on May 18, 1830, in Keszthely, Hungary.

His earliest involvement with music was studying and playing the violin at the Sopron Musical Academy. 

He was a primarily self-taught composer and would play his violin in theatre orchestras to make ends meet.

Goldmark also taught violin to a variety of students, one of them including Jean Sibelius.

He also pursued a career as a music journalist and was noted to give fair promotion to both established composers of the time, Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. 

During his lifetime, Goldmark created several operas, symphonies, various orchestral works, concerti, piano works, choral works, lieder, and diverse chamber music.

Many of Goldmark’s manuscripts are autographed and held in the National Széchényi Library today.

He died on January 2, 1915, leaving behind a collection of prestigious works.

8. Miklós Rózsa

Budapest, Hungary native, Miklós Rózsa, is one of the country’s most famous composers and conductors.

His mother, who was also a pianist and former student of Franz Lizst, introduced him to classical and folk music at an early age.

His musical family encouraged him to take up violin and piano. 

At age eight, Rózsa was already putting on concerts and composing his own music.

He eventually studied music at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany.

After moving to Paris in 1931, he composed musical works eventually introduced in Duisburg, Germany.

These pieces and future pieces were applauded by famous conductors such as Charles Munch, Hans Swarowsky, Karl Böhm, and others. 

All of the praise and approvals by well-known conductors spurred Rózsa on to fame. 

He enjoyed ample time in the Hollywood spotlight after moving to the U.S. and becoming a citizen.

There, he received 17 Oscar nominations.

He is most widely known for his almost one-hundred film scores. 

9. Ernő Dohnányi (Ernst von Dohnányi)

Ernst von Dohnányi

Known for his exceptional piano playing, personal yet conservative composing style, and conducting skills, Ernő Dohnányi (also known as Ernst von Dohnányi) was recognized as a top performer.

He was born in Bratisla, Slovakia (formerly known as Pozsony, Hungary) on July 27, 1877.

During his childhood, he started studying music with his father and church organist.

He went on to attend the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music, where he graduated before his 20th birthday.

He performed for the first time in Berlin, Germany, where he was immediately well-received.

He continued to compose and perform music, creating a variety of stage, choral, and orchestral works, along with solo instruments, chamber music, and piano pieces. 

Dohnányi was greatly influenced by Franz Lizst’s piano performance and Johannes Brahms’s compositions.

He was also among the first people to popularize Béla Bartók’s compositions during the Post-Romantic era.

Dohnányi died in New York City on February 9, 1960.

10. Emmerich Kalman

Emmerich Kalman was a Hungarian composer who mainly focused on operettas.

He is known as one of the most influential people credited in developing the 20th-century Viennese operatta, effectively and tastefully merging Viennese waltz music with Hungarian csárdás (traditional Hungarian folk dances).

Initially, Kalman’s dream was to be a successful concert pianist.

Sadly, he struggled with arthritis from a young age, which prevented him from pursuing that career path.

Instead, he concentrated on composing music, even studying under Béla Bartók. 

His hilarious cabaret songs were a fan favorite and pushed him towards composing operettas.

His influences included Giacomo Puccini and Tchaikovsky.

It was even said that he was among Adolf Hitler’s favorite composers. 

Kalman was born in Siófok, Hungary, on October 24, 1882, and died on October 30, 1953. 

Summing up Composers From Hungary

That about wraps up our article on some of the famous Hungarian composers.

We hope you enjoyed learning about them and encourage you to check out more of their music!

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then, he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.