Jánoš Bihari

"Bihari is the most eminent Hungarian musician and the greatest musical performer of the first half of the nineteenth century. Through his interpretation, the "verbuňk" became a real art which supremely represents Hungarian folk music." (Ervin Major)

Jánoš Bihari was a Rom – a Gypsy. And Gypsy music, in the nineteenth century, became so fashionable that the number of Gypsy bands could not satisfy the demands of the proprietors of wine taverns and restaurants. Nevertheless, Bihari's biographer, Ervin Major, wrote about Bihari as if he were a Hungarian musician. And this was typical.

It was typical that the fame of Gypsy music could not purge the term Gypsy from the distorted, stereotypical image [Stereotypings and Folklorisations] which became embedded in the imagination of gadže: Gypsy = vagabond, tramp, beggar, thief. If a Rom was neither a vagabond nor a tramp nor a thief, or if his non-Roma abilities somehow exceeded peoples' expectations, he could not really be a Gypsy. He was raised to the status of a "Hungarian", a "Slovak", or a "Spaniard". Or he was somehow considered to be an "honorary gadžo." Eventually, Empress Maria Theresa agreed with this notion and, in 1761, she codified a prescribed official designation for Gypsies: "Új magyár" – a "New Hungarian". [Maria Theresia and Joseph II] Still in 1967 at EXPO in Montreal, products of Roma artist-smiths from Podunajské Biskupice (near Bratislava) were presented as "Slovak folk art".

A distorted picture of a Gypsy, generally handed down from generation to generation, undoubtedly caused the Roma origin of more than one outstanding historical personality to escape our attention. This was instrumental in strengthening the negative stereotype of the Gypsy, which then persisted – a vicious circle of cause and effect.

We know about the "Gypsy" origin of Jánoš Bihari, even if people talked about him as a "Hungarian musician". We know about him precisely because Gypsy music has gained prestige in Hungary over the last two centuries and even for a non-Roma musician it was an honour to become a member of a Gypsy band. In the 1970's there were still about a hundred Gypsy bands in Budapest.

Although Jánoš Bihari had his biographers, Gábor Mátray and, later, Ervin Major, we do not know much about his life – especially about his personal and family life. Music historians were naturally interested in him mainly as a musician.

Jánoš Bihari was born on October 21, 1764, in Nagyabonyi, Hungary, and he died on April 26, 1825 in Budapest. He probably moved to Budapest in 1801 or 1802. In 1853, Gábor Mátray wrote:

"Bihari came to Pest, the largest and most densely populated city in our country, to gain experience and take advantage of every possible opportunity to extend his musical education and perfect his talent as a violinist. He soon became well known, and the music-loving public rewarded him richly. Because he was considered the best of all the folk musicians in Budapest and, in fact, in the whole country, he was invited to play for a multitude of public and private celebrations. He played in Buda for noble banquets; in Bratislava for the coronation; for court celebrations; for provincial parliaments – as late as in 1825, shortly before his death. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, he always performed as an interpreter of Hungarian music. He was even invited to Vienna to add glitter to imperial celebrations and court banquets. He and his band customarily performed in Vienna, the imperial capital, every year."

When, on October 18, 1814, a magnificent procession was organised to celebrate the victorious battle against Napoleon in Leipzig, Bihari's band took part. Bihari's band even played for the Congress of Vienna. At that time, Bihari and his band spent nearly a whole year in Vienna. The greatest possible distinction was bestowed upon Bihari: he was invited to play for the imperial court, and he was presented with a succession of honours.

"When Kateřina Pavlovna, the dowager princess of Oldenburg, hosted a celebration on June 1, 1815, on Margareta Island, in the Danube between Buda and Pest, in honour of her sister, the wife of our nobly born Crown Prince Josef, Bihari and his comrades distinguished themselves as interpreters of Hungarian music."

Although Bihari's band earned enormous popularity and fame, three of its members were conscripted into the army. Bihari turned to the court and petitioned that they be released: "Despite physical hardship, my comrades and I have tried to please the public with our music, but, since Captain Miller has stolen my best hands, I cannot perform any further service to the honour of this country." Bihari's petition was denied.

Nevertheless, in 1820, he was playing again for celebrations by accompanying military manoeuvres. He met not only Hungarian aristocrats, but also prominent foreign guests. The distinguished public was regaled with traditional national Hungarian "hijinks" during which, for example, wild horses and bulls were tamed. The guests could hardly afford to miss out on representatives of Hungarian culture, i. e. Gypsy musicians: the Jánoš Bihari band. In the news of the time, one could read:

"Our celebrated violinist Bihari played so delightfully in the Hungarian fashion that even those who had not known him earlier listened with pleasure to his masterly performance. The English prince was greatly surprised when Bihari started singing "Marlborough". The prince and his four-member party were so moved that, after a short while, they happily sang along."

One of Bihari's admirers was Franz Liszt. He wrote about him: "The sweet tones drawn from his magic violin fell like drops of nectar on our enchanted ears. ("Die Zigeuner und ihre Musik in Ungarn")"

In other parts of the same book, Liszt wrote:

"His (Bihari's) playing, although pervaded with the kind of glow necessary to appeal to the Hungarian public, was not overloaded with superfluous, insignificant adornments(…) Bihari had the inborn ability of the Gypsy race, that is to assimilate and unite apparently mutually incompatible elements (…)."

From Liszt we learn that Jánoš Bihari and his band played not only Hungarian dances but also "kalamajkas" (traditional Czech folk dances), "quadrilles", Scottish dances, "allemandes" (German folk dances), French dances, minuets, etc.

Bihari most enjoyed playing compositions by Csermák, Lavota and, of course, his own compositions. The best known of them are "Lullaby", "Requiem for a Son", "verbuňks" like "Six Saber Slashes", "When the Money Runs Out", "A Hundred Men", and then a series of coronation songs. Since the famous violinist and bandmaster Bihari could not read or write music, he could not notate his compositions. Most of them became gifts of the moment for those who were lucky enough to hear them. Notary-musicians, who could notate music, did write down some of Bihari's compositions. And yet, between the rigid scores and the outstanding performances of Bihari there was, of course, an enormous difference. Therefore, only people endowed with both musical fantasy and a spark of genius in their hearts can imagine the genius of his music.

What did this Roma musical genius look like? Liszt , according to the basic information he obtained from Mátray, described him thus:

"Bihari was a tall, robust figure (…). He disliked strong drinks and therefore, whenever he drank, he did so only so as not to insult his friends. He also kept the members of his band very strictly in line. In other ways, too, he kept strict discipline. He and the members of his band wore folkloric costumes which Colonel Karel Kubinyi generously procured for them. The costume was composed of dark blue trousers cut in Hungarian style and adorned with black stripes and fringes, and red "dolmans" (Hungarian military or aristocratic festive coat, embroidered and adorned with cords) whose sleeves were appliquéd with sheepskin. On their heads they wore otter fur "kalpaks" (high cap trimmed with fur) with white feathers. (…) To distinguish Bihari's outfit from the others, his had gold fringes."

They say that Bihari was supposed to be decorated by the Austro-Hungarian emperor. He consented to this honour only when he was promised that his other band members would also be decorated.

According to Gábor Mátray, Jánoš Bihari and his band visited all the major cities of the Austrian monarchy. He performed in Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia, and Slovakia.

On December 4, 1824, Bihari was invited to play for the inauguration ceremony of the new officials of the town council of Eger. On his way home, his coach overturned and crushed Bihari's left hand. Despite all the endeavours of the brilliant Dr. Stáhl of Györ, his hand remained disabled. Nevertheless, the famous musician continued to play. He even performed for the provincial council in Bratislava in 1825, but he never again appeared as bandmaster. That role was taken over by Jánoš Šarkösi.

It seems that, during his heyday, Jánoš Bihari lived like an aristocrat. When he played in foreign cities, he stayed in luxury hotels and his liveried servant carried his violin for him. But he seems to have died in poverty, like so many other famous personalities. In a portrait painted by the famous Hungarian artist Jánoš Donát, Bihari will remain for all time as a compelling, aristocratic, handsome man with dark skin and baleful eyes, clothed in a magnificent folkloric costume adorned with gold.

What those who know at least something about Gypsy music will never forget is his legendary genius virtuosity, his notes of indescribable magic precisely characteristic of Gypsy music. And so even those who presented him as a "Hungarian", a "Hungarian musician", the most outstanding interpreter of "Hungarian folk music", always eventually came to the conclusion that, in his elusive art, he was sharing his Gypsiness – his romipen.


Liszt, Franz (1883) Die Zigeuner und ihre Musik in Ungarn. Leipzig.
Major, Ervin (1928) Bihari János. Budapest.
Mátray, Gábor (1853) Bihari János magyar népzenész. In: Kubinyi, Ferenc / Vahot, Imre (eds.) Magyarország és Erdély képekben II. Pest, pp. 156-161.
Sárosi, Bálint (1996) János Bihari: Zigeunerprimas und Verbunkoskomponist – Zum gegenwärtigen Stand der Forschung. In: Awosusi, Anita (ed.) Die Musik der Sinti und Roma. Bd. 1. Die ungarische "Zigeunermusik" (= Schriftenreihe des Dokumentations- und Kulturzentrums Deutscher Sinti und Roma 5), Heidelberg, pp. 57-79.
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Jánoš Bihari (1764-1825)