Pista Dankó

Roma Bandleader and Composer (1858-1903)

"Nótafa" (1), composer and musician Pista Dankó (2) was born in Szeged. [The music of the Roma in Hungary] His life story is weighty proof that he followed the route begun by the author of "Szózat" (3) and many other poets. He began to compose at the age of twenty-eight – first, songs from the linguistic area of Szeged; later, music to poetry of Lajos Pósa (4), which, through Dankó's interpretation, gave the feeling of songs with folk origin. Here we should mention, for example, the song that later became so famous, " Az a szép, az a szép" ("handsome is he, handsome is he"). In all, he adapted about 400 poems to music. As a young man, he belonged to the "Hangászsor" (row of musicians), an ensemble in Szeged. Life then led the young man to Szatmar, where he met his life-long love, Ilonka Joó, the daughter of Szatmar's mayor. Even though Pista Dankó was already a well-known musician, it wasn't customary for Gadže to marry Gypsies, and Ilonka's father opposed their marriage. And so Pista and Ilonka eloped. She remained his faithful life's companion until his death.

As for surprising events and reversals, the life of Pista Dankó was particularly colourful. He met and shared his fate with many outstanding personalities of the time, most of whom became his personal friends. Among them were, for example, Prime Minister István Weckerle, (viz. A polgári háyasságöktés megengedés (5)), and a whole range of other leading Hungarian writers, poets and publicists, dozens of whose works were published by Zenemübolt (Sheet Music), a publishing house in Rózahegyszky (Ružemberok). Most of the basic material Dankó used for his compositions came out of Zenemübolt. Dankó is a shining example of a member of the Gypsy Intelligentsia who longed for recognition and glory. He rose from poor circumstances. With the help of excellent musical specialists, he decided to teach himself how to attain success by satisfying the musical taste of the public as well as his own.

At that time, the public particularly enjoyed music inspired by "nótas" (6), czardas' and andalgas (Hungarian dances). Contemporary Hungarian music theorists have often-criticised these types of music, but they cannot in any way be compared with today's kitschy reworkings of original Hungarian nótas.

As we have already said, at the end of the nineteenth century, Pista Dankó had close connections with various outstanding writers of the time. In that regard, we mustn't fail to mention Géza Gárdonyi, author of such exceptional works as "Egri Cyillagok" ("Eger's Stars"), or "Láthatatlan ember" ("The Invisible Man"). Actually it was Gárdonyi who participated in the final version of Dankó's nótas and musical compositions.

Dankó, urged by Gárdonyi, composed his march "A magyarok bejövetele", ("March of the Hungarians"), on the occasion of the thousandth anniversary of the Hungarian state, in 1885. On this occasion, "A Feszty körképe" (7) (the Árpád Feszty panorama) was opened to the public with a gala celebration. Dankó's march ranked him de facto among the elite of Hungarian cultural life at the time. Pista Dankó died of a lung disease at the age of 45.

Pista, however, did not reach his real zenith – recognition, success and fame – until after his death. The following generations were more enthusiastic, and the atmosphere in society was more accepting and more understanding. All his life, Dankó was championed by journalists, (viz. Endre Ady, Ferenc Móra, Gyla Juhász, etc.), whose opinions were respected only afterwards.

Twenty years after his death, Lajós Posa called for a statue to be erected to Pista Dankó. A public collection made this possible. The statue, by Ed Margó, is still standing today in Szeged on one bank of the Tisza river.

Pista Dankó was the second Hungarian Rom after Jánoš Bihari to earn such honour. It is possible to say that the musical performances and interpretations of these two, symbolise the best in typical Gypsy interpretation of Hungarian folk music. Composers deeply impressed by Gypsy music were Ludwig van Beethoven, as well as Franz Liszt [The music of the Roma in Hungary], Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák and Johannes Brahms. So-called "Hungarian rhythm", just like the inexhaustible treasury of Romany melodies, correctly proves that (1) there is only good and bad music; (2) music knows no borders, and good music always guarantees its listeners individual artistic experiences on the highest spiritual level; (3) quality music always comes from a pure source (8).

1 archaic expression for a ballad-singer of folk music, also one of the nicknames of Pista Dankó.
2 Pista – shortened version of the name István (Steven); from time immemorial it has been the tradition to abbreviate first names of Gypsy bandleaders, e.g. Márton – Marci; Ferenc – Feri, etc.
3 "Szózat" – renowned "national" poem by Mihály Vörösmarty, written in the 1830's
4 Lajos Pósa – poet, writer, wrote above all verse linked to folk poetry; most of his work was put to music
5 He proposed a law concerning marriage between citizens of differing faiths.
6 "Nótas", or ballads, are not authentic folksongs since their authorship is known, but they are still a very popular type of Hungarian music. [The music of the Roma in Hungary] The originality of Gypsy musicians' concept of nótas contributed in a great degree to their firm foundation in traditional Hungarian music.
7 Árpád Feszty – painter, artist. Until 1944, his universally acclaimed panorama "March of the Hungarians" was exhibited in Budapest's Városliget (a large, popular park in Budapest)
8 quotation from Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.

Text based on

Gsemer Geza (2001) Szögeny Dankó Pista. Alomregeny, Budapest.
Image Printable version
Image Song with notes
Pista Danko (1858-1903)