Why You Should Make Classical Music a Priority When Visiting Budapest

Every year, many tourists head to Budapest specifically for its rich classical music history. Here, classical music is far from stuffy or old-fashioned — and a poignant portal into deeper aspects of Hungarian life than you think.

In the summer of 2017, Chicago-based violinist Desirée Ruhstrat found herself in a basement in Buda at 1 a.m. She had just dined upstairs at Déryné Bistro while taking in the sounds of an authentic gypsy band. Following them downstairs to the tiny space and now shored up by some good Hungarian wine, Ruhstrat went for it. Taking up a violin lent by a band member, she started to play. She launched into her rendition of “Csárdás,” a famous Vittorio Monti violin piece based on a traditional Hungarian folk dance. “A few glasses of wine helped that cause,” she recalled with a smile.

At first this merriment seems to be the same kind of revelry that draws many tourists to Budapest each year — rich food and drink and a vibrant culture scene. But, Ruhstrat’s journey is also a fine example of a side of Budapest that’s often overlooked by younger tourists in particular (who may only see the capital as a cheap drinking destination): its classical music.

Even if not in town to see one of the many concerts taking place at venues across the city year round, any visitor to Budapest, musically inclined or not, is sure to notice live music acts peppering the city. Dining and music regularly go hand in hand. Bands — often performing folk music — grace small bars like Lámpás and Lumen, larger restaurants on the tourist strips, and even charming waterfront venues. Budapest also is the site for several music festivals (such as Sziget, one of the largest in Europe). Ruhstrat and her husband, cellist David Cunliffe, were in Budapest through the Ravinia Festival, a US-based classical music festival.

The Hungarian State Opera House (1875-1884) is a jewel of Budapest's Andrássy Avenue. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
The Hungarian State Opera House (1875-1884) is a jewel of Budapest's Andrássy Avenue. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Music seems to be an integral part to Budapest life. As a classical music journalist, I know Budapest doesn't often top lists surveying classical music in Europe — institutions in cities like Vienna, London, Salzburg (the birthplace of Mozart), Prague and Leipzig land more often on such roundups. Budapest, however, with its sheer number of culturally significant classical music performance halls, should be considered a top destination for music-lovers. It's a gem, with solid presentations of classical, folk and contemporary genres.

Just a quick survey of concerts going on at hip venues like Müpa Budapest — which has a state-of-the-art acoustical setup and presents classical, contemporary, jazz, popular and world music — shows a vibrant arts scene. There’s many contemporary programs in this sleek, high-tech concert hall. This season features diversity, from Philip Glass’ enchanting opera Akhnaten to puppet theater to classical piano recitals to concerts marrying opera and beatboxing. There’s also unique programming at the event venue A38, a concert hall and cultural center built within a reconstructed Ukranian ship.

Photo: Müpa Budapest
Photo: Müpa Budapest

Classical music concerts in Budapest are affordable when compared internationally. A ticket to a production at Budapest’s Hungarian Opera or at Müpa Budapest is only around or under €20. A bonus for those who are far from classical music aficionados is that dipping into the city’s classical music scene is also a helpful way to explore other gems: many music venues also happen to be notable architectural sites. The Liszt Academy, the nation’s top music school, features transporting art nouveau architecture. The Vigadó Concert Hall, Budapest’s second largest music venue and home to the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, sports opulent chandeliers. Even the ornate Matthias Church and the Saint Stephen’s Basilica present concerts.

Classical music in Budapest is also, as I found when visiting last year, a handy portal into many other aspects of Hungarian culture and history. It’s impossible to plunge into Budapest’s classical music world without learning about Béla Bartók and Franz Liszt, regarded as two of Hungary’s greatest composers, who made their homes in Budapest in the 19th and 20th centuries. Bartók’s famous gothic opera Bluebeard’s Castle originated in Budapest’s grand Hungarian State Opera House more than one hundred years ago. Even in this time, Hungary’s rich folk-music traditions permeated the classical scene as well. Bartók, who was also an ethnomusicologist fascinated by folk tunes and traditions, famously traveled the countryside with fellow composer Zoltán Kodály to record thousands of tunes.

Liszt was a composer and a dazzling pianist famous for his showmanship — he had such a magnetic onstage charisma that he spurred “Lisztomania,” a kind of manic fandom especially in female audience members, who would swarm him for a touch of his handkerchief or gloves. Less maniacally, Liszt established the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music, now called the Franz Liszt Academy of Music (the original building along Andrássy Avenue is home to the Franz Liszt Memorial Museum today). It’s a top conservatory. The Liszt Academy, equipped with an ornate main concert hall, hosts many concerts each year. The Academy continues to be a springboard for world-touring classical musicians, including violinist Kristóf Baráti, pianist Dénes Várjon, pianist György Kurtág, and the founders of the world-famous string quartet the Takács Quartet, which has a strong tie to Bartók’s string quartets. Noted 20th-century avant-garde composer György Ligeti also studied there.

Budapest's Ferenc Liszt Memorial Museum features some of the master's old furnishings and other belongings. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Budapest's Ferenc Liszt Memorial Museum features some of the master's old furnishings and other belongings. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Budapest’s classical music legacy is also intertwined with darker phases of Hungarian history, as Ruhstrat and Cunliffe, the musicians from earlier, found. While wandering the streets of Budapest’s District V one afternoon, Ruhstrat and Cunliffe stumbled upon a music store. There, they found sheet music for string trios by Czech composers Hans Krása and Gideon Klein. After more wandering, they soon stumbled on a one-man shop. There, they found a string trio by Hungarian composer Sándor Kuti. Ruhstrat and Cunliffe took them to play in their Chicago-based trio with violist Aurelian Pederzoli, Black Oak Ensemble.

They couldn’t believe their ears. “The more we played it the more we really enjoyed it. It was a really great find for us,” David said, painting music that struck them as complex and interesting. Further investigation convinced them that they’d stumbled upon gems. Kuti was once described to have the potential to be “one of Hungary’s greatest composers.” Even more research, however, revealed a shared tragic end: they were victims of the Holocaust. “When we started reading those pieces, we had no idea what happened to those composers,” said Pederzoli.

The connection compelled Black Oak Ensemble to investigate more string trios by other murdered or censored composers of this era. As the ensemble delved deeper, they found even more composers who were killed or whose works were censored by the Nazi regime. They released an album titled Silenced Voices, spotlighting these six 20th-century Jewish composers: including Krása, Kuti, and Klein, the six are Hungarian composer and cello virtuoso Paul Hermann; Hungarian Géza Frid, the only featured composer who survived, living until 1989, and Dutch composer Dick Kattenberg.

The three Hungarian composers on the record are just a small representation of the Jewish- Hungarian musicians who perished in the Holocaust or at the hands of Nazi allies in Hungary. Since the mid 1800s, Jews were a pivotal part of Budapest’s classical music world. Violist Péter Bársony wrote in an American Symphony Orchestra program that the Liszt Music Academy “had the highest ratio of Jewish students among Hungarian universities. Between 1915 and 1919, almost half of all music students were Jewish...Despite all the rescue efforts, hundreds of Hungarian musicians, including at least 22 composers, fell victim to the Nazis and their Hungarian allies.” Bársony and colleagues pianist Márta Gulyás, violinist Vilmos Szabadi and cellist Ditta Rohmann also released a similar album in 2008, titled “In Memoriam: Hungarian Composers, Victims of the Holocaust.”

In the Kuti, the work unearthed in that tiny one-man shop, Cunliffe describes aspects similar to Bartók. Pederzoli adds that the third movement often provokes tears from audience members. “Kuti had the inflection that you find in Kodály or in Bartók, this very Hungarian way of speaking and writing,” he said.

Black Oak Ensemble do not aim to emphasize these works as shrouded in doom and gloom, however. They foreground the hope and beauty of the music, and the vitality with which these composers created during their lives above all else. Doing so also keeps the history alive — and connected to the music of Budapest today.

Black Oak Ensemble has been touring the Silenced Voices program throughout some programs in European cities since the album’s release. Most of their 2020 dates are slated to be in the United States, but the ensemble members expressed desire to one day bring it to Budapest, where their journey began. Keep an eye on their schedule until then.