Travel to Hungary without Leaving Phoenix through MIM

As the heat of the summer keeps us indoors in Phoenix, those of us stuck in town still have a few choices to get out of the house, have some fun. The city has plenty of museums to explore, keeping us out of the sun, and having fun at the same time. 

One of these museums is the Musical Instrument Museum (also referred to as MIM), in North Phoenix. Unique in the world, MIM strives to connect us with different cultures around the world through their music. 

Music Connects Us All, Regardless of Our Cultural Background

Music is such a strong, unique representation of a culture, while able to connect all of us through sound. Music is universal; people from all over the world use it to express their emotions, joy, happiness, sadness, heartache. No matter the words they use, all cultures use the sound of music, of musical instruments to express the same feelings. 

As you walk through the Musical Instrument Museum, you also realize how the musical instruments from different parts of the world are similar, even as they differ from each other. You’ll find the museum’s extensive collection of thousands of instruments displayed through several galleries, on two levels.

A corner of the upstairs area holds a special cultural importance for us, Hungarians. The exhibits on this level, including instruments, visual and sound recordings, present different cultures of the world, following them through their geographical areas. Visiting the galleries, you’ll travel the world through music, from Africa and Asia, Oceania, Central and South America to North America and Europe. Here, tucked between Bulgaria and Romania, we find the Hungarian corner.

Hungarian Music at the Musical Instrument Museum

Here, in the Europe gallery, I find my own cultural heritage, in the Hungary exhibit. For me, as part of the Hungarian community in Phoenix, this exhibit means more than just another stop along the geographical travel route. It is a tiny piece of home, a piece of my cultural heritage. 

The recordings include a segment of a violin concert, filling me with nostalgia thinking of the violin I abandoned as a teen, but also a segment of a traditional Hungarian wedding from one of the Transylvanian villages. This is home for me; for a Hungarian from Transylvania.  

The traditional Transylvanian-Hungarian folk costumes some of the wedding guests are wearing, the music, the village, all transport me back to my home country, to the villages in the countryside near my hometown. I replay the recording several times, before I turn my attention to the actual musical instruments on display. 

Hungarian Musical Instruments at MIM

Besides some of the more modern-looking instruments, like a violin and the tárogató, which is basically a Hungarian clarinet, I see some of the more traditional, old instruments, the tamburica, duda, kintorna and citera. 

Though I recognize their name from folk stories, and traditional children stories, I don’t know much about all of them. One of the museum’s associate curator for Europe, David Wegehaupt helped me out with some of the questions I had about the instruments on display. 

Turns out, I could learn about my own culture here, in the desert of Phoenix, too. 

The Kintorna

I’ve never seen a kintorna before visiting MIM, for example. I heard about it plenty of times before, but never really knew what it was. Thanks to David Wegehaupt, now I know more about this instrument than I ever did. This is what David says about it: 

“The kintorna is a wheel fiddle, often called a hurdy-gurdy in English. When the player turns a crank on the instrument, a wheel turns which rubs against the three strings, essentially bowing the strings, causing them to vibrate. This kintorna has three strings, two drone strings (the pitch does not change) and a third string which changes pitch by the pressing of the keys of the kintorna.

Hurdy-gurdies are found throughout Europe (we have them in at least five countries’ displays in the Europe gallery) and are thought to have originated sometime before the year 1000 CE, in Europe or the Middle East. With instruments this old, it is often difficult to pinpoint a date or place of origin, but they proliferated throughout Europe and are used in the folk music of many countries.

I have also seen the word kintorna associated with some barrel organs. These barrel organs are also hand-cranked, so the sound is created by the player turning the crank to activate the organ. Aside from that, these are quite different from the hurdy-gurdy. 

The kintorna on display in Hungary was acquired from a private collection of musical Instruments and puppets in Goslar, Germany assembled by Walter J. Erdmann.” 

 The Citera and Cimbalom

As pretty as the kintorna on display is, with its carved top, my favoritte instrument in this exhibit is the citera with the six horseheads. Though I knew much more about the citera than about the kintorna, I still wanted to learn more about this specific instrument, with its gorgeous horse head carvings. Since horses have always been important in the Hungarian culture – we are a horse-nation, after all – , it didn’t surprise me to see them. Still, I admired its workmanship and beauty. The following is what David says about this particular instrument: 

“Citera with horse heads was made in Bag, Hungary in 1972 by Pál Svehla and Gábor Horváth. Citera simply means “zither” in English. A zither is an instrument with a flat soundbox with strings that stretch across the body of the instrument. The cimbalom is another type of zither. There are many sizes, shapes, and varieties of zithers that can be found across Europe. The Hungarian citera is somewhat unique in with its split fretboard, where the player frets the melody strings to change pitches. Along with 5 melody strings, the zither has 18 accompaniment strings. 

Many folk instruments will have carved designs, such as the 6 horse heads on this instrument. Usually the animal depicted is one that has an important role and is revered in a culture.”

With our horse-culture, it stands the reason to see the beautifully carved horseheads on this instrument. 

The larger cousin of the citera, a cimbalom is also on display here. This is one instrument I’ve seen played during my childhood. I knew that many of the neighboring cultures also played it, so it was a surprise for me to learn that the concert cimbalom was invented in Hungary in the 1870.  This was another thing I found out from David, along with the fact that the cimbalom became popular outside of Hungary in the early 20th century, all made by Lajos Bohák’s company, the same company that made the two on display at the MIM (beside the Hungary exhibit, the Checz Republic exhibit also displays one). 

The Duda

One of our oldest musical instruments, the duda, or bőrduda is also present in the exhibit. In fact, MIM has two of them on display, and for good reason. Folk songs, old children’s stories, myths, legends, and historical documents all talk about the duda or bőrduda. The name of the instrument is also still used in many Hungarian proverbs and sayings. 

Basically a bagpipe, and usually played by shepherds, it was a popular instrument in the Hungarian culture. 

Known as being used since as far back as 1095, and mentioned in many historical documents dating from the 1500s, the bőrduda was an important instrument in the lives of our people, helping to mark the most important moments of human life. The sound of the bőrduda historically accompanied all major events, including baptisms and birthdays, even funerals, as well as the celebrations of the solstices. Harder to play than other wind instruments, those who knew how to play it well were held in high regard. 

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that the Hungarian duda lost its popularity, replaced by other wind instruments, easier to play, like the tárogató (the Hungarian clarinet) and fuvola. You can see both these instruments on display at the Musical Instrument Museum, as well. 

The Tárogató

Naturally, I also find a tárogató at the Hungarian exhibit of MIM. The tárogató is another one of our ancient instruments, known since the time of the conquest to present days.  

Today, the tárogató is known as a Hungarikum, considered a Hungarian national instrument, due to its unique sound and special tone, sometimes even referred to as the voice of the Hungarian soul.  

Like the duda, the tárogató accompanies Hungarian history from ancient days to present. Its structure, voice, and tone have undergone some changes over the centuries, but its essence remained the same. The instrument was especially popular in the 16th century among the border soldiers, called végvári katonák, but was also featured in aristocratic courts and weddings. 

It gained its present form at the end of the 19th century, when a musical instrument factory in Budapest elongated the instrument’s body and equipped it with a clarinet-like mouthpiece, and several keys. 

Putting the Hungarian Musical Culture in the Larger Context of Music around the World

So, if you are interested in our culture’s musical history, want to see some of our ancient musical instruments, watch and listen to recordings of Hungarian music, spend some time at MIM this summer. While there, visit all their other exhibits, both in the Geographical Galleries, and in the rest of the museum. 

You’ll find similar, and sometimes the same instruments in other parts of Europe, and in some areas of Asia. This will help put our musical culture in the larger context of cultures of the world. 

Before visiting MIM, check their schedule, since you might also have the opportunity to watch a live concert this summer. 

You Can Also Listen to a Concert at the Musical Instrument Museum

You can also listen to a concert at MIM. Sometimes you might visit while they hold a concert, and you can attend, like I did once with my brother. We walked in about an hour before a classical concert started, and we added it to our visit.

But you don’t need to rely on chance to attend a concert at the Musical Instrument Museum. You can schedule it in advance, just check the museum’s website for dates and times. You might even see and listen to Hungarian musicians, like the one organized in 2019 in partnership with our organization.

That’s when the Sündörgő ensemble from Hungary visited Phoenix and held a concert at the museum. Its striking virtuosity and fresh way of performing made Sündörgő one of the most popular Hungarian music groups in Europe. With its instrumentation based on the tambura, along with wind and percussion instruments, and an accordion, the group can authentically create all the layers of the Balkan music in a way unheard from other groups in the region. 

Attending a concert adds another dimension to a visit to the Musical Instrument Museum. But with or without a concert, MIM offers a great way to spend a scorching summer day of Phoenix indoors.

Regardless if you enjoy reminiscing about your childhood or life in the “old country”, learning about our own musical culture in the larger context of the musical culture of the world, or simply enjoying music from around the globe, a visit to MIM offers all the above, and an opportunity to spend some time in a pleasant environment, away from the heat of the desert. 

Published by

E. Réka Fromm

A Hungarian native from Transylvania, Réka Fromm is the language instructor for adults at the HCA Phoenix. She is teaching Hungarian as a foreign language for English-speaking adults, leading small groups of beginner through intermediate classes through Zoom. A Phoenix resident for almost three decades, she is also a travel writer and occasional translator.

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