The Speeds the Thing: Fast and Furious Choral Music from Hungary


Choral conductors spend a large amount of time searching for the perfect piece to fit their choir. For many, the most challenging part of selecting repertoire is finding up-tempo choral literature.  Slow works abound in our profession but fast-moving contrapuntal lines are hard to locate. Many composers seem to prefer delegating the burden of rhythmic drive and momentum to the piano or other accompanying instrument. Outstanding unaccompanied works with a fast tempo are particularly difficult to find.

In the rehearsal room, we find that faster music is harder to master and it requires more repetitions to achieve excellence. Chorus members tend to learn faster music more slowly; they seem to understand harmonic language more quickly than counterpoint. For the conductor, the process of committing to a faster work is a bit of a risk and the payoff must be worth the effort required. We must make sure that the music we select is outstanding in quality and accessible to our choirs in the amount of time we have to learn it.

In an effort to assist the discovery of exceptional music of a faster tempo, this article presents five outstanding works drawn from the choral music of Hungary. The composers represent several generations and all are craftsmen of the highest quality.

Jozsef Karai

Jozsef Karai was born in 1927 and studied in Budapest and Pécs between 1935 and 1946. In the years between 1947 and 1954 he studied composition with János Viski and Ferenc Farkas and conducting with János Ferencsik, András Kórodi and László Somogyi at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music. A popular choral conductor, he directed several choruses in Budapest and has composed a large body of choral music since 1969.1

Karai’s Alleluja (EMC 198163) is one of the composer’s best known choral works. It looks to be a work that the composer struggled with for a time because it bears this note on the music: “On the 13th of May, 1981, after the unsuccessful attempt . . . . Revised in 1989.” The Karai Alleluia is an exciting piece of choral music and an excellent opening work or transition out of a slower piece of music. It begins with a chanted line (Figure 1) from a tenor soloist and then moves into a spirited entrance from each voice part.

Figure 1. Karai, “Allelua”, m. 1


“used by permission of Porfiri & Horváth Publishers”

The opening chant is an important part of structure of the work; it is the basis for all of his counterpoint as he weaves the line throughout each voice. (See Figure 2 for a variation of the chant used in the opening part of the piece)

Figure 2. Karai, “Allelua”, m. 3-5








“used by permission of Porfiri & Horváth Publishers”

Although primarily in C Major, the piece temporarily passes through other key relationships that are easy to understand and sing. He arrives at each cadence logically and easily. The different cadences are similar to each other and they give unity to the work. In Figure 3, note how the composer uses a variation of the chant line in the soprano/alto part to arrive at a significant cadence in m. 49.

Figure 3. Karai, “Allelua”, m. 47-49









Used by permission of Porfiri & Horváth Publishers

Karai’s Alleluia is a masterpiece of economy and excitement. Other works to explore by the composer include the fast moving Hodie Christus, natus est for SSAA (Akkord Music, AKKOR00004) and De profundis for mixed choir (EMB 2452).

Sándor Szokolay

Sándor Szokolay is a Hungarian composer born in 1931. A student of Ferenc Szabo and Ferenc Farkas, Szokolay is an award-winning composer of instrumental, vocal, and choral music. 2 One of his best known choral works is Duo motetti, op. 22 (EMB Z 8374). This work premiered in the 1962 International Choral Competition in Arezzo and features two movements drawn from biblical sources: i. Domine non secundum and ii. Cantate Domino.

The second movement, Cantate Domino, can be effectively used as an opening work for the conductor interested in a fast and dramatic beginning to a concert. It starts with dual-glissando like entrances in the women’s and men’s voices. (Figure 4)

Figure 4. Szokolay, “Cantate Domino,” m. 1-3








Copyright 1977 by Editio Musica Budapest

Szokolay’s music is very theatrical and filled with accented entrances, rhythmic drive and glorious dissonance. The composer’s skillful use of repetition keeps the musical material organized and cohesive; the opening flourish that captures the listener in the opening moments of the work appears soon after the beginning and both parts are sung again in a Da Capo.

Szokolay uses high ranges notes and stretto entrances to build the first climax of the work. (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Szokolay, “Cantate Domino,” m. 22-25

Copyright 1977 by Editio Musica Budapest

From there, Szokolay continues to employ contrast as a chief part of the composition. Women are set against men and harmonic sections are set against rhythmic flourishes. The rhythmic passages culminate in another dramatic climax that finds relief in a more homophonic section.

After a repeat of the beginning section of music, the piece ends in a dramatic clash between D flat Major and C Major chords (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Szokolay, “Cantate Domino,” m. 95-96











Copyright 1977 by Editio Musica Budapest

György Orbán

György Orbán, born in 1947, teaches at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. A popular composer, he is well known for his Daemon irrepit callidus. Orban’s Pange lingua is similar in style to Daemon and deserves to be better known. The Pange lingua text describes the last supper of Christ and touches on the mystery of transubstantiation. Orbán’s setting of the text is joyful and exuberant, even though the text is normally associated with Maundy Thursday and Holy Week.

Like Daemon, the Pange lingua has a driving sixteenth-note pattern that provides the dramatic energy of the work. In contrast to the driving sixteenth notes, Orban provides a soaring melody that is carried by paired male and female voices. (see Figure 7)

Figure 7. Orban, “Pange lingua,” m. 9-12

© 2013 Hinshaw Music, Inc, reprinted with permission

Orban’s Pange lingua rarely deviates from the driving sixteenth note intensity that he establishes at the beginning of the work. When he does go away from it, he is either bringing a brief moment of repose to the intensity or drawing attention to the dramatic nature of the text. This can be seen in Figure 8, when the composer has the choir sing the same rhythm to draw attention to the dramatic tension in the text “fitque sanguis Christi merum: et si sensus deficit.” (Translation: And wine becomes the blood of Christ; and if sense fails to perceive this . . . ) (see Figure 8)

Figure 8. Orban, “Pange lingua,” m. 77-80

© 2013 Hinshaw Music, Inc, reprinted with permission

Following a dramatic climax, the composer ends the work by repeating the text ‘sola fides sufficit’ in each voice for seven measures. His goal seems to be to wind down the dramatic energy of the text and music with a meditation on a message of hope. To end the piece, he inserts a short reappearance of the sixteenth-note figure whispering the words ‘pange lingua.’

György Orbán’s Pange lingua is a rhythmically challenging work and well worth the effort. Hinshaw Publishing is making it available in the United States in January 2013. Other notable works include his Salve Regina (HMC1498) and Orpheus With His Lute (Lanthur Ha Szol) (HMC1766).

Levente Gyöngyösi

Levente Gyöngyösi was born in 1975 in Cluj Napoka, Romania and moved to Hungary in 1989 where he was a student in the Béla Bartók Secondary Music School.  Gyöngyösi calls himself a Romania-born Hungarian composer.  A student of Görgy Orban, Gyöngyösi is quickly gaining a reputation as an outstanding choral composer.  He has served as served on the theory music faculty of the Academy of Music since 2002

Gyöngyösi’s Domine Deus meus is dedicated to André van der Merwe and the Stellenbosch University Choir. It is marked vivace furioso and it is a brilliant assault on the listener in terms of tempo, rhythmic energy, and dissonance. It begins with a fanfare-like b-minor chord of open fifths in the upper range and then repeats the fanfare and extends it into an exploration of dissonant chords. (see Figure 9)

Figure 9. Gyöngyösi, “Domine Deus meus,” m. 1-4

Used by permission of Kontrapunkt Music

Similary to Orban, Gyöngyösi employs the technique of driving rhythmic patterns as accompaniment to longer melodic lines. He repeats the first syllable of the word ‘domine’ to add to the rhythmic drive of the piece. The melodic lines build with harmonic interest and dissonance. (see Figure 10)

Figure 10. Gyöngyösi, “Domine Deus meus,” m. 29-31

Used by permission of Kontrapunkt Music

Gyöngyösi brings relief to the dramatic tension in two ways. First, he occasionally drops rhythmic and harmonic motion to sustain on a single note (Figure 11):

Figure 11. Gyöngyösi, “Domine Deus meus,” m. 40-44

Used by permission of Kontrapunkt Music

Gyöngyösi also supplies a short homophonic section in the middle of the work (see Figure 11)

Figure 11. Gyöngyösi, “Domine Deus meus,” m. 100-108