Today is the National Day of Hungarian Culture and if you are in Hungary you will find that there are countless cultural events going on this day, such as literary evenings, concerts, award ceremonies, art exhibitions… If you set foot in any school in the country, you will see school children performing, singing, reciting poems, and talking a lot about a Hungarian poet named Ferenc Kölcsey.
It’s not a coincidence that he is mentioned so much today: the National Day of Hungarian Culture is held on the anniversary of him finalising his most famous poem titled “Hymn”, a prayer to God, asking for protection for this tiny nation in the middle of Europe. He reminisces about the past starting with the settlement of the Hungarian tribes in the Carpathian Basin, then lists all the hardships of Hungarians throughout the centuries as God punished them for their sins. He asks God to bless the nation and offer a helping hand.
Some 20 years later another Ferenc, Ferenc Erkel won a competition with his musical arrangement for the poem, which soon gained popularity and people started to sing it at public events. Although there were some initiatives to make the poem and its musical version the national anthem of Hungary, as a reminder of the nation’s stormy past, it wasn’t until 1989 that it gained official recognition in the Constitution of Hungary.
It was also the year when the National Day of Hungarian Culture was celebrated on 22 January, to commemorate Ferenc Kölcsey and his poem.
Here is the first verse of the poem with a (more or less) modernised spelling, and its English translation by William N. Loew (1881):
Isten, áldd meg a magyart
Jó kedvvel, bőséggel,
Nyújts feléje védő kart,
Ha küzd ellenséggel;
Bal sors akit régen tép,
Hozz rá víg esztendőt,
Megbünhödte már e nép
A multat s jövendőt!
O, my God, the Magyar bless
With Thy plenty and good cheer!
With Thine aid his just cause press,
Where his foes to fight appear.
Fate, who for so long did’st frown,
Bring him happy times and ways;
Atoning sorrow hath weighed down
Sins of past and future days.
Listen to Erkel’s musical arrangement performed by Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir.