Három Árva (The Three Orphans)

The Bartók/Kodály collection of Hungarian Folksongs is, on one hand, an extraordinary ethnomusicological document and, on the other, a repository for one of Hungary’s richest cultural legacies. Bartók and Kodály devised a fastidious notational method enabling each nuance of every song to be faithfully recorded. There is no doubt that without their dedicated searching and cataloguing, the majority of material in the collection would, long since, have been lost without trace.

I was to write a piece as part of the York University Spring Festival. The theme for the festival was Myth and Folklore in Music so it seemed an ideal opportunity to explore the Bartók/Kodály collection for sources. I found four versions of a song entitled Három Árva (Three Orphans). While each told largely the same story, they all came from different regions and were set to widely differing melodies. One was barely more than a scrap, but the most colourful parts of the other three could be edited together to create a narrative, which began:

Yonder is a walnut tree
With three branches.
Underneath sit three orphans.
Three murderers pass that way.

The first two melodies I chose were collected by Kodály, one in Kászonujfalu (1912) and the other in Gyergóalfalu (1910). Bartók collected the third in Tekeröpatak (1907). I lived in Hungary for four years and had never heard of those villages – neither had my (Hungarian) parents, when I asked them – which I only mention as it bears witness to Bartók’s and Kodály’s dedication in scouring the remotest locations in their search.

One of the exciting paradoxes about Hungarian folk poetry is superficial ingenuousness throwing into relief a core of great emotional sophistication. The youngest of three orphans calmly resigning to die for the sake of his brothers becomes heroic in its very understatement. There is poignancy too in the startlingly human Virgin Mary (she speaks in peasant dialect), herself bereaved of her son, sending the orphans to wake their dead mother. The mother’s unsentimental explanation as to why she cannot arise from her coffin is horrific, yet highlights in its very matter-of-factness her resignation to grief at being separated from her sons. The brothers seem as unable to acknowledge the disappearance of their mother’s corporeal remains as she is unable to accept the departure of her spiritual self. While describing the flight of her soul, she speaks in the most soulful way a mother could. Christian doctrine about the duality of body and spirit seems to be running in irreconcilable parallel with the peasant perception of what it is to be human. The Virgin Mary’s contribution to the orphans’ plight is less than useless – if anything it serves only to underline their misery – and the hopelessness of their future exists entirely in the context of a Christianity perceived as little more than peasant superstition. All the folk songs describe the orphans’ desperate lot in the eventual care of their stepmother, so I superimposed all three accounts of her cruelty as a kind of bleak climax. The naïve, understated epilogue seems merely to re-establish resignation to God’s indifference at the plight of the poor.

Laurence Roman,
York – 6th April 2003

Három Árva (The Three Orphans)


Tova vagyon ëgy divófa, — Where the walnut tree is growing,
Annaka vagyon három ága,  — Three great branches gently blowing,
Az alatt ül három árva,  — Three young orphans sleep unknowing.
Odamëne három gyilkos. — Three assassins steal upon them

A nagyobbik csak azt mondja: —  Said the eldest, this he said:
“Öljétëk mëg a küssebet!”  — “Kill the youngest of us, the youngest one!”
“Én nëm bánom édës bátyám,  — “I’m agreed to die, sweet brother,
S vëgyétek ki a szivemët.  — Pluck my heart out once the deed’s done.

S Mossátok mëg ürmös borba,  — Wash it in sweetest of sweet wine,
Takarjátok gyëngy gyócsba,  — Wrap it up in linen so fine,
Zárjátok bé ëgy ládába,  — Lock it in a chest of strong pine;
Vigyétëk bé Barassóba.  — Then to market, rain or shine.”

Tëgyétek ki a piacra,  — As example in the main square,
Vëgyën példát mindën róla;  — Show it to all those who pass there,
Hogy van az árvának dolga!”  — Share the lot all orphans must share.”

Elindul a három árva  — Those three orphans roam together,
Hoszú útra, bujdosásra.  — Seeking shelter from the weather.
Azt kérdi a szép Szüz Márja:  — Asks the Virgin, grace bestowing:
“Hová mét te három árva?”  — “Where are you three orphans going?”

“Mi elmegyünk bujdosásra,  — “Seeking shelter, Holy Mother,
Egyik ajtóról a másra.”  — From one doorway to the other.”
“Ne menjetek, jertek vissza,  — “Go no further, come back to me.
Adok néktek három vesszöt.  — I will give you each a strong birch,
Verjétek meg a temetöt.”  — Strike the graveyard at the old church.”

“Kelj föl, kelj föl édesanyánk,  — “Mother, rise from sleep unending,
Mer elszakadt a gyászgunyánk!” — For our mourning clothes need mending!”
“Nem kelhetek, édes fiam,  — “I must lie here all forgotten,
Elrohadtak az inaim.  — For my tendons, son, are rotten.

Elrohadtak az inaim,  — Tendons rotten through and through now,
Két karjaim s két lábaim.  — Arms and legs are rotten too now.
A vérem is elároklott,  — All my blood has turned to clay now,
S a lelkem is elbucsuzott.”  — And my soul has passed away now.”

“Adja ide, édes anyám  — “Dearest mother, hear me ask it,
A koporsójának kócsát,  — Give your coffin key to me now.
Had’ zárjam ki koporsóját,  — I will open up your casket,
Csókoljam meg kezét, lábát.”  — Kiss your hands and set you free now.”

“Tova mënyën egy menyecske,  — “See that little maiden rushing,
Két orcája ki van festve.  — Her two cheeks all rouged and blushing.
A’llesz néktek mostohátok,  — She will soon be your stepmother,
Aki fejért ad rëátok.  — Washing linen for each brother.

Mikor fejért ad rëátok,  — Each clean shirt will scar like lashes,
Vérrel virágzik hátatok.  — Blood will flow as if from gashes.
Mikor kenyért ad kezedbe,  — When she feeds you from her baking,
Hull a könyved kebekedbe.  — Your sad hearts will feel like breaking.

Mikor fehért ad rëátok,  — When she dresses you in clean linen,
Verrel virágzik hátatok,  — Your backs will blossom with blood.
Mikor fésüli fejetëk,  — Drawn by combs as sharp as sickles,
Verrel virágzik fésütök.”  — Blood will flow in scarlet trickles.”

“Mikor fésüli fejünk,  — “Drawn by combs as sharp as sickles
Sarkunkon foly piros vérünk,  — Our red blood will flow in trickles.
Mikor kenyért ád kezünkbe,  — When she feeds us from her baking,
Hull a könyü kebelünkbe.”  — Our sad hearts will feel like breaking.”

Én istenem, valahára  — Heavenly Father, throned in splendor,
Tekints reá az árvára,  — Be the orphan’s sole defender,
Hogy ne jusson bujdosásra,  — Shelter him and never waver
Egyik ajtóról a másra!  — When he finds no worldly favour!

Translated by Laurence Roman
York – 26th March 2003