Letter to Hungary

for String Orchestra (c. 15")

The commission to write Letter To Hungary, for string orchestra, came in 2005, just as I was going through a period of nostalgia for my three years as a student in Budapest.

The Hungarian Chamber Symphony Orchestra premiered the 15-minute piece in Budapest in November, 2005. The U.S. premiere took place in January, 2007 with the Mission Chamber Orchestra in San Jose, California.

Instrumentation: String Orchestra (up to 4-part divisi in violins, 3-part in violas and cellos)


Since even before living in Budapest in the early 1990’s, I have loved Hungarian music for its enigmatic melodies and infectious rhythms. With LETTER TO HUNGARY I’ve taken the opportunity to explore what can be achieved by mixing these elements with my own style and sensibilities.

This is a playful piece, in which Hungarian rhythms and instrumental styles appear unexpectedly and then recede into the background. Although most of the material is original, my hope is that the Hungarian listener will be convinced he or she has heard these tunes before. The emotional core of this 15-minute piece is the well-known folksong “Madárka, madárka”, in which a little bird is asked to deliver a letter home to the singer’s beloved Hungary. To me, this suggests someone in exile, living outside Hungary against his/her will, and so it’s a song about homesickness. Fragments of the tune are woven into the texture of the plaintive, chorale-like introduction, and it becomes the main focus of the slow middle section. The final minutes consist of a vigorous scherzo that eventually becomes a gentle backdrop for one last majestic statement of the madárka theme, culminating in a wild csárdás coda.

Madárka, madárka
Csácsogó madárka
Vidd el a levelem,
Vidd el a levelem
Szép magyar hazámba

Ha kérdi, ki küldte,
Mondd csak, hogy az küldte
Kinek bánatában
Szíve fájdalmában
Meghasad a szíve

— Hungarian folksong

“Dear little bird, please bring this letter to my beloved Homeland.

If she asks who sent it, tell her it is from one with a broken heart.”

— translation, Michael Kaulkin