Gábor Lükő, folklorist, ethnomusicologist and ethnologist, a dedicated researcher of Hungarian
folk society and the peoples of the Carpathian Basin, a living classic of comparative
ethnology, folklore studies and Hungarian semiotics, will be 90 years old on November 4,
Gábor Lükő was influenced for a lifetime by his encounter with Sándor Karácsony, the outstanding Hungarian educator and philosopher, who taught him in secondary school and had the greatest influence on his later career. Their personal contact remained very close right up to Karácsony’s death (1952) and Lükő was loyal to his teacher under all circumstances.
After completing secondary school at Tavaszmező Street gymnasium, Lükő continued his studies from 1928 at the Budapest arts faculty. His most important teachers included: Nándor Fettich archaeologist, Zoltán Gombocz linguist, István Györffy ethnologist, János Horváth literary historian, Zoltán Kodály composer and ethnomusicologist, János Melich linguist. He received very wide-ranging training from the leading researchers and educators of the time. In 1931 he travelled to Romania on a scholarship and studied at the Bucharest University. The ethnomusicologist Constantin Brăiloiu supported the young Hungarian scholarship student and Lükő also joined in the work of the rural sociology seminar conducted by sociologist Dimitrie Gusti. Here he met and formed friendships with Henri H. Stahl and Harry Brauner, among others. At first he took part in the work done in Wallachian villages by Gusti’s students but later he began to work on his own, setting out on a Moldavian research trip that was to last seven months (1932–33). His work on the Hungarians of Moldavia shows his first attempt to achieve a synthesis and he made combined use of the research methods of a number of disciplines (linguistics, historiography, music, ethnology). His study trip in Moldavia resulted in
In December 1936 he took his doctorate examination at the Péter Pázmány University in Budapest (main subject: ethnology, secondary subjects: history of Eastern Europe and Romanian language). In 1937 he attended the lectures given at Debrecen University by Sándor Karácsony who was then working on the methodology for A magyar nyelvtan társas-lélektani alapon [Hungarian grammar on a folk psychology basis] (Exodus. Budapest, 1938). A number of Hungarian social scientists, among them Zoltán Gombocz and Sándor Karácsony were deeply influenced by Wilhelm Wundt’s Elemente der Völkerpsychologie. Grundlinien einer psychologischen Entwicklungs<->geschichte der Menschheit. (Alfred Kröner Verlag. Leipzig, 1912). This was not a simple borrowing, but a critical reception and creative application of the theory. „The function of folk psychology – which became known in Hungarian as társaslélektan, using the term coined by Zoltán Gombocz – more specifically, in contrast to psychology of the individual, is to examine the psychological processes serving as the basis for the development of man’s social life and the origin of collective intellectual products of general value.”
Lükő’s scholarly methodology reached its culmination in folk psychology after the monographic sociology of Gusti. It can already be felt in A magyar lélek formái [Forms of the Hungarian soul] (Exodus, Budapest, 1942), which is still a basic work for the interpretation of Hungarian folk symbols (in folk poetry and decorative art). In this work, the manifestations of the Hungarian folk soul in different folklore creations appear in connection with the cultural heritage of the Oriental, Ural-Altaic peoples, with the
From 1937 Lükő was a museologist in the Déri Museum of Debrecen, then from 1943 he worked as a fellow of the „Folk Psychology Institute” organised by Sándor Karácsony. In 1945 he was appointed privat-docent at the Arts Faculty of the Debrecen University for the subject „Folkloristic bases of pedagogy”.
At the recommendation of the party leadership, the communist regime forced Sándor Karácsony to retire in 1950 on the grounds of his dangerous „narodnik and sectarian” views, and perhaps not least of all because this „had a strong influence on youth”. This determined the later course of Lükő’s career as well: in the two decades from the time the Folk Psychology Institute was closed down until his retirement he did not receive a university teaching post.
From 1950 to 1958 he was director of the Ferenc Erkel Museum in Gyula. In addition to his work in the museum, the exploration of the Gyula castle and reconstruction of its historical periods was an outstanding achievement. During the Hungarian revolution of 1956 Lükő took a stand in support of the revolution’s attainments. His article appearing in the Gyulai Hírlap under the title „Let us preserve our revolution unblemished” called for non-violence from the participants in the revolution and help up Gandhi as an example. „Gandhi was the leader of the Indian freedom movement who taught his people to first control themselves, because only then would they be worthy of freedom. We Hungarians too must show that we are worthy of it. The whole world is watching us. They are observing our unarmed struggle with admiration and they are hoping for our victory.” After the revolution was crushed Lükő was imprisoned and he was forced soon after to leave Gyula.
From 1958 he was a member of the staff of the István Türr Museum in Baja and from 1965 he was director of the Kiskun Museum in Kiskunfélegyháza until he applied for retirement in 1970. In 1983 he published A Kiskunság régi képfaragó és képmetsző művészete [Old Art of Engraving and Carving Images in the Kiskunság Region], an outstanding basic work of uniquely Hungarian practical semiotics, based on a thorough analysis of folk art creations from many angles.
A great part of the output of his seven decades of serious research work remains in the form of unpublished manuscripts (some 200–250 boxes of manuscripts, photographs, and sketches arranged by theme and constantly „updated” with his latest reading; also graphic art, tableaux, folk music he collected and folk songs he noted down). His oeuvre is of inestimable value for research on Hungarian folk culture but it is still known only in a narrow circle since for the last 50 years he has worked far removed from „official” scholarly public life – and for the most part neglected. Most of his writings and studies have remained in manuscript or have not been published in their original length.
His long creative career is an extremely complex, outstanding scholarly achievement. Already in his first works Lükő strove to make complex use of a number of disciplines in his research. To use a currently fashionable expression: he was already doing interdisciplinary research six or seven decades ago before anyone had begun to use the term and the representatives of different branches of learning were rarely open to the results of related branches.
Lükő’s synthesis embraces the Oriental peoples and the Hungarians and makes a deep and complex study of the cultural interactions of the ethnic groups living in the Carpathian Basin (covering language, folk music, decorative art, textual and musical folklore). He devoted special attention to research on the historical stratification and regional variants of the folk art and folk music manifestations of the different Finno-Ugrian and Turkic peoples. He attempted to identify their influence on the set of linguistic, musical and visual symbols of the Hungarian people within this broader „Oriental” context and its development, and to distinguish the different „cultural layers”.
Lükő held and still holds that culture cannot be broken up into small fragments: the representatives of different disciplines can only step beyond the limitations of their own discipline if they become acquainted, at least in part, with the results of related disciplines. We must obtain a picture of the „whole” if we want to approach more closely the communities maintaining and renewing our cultural heritage, to become better acquainted with the individual who creates and transmits culture. He is not in favour of the fragmentation of learning, the excessive specialisation of disciplines because this often renders invisible the relationships that can only be discovered through a synthetic and comparative study of the culture as a whole and all its details.
In the field of ethnomusicology, Gábor Lükő further developed the work of Bartók and Kodály. His investigations on the pentatonic tonal system are of special interest. By studying the art, world-view and linguistic philosophy of the Finno-Ugrian and Turkic peoples and exploring their interethnic interactions, he was able to show the fundamental characteristics of a distinctive Oriental language of form and philosophy, differing from that of most of the Indo-European peoples. Lükő examined the ancient culture of the Hungarians of the Conquest as part of a broader Oriental (mainly Finno-Ugrian and Turkic) culture and showed how these Oriental elements of Hungarian culture, the symbols and decorative motifs survived and underwent transformation (development), identifying their manifestations also in 19th century peasant culture (folk poetry, decorative art).
Hungarian scholarship has a big debt to discharge in the evaluation and appreciation of the work of Gábor Lükő. At present his research findings have a greater influence in scholarly circles in a few countries abroad than they do in Hungary. We hope that this volume can be a step towards making his work more widely known.
With this volume of studies and the selection of folk songs collected in Moldavia issued on CD, the editor and authors pay tribute to Gábor Lükő on his 90th birthday.