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Budapest blog: Bitter sweet station symphony

Shutdown and responsibly socially distant, Budapest is still Budapest, the city we love and the city we live in. For all of us, our immediate surroundings are our home – literally. In this series of Budapest blogs, we reflect on life from a window in Hungary’s capital.

As traffic dwindles from my window, a feeling of movement, of action, of progress, is provided by the occasional train pulling in and out of Nyugati. Laid out below me like a model railway, an estuary of tracks feeds the station created by the men from Eiffel.

So near yet so far. Nyugati is pretty much off-limits to those of us now in splendid self-isolation. What the station can offer, however, drifting on the air given the right wind, is the promise of travel in seven little notes.
 

Heard from Hegyeshalom to Záhony, on train platforms across the nation, the so-called MÁV Szignál is the jingle that signifies there will be Unicum served in the station bar and an inordinate number of moustaches among the gathered menfolk. It means you’re in Hungary.

Funny things, jingles. The French are frightfully good at them, catchy little hooks that stay with you, a travel anthem in miniature. Distinctive though it is, the Hungarian one would have remained safely woven within the aural fabric had it not become a popular mobile ringtone, up there with the theme tune to Dallas, in the early 2000s.
 

Not only did this raise the thorny but potentially lucrative question of royalties, but had historians scrabbling around to detect the source of this universal ditty. This quest then inspired learned musicologist and lecturer at Budapest’s prestigious Franz Liszt Music Academy, Gergely Loch, to compose an 18-page, 7,000-word (!) thesis (with 49 footnotes), The Musical History of the MÁV Signal.

Touching on subjects as diverse as the Hungarian Charleston of 1927 and low-frequency rectangular oscillators, Loch’s magnum opus is dense and fascinating. Some of its detail is outlined here – along with background from a colourful feature/interview published by Népszabadság in 2000, Tá- rara- ram- tara- ram. (Seven notes, do – sol-la-sol – mi-fa-mi, see?)

What we know is this. In 1974, Tamás Székely, an electrical engineer at Hungarian State Rail (MÁV), was instructed by the Board of Directors to create a signal to denote upcoming announcements over station loudspeakers.

They had found the right man for the job.

Székely’s grandfather was famous architect Marcell Komor, later to lend his name to the avenue on which Budapest’s Müpa Palace of Arts now stands. To relax between assignments, Komor would play piano, most notably Beethoven sonatas, the melody filling the apartment his grandson also shared.
 

Székely’s neighbour was, of all people, the Head of Protocol in the pre-war authoritarian government of Miklós Horthy. The two adjoining families became acquainted. 

One day, the boy next door received an AM radio detector, the kind with no amplifier, primitive versions of which were later knocked together in POW camps with a few razor blades and pencils. Though his chum wasn’t in the least bit interested in this new-fangled gadget, Székely was fascinated and would soon become a radio ham. 

Székely’s first job was on the railway in Transylvania, before he was taken on by MÁV as an electrical engineer in 1952. By 1958, steam was phased out and everything went electric. A whizz at wireless telecommunication, Székely soon rose through the ranks.


Until 1974, platform information in Hungary was transmitted over the loudspeaker by an actual person, at bigger stations by a trained announcer, at smaller ones by railway staff. As the MÁV top brass had the privilege of travelling to the West for international conferences, they quickly surmised what Hungary needed. A station jingle.  

Given the relatively poor quality of platform speakers, this jingle needed to be within certain parameters – a very narrow frequency band and, due to its reuse countless times, it could not be comprised of recorded musical sounds. Székely thought back to his radio days. From the neighbouring flat, he would hear the jingle Hungarian Radio used between programmes – the signal that would prompt him to nip next door and listen to the next broadcast.
 

But this was no ordinary melody. It had been composed, with typical folksy undertones, by Tibor Polgár, who would go on to score some 200 Hungarian films. The chords were chimed by the metal tongues of a music box, adapted with electromagnetic pick-ups.


The bar, as it were, had been set high. 

Yet Székely already knew the key to the whole project: no moving parts. He would compose a slightly folksy melody sequence that could be transposed onto a printed circuit board. Not too long, and not too short. Do – sol-la-sol – mi-fa-mi.
 

Much to Székely’s displeasure, however, MÁV had thrown open the rail jingle concours to all-comers – he had just been expected to take care of the technical side. Székely duly created electronic memory cards for each entry submitted by 30 applicants, some of them well-known musicians. He then added one of his own. 

A panel of some two dozen MÁV executives convened to ponder each selection one by one, no doubt in a complete fug of cigarette smoke. Eventually, not only was Székely’s chosen, but he was granted an award of around three months’ salary – 8,000 forints, or €22.


By way of vague comparison, in 2016, Sixième Son, who created the contemporary sonic branding for French rail company SNCF, sought €450,000 in damages from former Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour for its alleged misuse.

MÁV still own the rights to its Szignál, thus extinguishing the urban myth that the composer rings up a small percentage in royalties every time the jingle is played on any Hungarian station platform.


Now in his nineties, Székely should be offered a king’s ransom for his seven-note soundtrack to a life now bereft of movement.

Cimkék

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