Ferenc Erkel

Portrait of Ferenc Erkel

Ferenc Erkel was a Hungarian composer, conductor and pianist and the father of Hungarian grand opera. He was born on 7th November 1810 in Gyula, Hungary and died on 15th June 1893 in Budapest, Hungary aged 82.

Major Works

Bátori Mária” (1840) 
Hunyadi László” (1844) 
“Hymnusz” (1844)
“Bánk Bán” (1861)
“Brankovics György” (1874) 

Biography Timeline

Ferenc Erkel was born on 7th November 1810 in Gyula, Hungary. His father Joseph Erkel was also a musician and although of German descent considered himself Hungarian. His mother was Klára Ruttkay, a Hungarian. He was taught music by his father

1821: Kolozsvár is one of the centres of the Hungarian language and the first Hungarian-language theatre is established there. 

1822: He studies music with the composer Henrik Klein in Pozsony until 1825.

1828: He goes to live in Kolozsvár, (now Cluj Napoca in modern Romania).

1835: He moves to Budapest, (then known as Pest-Buda) Hungary and performs as a piano soloist or accompanist. He also becomes the conductor at the National Stage of the Buda Castle Theatre.

1836: He runs the German Theatre of Pest for a year.

1837: He is appointed the first conductor of the newly opened Hungarian Theatre of Pest (the National theatre from 1840) where he gives operatic performances in the Hungarian language. He also stages works by Gioachino Rossini, Vincenza Bellini, Carl Maria von Weber and Daniel Auber. He puts on a revival of József Ruzitska’s opera “Béla Futása” (Béla’s Flight), which was the first ever Hungarian opera in 1822. The production is a failure which convinces him to write his own operas in the language.

1839: He marries Adél Adlers.

1840: He conducts the premiere of his tragic opera “Bátori Mária” on 8th August to inaugurate the National Theatre. This was the first ever opera conceived and composed entirely in the Hungarian language and concerns a member of the Artad family who establishes the Hungarian State at the beginning of the tenth century who marries Maria Batori. He supplements his income at this period by writing accompaniments and songs for popular plays and by teaching the daughter of Archduke Albert.

1842: His son Gyula is born.

1843: His son Elek is born.

1844: Hungarian becomes the language of the government but there is controversy when German is introduced as the language to replace Latin in education even though the German-language Königliche Städtische Theater is a major force in the city’s artistic scene. He writes the four-act opera “Hunyadi Laszlo” in Hungarian and even gives his new son the name Laszlo when he is born on 9th April. He also writes the popular song Hymnusz”, based on a poem by Ferenc Kolcsey, which has since been adopted as the Hungarian national anthem.

1846: His son Sandor is born. The composer Hector Berlioz visits Pest-Buda and he meets Erkel and it is said he introduced the Frenchman to the Hungarian tune (Rackocki March) which was later used in Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust”.

1848: During the Hungarian fight for independence he revives the opera company of the National Theatre on a shoestring.

1853: He brings together what would later be called the Philharmonic Society and performs concerts at the National Museum and in the Vigadó Theatre.

1857: The three-act opera “Erzsébet” (Elizabeth) is not popular with audiences even though only the second act has music by Erkel.

1861: Perhaps his most famous work “Bánk Bán” is performed, which was based on a drama by Josef Katona and is set in a region of Hungary in the twelfth century.

1862: His first comic opera “Sarolta” is a failure.

1867: His five-act opera “Dózsa György” uses leitmotivs in the style of Richard Wagner.

1871: He resigns as the lead conductor of the Philharmonic Society but stays on with them for a few more years.

1873: He becomes director of the National Theatre’s operatic division but resigns after a year dedicating himself only to conducting his own works from then on.

1874: He composes the opera “Brankovics György”, based on the life of fifteenth century Serb despot, Gyorgy Brankovics, which receives its premiere at the National Theatre on 20th May. It uses Hungarian, Serbian, and Turkish themes. In his later operas his sons help him with orchestration duties.

1875: He is a founder member of the Academy of Music in Budapest and serves as director and piano teacher.

1880: He composes the four-act opera “Névtelen Hősök (Nameless Heroes) complete with Hungarian folk music.

1884: The Hungarian State Opera House is opened in Budapest and he becomes its first musical director.

1885: He composes “Istvan Kiraly” (King Stephen) in four acts.

1887: He resigns completely from the National Theatre and composes the “Ünnepi Nyitány” (Festival Overture) for the 50th anniversary of its opening.

1888: He gives up his teaching position. 

Ferenc Erkel died on 15th June 1893 in Budapest, Hungary. He was buried in the Fiumi Street Cemetery in the city and his tomb monument was erected in 1904 by the Budapest Philharmonic Society.

Further Information

List of works by Erkel.