Born in Hungary; daughter of a music teacher; once married. Education: Studied at the Budapest Academy, early 1970s. Addresses: Record company--Rykodisc USA, Shetland Park, 27 Congress St., Salem, MA 01970, e-mail:, website:

Márta Sebestyén, one of Hungary's most celebrated music stars, gained a wider international audience when two of her songs were used on the soundtrack to The English Patient, the 1996 Academy Award-winning film. Sebestyén has been a performer with Muzsikás, Hungary's best-known folk music ensemble, since the early 1980s. She considers herself "a translator," she told Tim Lloyd, a writer for the Advertiser of Adelaide, Australia, "Because people who have never heard folk music in the city at the end of the 20th century need a translator. We are so used to video clips and so on that sometimes we no longer understand the power of the pure voice and pure harmony."

Sebestyén grew up in a small town near Hungary's border with Austria. After a thwarted anti-Communist uprising in 1956, her central European homeland became a frontier of the Iron Curtain, the divide that separated Soviet-controlled Communist Eastern Europe from the rest of the continent. Folk music, like religion, was scoffed at by Communist authorities as a relic of the past and a potentially dangerous expression of nationalist sentiment. However, Sebestyén's mother was an ethnomusicologist who had studied with Zoltán Kodály, the renowned folk music scholar, at the Budapest Academy. "My mother was listening to this music before I was born," Sebestyén recalled in an interview with the International Herald Tribune's Mike Zwerin. "I was quite literally born into it. It is in the family. But at the same time I have a brother and a sister and they have absolutely no interest in it. I was always mad about folk music."

The fact that much Hungarian folk music survived two world wars, the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the imposition of state-sponsored socialism has been due in no small part to Kodály and to Béla Bartók, the famous twentieth-century composer. Kodály and Bartók had spent years traveling through rural, Hungarian-settled Transylvania in the early years of the century, taking extensive notes and transcribing the songs. Bartók later invoked many of these melodies in his own modernist works. Sebestyén discovered an example of their efforts when she won an award in a singing contest and was given a recording of old folk songs. "It was a big discovery for me at the age of 12 when I got an album from the archive of original field recordings," she told Denver Post writer Jeff Bradley. "I said, 'Oh God, the same song can be done many different ways depending on which region it comes from.' I think that was the moment I decided I wanted to follow this path."

Sebestyén began learning the different vocal techniques and traditional dances of Hungarian folk music, and won a singing contest when she was in high school. She went on to study at the Budapest Academy, where she became involved in a student movement called tanchaz, or dance-house. As she explained to London Times journalist Nigel Williamson, "It was a folk music revival, young people doing the old folk dances, not in that costumed, choreographed way the regime liked, but with freedom. The authorities couldn't control it, so they decided it was dangerous." By 1975 she was singing with a group formed by Ferenc Sebö and Béla Halmos, two renowned musicians, and she sometimes worked with Vujicsics, another traditional ensemble. She joined the much-heralded Muzsikás ("the village musicians") in 1980. The group, formed by university students in the early 1970s out of the same protest spirit and ethnic pride that fueled the tanchaz movement, was immensely popular in Hungary, and with Sebestyén at the forefront, the group began to gain fame outside the country as well.

Muzsikás performed traditional Hungarian folk tunes using such instruments as the bagpipe, zither, violin, and dulcimer. She sang on the group's self-titled 1987 release on Hannibal Records, their first to reach a Western audience, and then went on to record several more for the label, as well as for Hungaroton, the official Hungarian record label. By this time, Hungary had tentatively begun experimenting with some free-market economic reforms, and began to enjoy a reputation as one of the more liberal outposts of the Communist bloc. In the same spirit, Hungaroton began to grant their roster of performers a bit more artistic control over their music. Sebestyén also became involved in a groundbreaking rock opera project, symbolic of this new era, based on the life of Hungary's eleventh-century king, Stephen I.

Sebestyén's first internationally released solo work was Apocrypha, issued on the Hannibal label in 1992. It was a "best of" compilation from her previous recordings, culling favorites from her repertoire of Hungarian, Slovak, Bulgarian, and Romanian songs. She won wider fame when director Anthony Minghella approached her personally to ask permission to use her song "Szerelem Szerelem" for his next movie project, a film adaptation of the Michael Ondaatje novel The English Patient. The story is set during World War II at a military hospital in the English countryside, where a badly burned Hungarian count, played by Ralph Fiennes, recounts his adventurous past to a war nurse. In one flashback scene, he attempts to seduce Kristin Scott Thomas's character, and plays the haunting Hungarian melody "Szerelem Szerelem," sung by Sebestyén, on an old Victrola. As the singer explained to Williamson, she had made her first recording of "Szerelem Szerelem" while undergoing a marital split in mid-1980s. "I thought it miraculous that Anthony recognised my sorrow and pain through a recording," she reflected.

The English Patient won nine Academy Awards in 1997, including that of Best Picture, and Sebestyén's record label capitalized on the success of the film by issuing The Best of Márta Sebestyén: The Voice of "The English Patient." The album featured her solo work as well as songs recorded with Muzsikás and Vujicsics. She also worked with Peter Gabriel, and one of her songs was sampled by the French ambient-techno group Deep Forest for their 1995 release Boheme. Despite the wider recognition, Sebestyén told the International Herald Tribune that she has tried to steer clear of the commercial side of the music business. "Ordinary people who listen to music on the radio all day long do not know that it is all a lie," she told Zwerin. "It is all noise, the noise of money. I pity people who have grown up never having heard honest music."

For her next solo effort for Hannibal, Sebestyén teamed with acclaimed musician and producer Nikola Parov to create Kismet. The 1996 record drew upon the folk traditions of several cultures, and Sebestyén delivered a Hindi lullaby and a Celtic ballad, among other tracks. She worked again with Vujicsics, which specializes in folk tunes found in the southern part of Hungary and in Serbia and Croatia, and appeared on their 2000 release Southern Slav Folk Music for Hungaroton. She has remained active in Muzsikás as well, and frequently travels with its members to the remoter regions of Transylvania to expand their repertoire. "We find the best music at weddings," she told New York Times writer Johanna Keller, "where the tradition is that the musicians aren't allowed to sleep or stop playing for several days."

by Carol Brennan

Márta Sebestyén's Career

Vocalist with the Sebö and Halmos group after 1975; also worked with Vujicsics, a folk ensemble, beginning in the 1970s; joined Muzsikás, 1980; toured Europe with Muzsikás during much of 1980s; recorded first solo record, Apocrypha, for Hannibal, 1992; two songs by Sebestyén, "Szerelem Szerelem" and "Teremtés," appeared on the soundtrack of the film The English Patient, 1996.

Márta Sebestyén's Awards

Winner of Hungary's Franz Liszt Prize.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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