“Tárá-ráálá-rálárám”: The First Two Albums of Tamás Cseh and Géza Bereményi

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One midnight in Budapest, in late 1970, Tamás Cseh, an art teacher in his twenties, had just accompanied his girlfriend home and was mulling over how to get back to his apartment, a sublet on the Buda side of the Danube. He considered riding the late-night “garage circuit” (a tram or bus heading back to the station) at least part of the way; but as the streets were bare of them, he decided to take a cab as far as he could afford. He was eyeing the meter when he spotted a youthful group heading toward the Astoria intersection. He recognized one of them and called out to him; the latter invited him along. They all ended up sitting down together at a pub.[1]

One of the party, not someone he knew, leaned toward him and said quietly, “Tamás, I hear that you play guitar and sing.” (The dialogue that follows is an approximation.)


“And you sing in English.”


“I’d like to write Hungarian lyrics for the songs. Why not give it a try?”

“Sure, let’s do it.”

“Where do you live?”

“35 Iskola Street.”

The man wrote it down. “I’ll be at your place at four tomorrow,” he said.

The others did not notice this conversation; they were caught up in lively debate about something or other.

The next day, the new acquaintance (Cseh’s junior by three years) arrived at his little abode promptly at four in the afternoon. He sat down and asked Cseh to play some of his melodies. Cseh obliged. The man asked him to play one of them again (a “Frenchish” melody, as Cseh called it). He asked whether that was the first line, asked for the second one, which was exactly the same, asked him to hum it, and began writing. He wrote and wrote. Five minutes later, he said, “Done.” After crossing out some lines, he copied it out afresh: “The shabby shoes one evening were / so thickly covered up in mud / that at last Désiré / could only stop and stare. / Désiré whispered aloud: / “My God, my God! / What surroundings! / What shabby surroundings! / And my shoes, how shabby they are now!”[2]

This man was the writer Géza Bereményi—today the celebrated author of dozens of volumes of poetry, stories, novels, screenplays, and more; his first book, a story collection, had come out earlier that year. The song was “Az ócska cipő” (“The Shabby Shoes”), which appeared eight years later on their album Antoine és Désiré (Antoine and Désiré). They wrote a second song that same day.[3]

This meeting marked the beginning of their musical collaboration, which—with the exception of Bereményi’s seven-year hiatus—was to last nearly the rest of Cseh’s life. They set two conditions for their collaboration: first, that they would continue working together until one of them called it quits—and should this happen, the other would not ask why—and second, that there would be no performance of the songs unless both gave their consent.[4] They continued working together until 1982, when Bereményi declared that he would write no more songs. During the ensuing period, Cseh worked with Dénes Csengey, with whom he released one album in 1988, Mélyrepülés (Flying Low). After Bereményi rejoined Cseh in 1989, they continued to collaborate for two decades, until Cseh’s illness prevented him from playing any more. Twenty full-length studio albums and numerous shorter recordings and bootlegs bear both their names—as well as names of their fellow musicians, including János Másik, János Novák, Rudolf Tomsits, László Gőz, and others. Both Cseh and Bereményi received numerous awards, including the Kossuth Prize, which they won together in 2001; both worked extensively in theatre and film as well as music. In 2023, Hungarians commemorated the eightieth anniversary of Cseh’s birth through numerous events and exhibits.[5]

With its flexible forms and romping stories, their music stands outside all genres: rooted in chanson and folk traditions, it carries traces of Jacques Brel; in its harmonies and gritty pathos, it evokes Simon and Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen, respectively; in its playful narratives, Arlo Guthrie (particularly “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre”) and at times Tom Lehrer. As for literary kinships, the lyrics and surrounding stories carry wisps of Gogol, Joyce, and Beckett. The tone ranges from tragic to uproarious, even within a single song; at concerts, the audience would burst out laughing or stay hushed, and a given song might change moods and meanings from one occasion to the next.[6] While far from didactic, these songs are politically suggestive, evoking the bureaucratic absurdity of the Kádár era in Hungary. Through hints, allusions, inflections (and, at the concerts, facial expressions), they speak in a code that the audience understood and understands. Yet they go beyond depicting an era, regime, or place; their characters and cadences take on their own life.[7]

This essay will focus on their first two albums, Levél nővéremnek (Letter to My Sister, 1977), composed by Cseh, Bereményi, János Másik, and János Novák, and the aforementioned Antoine és Désiré (1978), composed by Cseh and Bereményi. To follow the descriptions and analyses in this essay, I recommend listening to the songs, reading about them here, and then returning to the recordings again. The full albums can be found online on major platforms (Spotify, YouTube, Amazon, etc.). I have created a Spotify playlist of the specific songs discussed here;  the lyrics are available on the Cseh Tamás Archívum website. While it is difficult to leave anything out, this essay will focus on tracks A1–A4 in Levél nővéremnek and tracks A1, A8, and B4 in Antoine és Désiré. (For the latter, track A8, “Az ócska cipő,” is the first song that Cseh and Bereményi wrote together.) [8]

Levél nővéremnek begins with an introduction, “A levél kezdete” (“Beginning of the Letter”), written by János Novák (who plays cello on the album) and Bereményi. The sole instrument in this song, perhaps a zither, rings out at intervals. The singing is doubled: Cseh sings first, then Másik immediately afterward, echoing him, as though a person were talking with himself, in his own mind. Bereményi commented in an interview: “Two people, as one, write a letter to their sister. We know that the sister as a woman is different from other women in a man’s life. She embodies a man’s feminine side. The better side. An ideal woman. … The female half of our soul. So the two people, who are one person, personally address the better half of their soul.”[9]

The lyrics, translated, read: “This is a letter. / Its envelope is blue. / I bought the stamp for a forint. / The place and date: / Dated: Budapest. / All right, all right. / Let this be the scene… / The place and date… / Let there be scenery. / This is a letter. / This is a letter. / The place and date. / The place and date. / 1976 is the year. / 1976 is the year. / This is that year. / Let it be, let it be… / This much is known. / This is a letter. / I write to my sister. / Her name is Irén. / This much is known. / Right now it’s winter. / A regular season. / All right, all right. / This is a letter. / Let there be a letter. / The place and date. / Let there be scene. / Let there be scenery.”

The melodic rhythm here follows that of the language, chant-like but also quotidian. The images are sparse, archetypal, abstract: letter, forint, stamp, date, sister, winter. The echoes (of one voice by another) and the repetitions within the lyrics give the sensation of something coming into being, hesitant, half-aware, undefined so far except for the basic facts (envelope color, year, place, addressee). This introduction ends in suspense: “Let there be scene. Let there be scenery” and instantaneous quiet, before the next song, “Budapest,” which breaks into tuneful, melancholic guitars in three-four time, with vocal harmonies and cello pizzicato. As the album proceeds, the letter excerpts contrast similarly with the songs between them: the former hesitant, sparse, fragmented, the latter bound up in song form.

“Budapest,” one of the most famous songs in their entire opus, raises the question of whether to leave (the city? the country?) or to stay in Budapest—and although it answers, maradunk, “we will stay,” the ambivalence or despair lingers. About this song, Anna Szemere writes, “The poignant debate between two voices, possibly within the subject’s head, implies that there is a huge price tag on both choices.”[10] The stakes are private and internal. The song evokes daily habits, snatches of conversation, but not a single street name or landmark. There is no mention of the Danube, or the hills of Buda, or a pub. Just as in the “Beginning of the Letter,” the word “Budapest” gathers meaning quietly.

The melody repeats throughout the song, but with many variations. The refrain is sung like a question-and-answer dialogue, with Cseh singing the first two lines and Másik the second two. (Cseh, nine years older than Másik, has the deeper, rougher voice.) Over the course of the song, they alternate between dialogue, unison, and harmony; the guitar instrumentation ranges from basic to ornate.

In this translation I have preserved the rhythm and a semblance of the rhymes, while taking some liberties that do not interfere with the essential meaning. In the first verse, which is also the refrain, the stresses of the first line fall on “tell,” “tell,” “what,” “our,” and the last syllable of “residence” (“TELL me now, TELL me, WHAT will be OUR residENCE”). In the snatches of conversation, just as in the original, sometimes syllables have to be crowded into a beat. Otherwise the rhythm is self-explanatory.

Tell me now, tell me, what will be our residence? Shall we remain, or go on to some other place? Here is the city, we are its dwellers. Here’s where we’ll stay, this is its name: Budapest.

Up in the morning, such is the custom of ours, Off to the store for milk, János and Tamás, Gaps in the houses, through them they clamber, Into the passageways between houses, that’s how they go.


Up in the morning, such is the custom of ours, Off to the store for milk, János and Tamás, Looking in puddles, seeing themselves, Bits of tobacco deep in their pockets, that’s how they go.

“Excuse me, are you already serving pálinka shots?” “Do you recognize me, teacher, or have I slipped out of your thoughts?” “Éva appeared before the abortion committee yesterday.” “I’m selling my winter coat, but no mortal will pay.” “A smile at our házmester might end up saving our butt.” “Look at my forehead, the envelope didn’t stick shut.” “I’m someone else, not the one you set out to find.” “Comrade Fáskerti, a favor, if you wouldn’t mind…” “A black hole is a nonexistent celestial orb.” “Three years from now, I won’t have to serve any more.” “Do you still know me, teacher, or have I slipped out of your thoughts?” “Excuse me, are you already serving pálinka shots?”

Tell me now, tell me, what will be our residence? Shall we remain, or go on to some other place? Here is the city, we are its dwellers. Here’s our abidance, here we’ll abide, we’ll abide.

The snatches of conversation evoke an era with vignettes of humor, loss, survival, obligations, encounters, suspicion, mistakes: a teacher who might have forgotten one of his students, a possible abortion, the self-preserving act of smiling at the házmester (the building superintendent who, during the socialist period, reported on tenants to the government), a need for money, a mistaken identity, a favor asked, obligatory military service, a craving for alcohol. The song hints at political commentary while also eschewing it, insisting on messy everyday life without slogans or conclusions. The bleak but evocative picture leads the listener to understand that home lies largely in routine and language, that changing one’s country of residence would be futile, as it would mean being uprooted from these words themselves.[11]

The next letter fragment—where the letter itself begins— places its writer in an espresso bar (where hard alcohol is among the offerings). He sings urgently and rapidly, with sweeping piano in the background.

Dear Irén!

Please forgive the long silence, the delayed letter. This letter, I hope, finds you in good health. I’m fine, writing from an espresso bar, thinking of you as I lean over paper, sweet sister, my dear sister.

So, yes, a “presszó.” The noise is great here, the shouting. A man has just caught my attention, a woman next to him, a glass before him, containing an evil drink, he talks and asks, and what he says, I write down on paper:

The following song, “Presszó,” relates what this stranger says and asks (of his interlocutor, the pianist in the espresso bar, sung by Cseh and Másik, respectively). The song takes surprising lyrical and musical turns; let us look at it verse by verse. In Hungarian, eszpresszó and presszó can refer both to the drink itself and to the establishment that serves it. As for the stranger who haplessly winds up there, Bereményi comments, “I knew a man who was like a part of me. Who strives in vain and sinks into the night. Into large, soft nothingness. … Who is eaten up, digested by the era.  And yet you like him. He tries everything and then gives up.” [12] Here we see him out of sorts, bewildered, scrambling for a scrap of meaning.

What is this? It’s an espresso. And you? I’m the pianist. And me? You are a guest. Hm, how fine. Classy place. Hm, how fine. Classy place.

These few words have set the scenery: a “classy” espresso bar, a piano, a guest who can’t stop talking, who seems impressed with the place even though he doesn’t know at first what it is. The music is halting, piano chords starting and stopping with the phrases, like the introduction to a song in a musical, until the waltz-like “Hm, de finom. Príma hely,” which they sing together. The questions and answers each end on particular notes: the questions, on the supertonic (second note) in the scale, and the answers on the dominant (and later on the tonic as well).

And… if I may ask, couldn’t I instead… No. Because it’s an espresso. And… tell me, couldn’t I… Are you thinking of the glass? Yes, couldn’t I take it outside? No… no… because this is an espresso. Hm, how fine. Classy place. Hm, how fine. Classy place.

Now the pianist has begun finishing the guest’s sentences and thoughts; we find out, moreover, that there are certain things you can’t do here, which the guest would have hoped to do. Apparently used to a different kind of place, he seems bemused and surprised to see where he has ended up.  Here the waltz-like motif begins not with “Hm, de finom,” but a litle earlier, with “Nem… nem….” (“No… no…”), as though the very rules and restrictions were what made this a “classy place.” Then the pianist and guest come back together for “Hm, de finom,” after which the questions continue:

And if I may ask… there’s no closing time here? None… It’s that kind of espresso. And if I may ask, couldn’t I take this lady out of here with me? No. She belongs to herself. Just look at her, a fine little lady, look at her luminous hair. Fine lady, classy lady. Fine lady, classy lady.

In the above verse, the dialogue changes slightly: after singing “No. She belongs to herself,” the pianist goes on to praise her and her hair; then the two come back together for “Finom nő, príma nő.” The disturbing nature of this verse—the guest wanting to take the woman out with him, just as he wanted to take out the glass—is masked by its playfulness, so that the next verse comes as a surprise: a burst of despair sung in a rapid three-four time with guitar, in a folk style, with rhymed couplets (for which the translation takes slight liberties):

Don’t let me touch the lady, please don’t let me… don’t let me touch the glass, please protect me. I think you know me, I’m Szeberényi, the famous economist, don’t let me live like this, there’s creative work awaiting my talent, but with no closing, there’s no one to pull it off, no mind so imposing. This fancy lifestyle, I’m afraid it would corrupt me, the constructive work of the community confronts me. In the new mechanism I was the head, and now I end up in an espresso bar—dead!

The astonishing, almost tragic (but wry and satirical) revelation then succumbs to the waltz motif, the piano, and the atmosphere, as the piano starts to take off, and the pianist sings, followed by the guest:

Piano… nice little place… Classy ladies… Fine ladies. Piano… nice little place… Classy ladies… Fine ladies.

Then, inevitably, the guest gets drunker and drunker, and his speech more fragmented, as the piano motif slowly appears to ascend:

Ha-ha-ha! But of course! Ha-ha-ha-ha! Nice little place. They’re playing the piano. Ha-ha-ha-ha! That’s how it goes, it’s that kind. Nice little place. Ha-ha! Of course. But of course.

Now the dialogue resumes, but now with familiarity, since the guest tries to repeat, at first what he has already said before. The dialogue begins to refer to the song itself, as the pianist reveals which chords correspond with the dialogue. The song ends up being about music, music that has no end, but within that, a little play about drunkenness, folly, pride, and confinement, about the extreme constraints of the era, the collapse of an economic system, all of this in a little espresso bar, in a song.[13]

My name… I know, Szeberényi. You know… You can’t live like this. My badge of honor is on the table, in the glass! Pin it on… hm, hm, hm, how nice. And diplomas too!

What is this? It’s an espresso. And this? It’s D major. And E minor. There won’t… There won’t be a closing time. Why? Because I’m playing.

[Piano solo.]

Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! But of course! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! But of course, they’re playing piano! Of course! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Oh, this is great! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

So ends the song, on a note of maniacal laughter and the piano trailing off. Here the album has still only barely begun, but its unique genre is already apparent: dialogues, songs, stories within a letter to Irén (shown in pieces), a letter than finally ends and gets sent off into uncertainty. The stories have to do with heartbreak, memories, difficulties (of the sixties and seventies, with one glance back at the fifties): an alcoholic father who destroys others’ lives in addition to his own; memories of youthful summers on Lake Balaton, before they had a sailboat; contemplation of a possible meeting with former love who emigrated and has returned to Hungary; a train ride to Kraków; a dream about meeting with a married woman; a ceremony; a memory of a class field trip; a story of almost moving but ending up staying; a state of drunken reverie after a concert, with Mozart and alcohol on the breath, memories of holding hands, a doorbell being rung, an imaginary name next to it. In the final song of the album, “Kézbesítés” (“Delivery”), the letter-writer wonders, at the end, “An important ceremony, who knows where it comes to a halt? / Irén doesn’t answer, because she has to take care of the kids. / Sealed in an envelope, who knows where it tosses about? Tell me, Irén, where does this all come to a halt?”

In contrast with Levél nővéremnek, which has its own built-in story arc (based on the letter), the 1978 album Antoine és Désiré comprises only part of the larger Antoine and Désiré story that Bereményi and Cseh created in song, story, and picture. At concerts, Cseh told extensive stories—written by Bereményi and sometimes partly improvised by Cseh—in between and around the songs. An insert in the album provides the (fictional) biographies of the protagonists; Bereményi and the photographer János Vető later wrote a photo novel about them (twenty-five of its photos appear on the Antoine és Désiré album cover). On this album, Cseh is the sole composer, and Bereményi the lyricist. The musicians Gábor Kecskeméti, Győző Lukácsházi, István Mártha, János Novák, Péter Román, and Ágnes Szakály accompany Cseh in the songs. (In concert, however, Cseh tended to perform these songs and stories solo; by the time of the album’s release, he invariably did.)

Regarding the two protagonists, Dénes Csengey describes their friendship as on the one hand unbreakable, on the other “not free of tension”; according to Csengey, they represent the two possibilities of their generation: conformity and outsiderness, both of which result in featurelessness. To what extent is this tragic, to what extent comic? This, Csengey suggests, depends on the particular concert and context. Bereményi himself commented in 1980 that he tended to laugh at the two characters, while Cseh took them seriously, but that “the genre was composed of these two [perspectives].”[i] While one can appreciate the songs without knowing the characters’ stories, a brief introduction to their lives gives a glimpse of the larger work. 

According to the biography in the album insert, Antoine (whose “real” fictional name was Antal Tóth) was the teacher’s pet and later took an interest in public affairs; he married Irén Vetró, the love of Désiré’s childhood and youth, but cheated on her sometimes. He had a degree in law; he liked drinking, but not to excess. In 1987 he caused a mortal car accident (killing Désiré, we glean from the latter’s biography), but after serving his jail term, he regained equanimity and was well respected by others. He died in 2002 in a hunting accident. As for “Désiré” (fictional real name: Dezső Balogh), he was born in 1944 in Chemnitz, where the war had swept his parents. In 1946 the family returned to Hungary and moved to Gyömrő, where he attended elementary school and played with his classmate Irén Vetró. He began high school in Budapest but was soon kicked out for frequenting various dance halls as well as for “cosmopolitanism, rock and roll and other debaucheries, existentialism, and cowboy pants.” He moved back to Gyömrő, took on manual labor, and finished high school through evening courses. At age twenty, he started spending time in Budapest again and met Antoine. People considered him sensitive because he once played with a bug all day long and took interest in history and physics; yet his biographer—that is, Bereményi—comments that “if his influential friend Antoine had not propped him up by the underarm, Désiré would have sunk still deeper.” In 1987 he died in a car accident caused by drunk driving; “naturally he was not the one drunk (but Antoine), nor was he the one driving (but Antoine).”[16]

In order to conclude with “Az ócska cipő” (“The Shabby Shoes”), I will discuss three of the album’s songs, but out of order: the first song of the album, “Antoine, Désiré és a szél” (“Antoine, Désiré, and the Wind”), then the fourth song on the second side, “Demonstráció” (“Demonstration”), and finally “Az ócska cipő,” the eighth song on the first side.

The first of the three, “Antoine, Désiré és a szél,” can immediately be recognized by its percussive nonsense refrain, “Tűrüpp, türűrüpp, türűrümm.” There are two distinct accent marks on the letter “u”: the umlaut (ü) and the “hungarumlaut” or double acute accent (ű). This “hungarumlaut” indicates a longer vowel than the umlaut; here it occurs in the stressed syllables (the first syllable of “tűrüpp” and the second of “türűrüpp” and “türűrümm”). The song, with a brisk guitar rhythm, speaks obliquely of songs themselves; Antoine and Désiré are being blown by the wind, and they sing, and the song itself seems to “tip over a little.” The narrator also hums, leaning forward because of the wind, and the song “also leans forward / a tiny bit along with me.” Antoine and Désiré’s coats are flapping; “I’m already afraid they’ll fall over.” He becomes afraid: “What if, at some point / we end up leaning too far forward?” But the song comes out of his mouth, “useful airflow for support”; they sing facing the ground, “lest we lean too far forward.” Antoine and Désiré, “lined with wind” come over; the wind stops, and, with a slow tempo, Cseh sings, “My God, just now, now let us not topple forward.” The song ends with the refrain sung ten times at the previous tempo, after which the guitar’s final chord fades.

“Demonstráció,” whose rumbling guitar evokes Leonard Cohen slightly, begins with Désiré asking his mother for some clothes, because he lost the ticket he had received at the laundry service (which he needed to present to receive his clothes) and is thus left with no clothes at all. She tells him that only a sheet is left and recomments that he wrap himself in it. He does so and ventures out into the street, where he meets Antoine, who asks him, “What’s the big deal?” Désiré outlines the situation, but Antoine suspects him, because of his garb, of making some kind of public demonstration. He expresses this suspicion through the onomatopoeic (and exquisitely sung) “Hohohó-hó-hoho-hohohohohó” and “Ahahaha-haha-hahahaha-ha.” In response, Désiré spits at him and tells him, “I already told you what the big deal was.” He—or perhaps the narrator—continues with his own “Ahahaha-haha-hahahaha-ha,” “Ohohó-hóhohoho-hohohohohó” and says, “This spit, if possible, is an even better demonstration!” which he follows with a cornucopia of Hmhmhm’s and Ahahas. Antoine and Désiré keep running on and disappear around a corner; the narrator concludes, “O-ho-ho, ho-ho-ho, ho-ho-ho-hó! / This disappearance is the very best demonstration! / Ahahaha-hahaha-hahahahaha.”

This semi-absurd, playful song—which brings Nikolai Gogol’s “Nose” to mind—hints at bureaucracy, nudity, extreme suspicion, and demonstrations, but none of these takes over; instead, the song becomes about the syllables and everything they can do and express, and about the song itself, which finally “disappears” along with Antoine and Désiré. Nonetheless, the final words,  “This disappearance is the very best demonstration,” hint at an existential if not political meaning and might leave you with an odd ache.

This brings us to the last song of this essay, “Az ócska cipő,” which contains some of the classic onomatopoeic refrain, “Tárá-ráálá-rálárám,” an imitation of singing itself. The music is bare, with voice and a single guitar. Listening to it carefully, one hears its freedom, its changing tempo, its variable syllable counts. It is the “Tárá-ráálá-rálárám” that grounds the song, yet even this “Tárá-ráálá-rálárám” has so many subtle changes in mood that it is not the same twice, and it ends irresolutely. The lyrics can be translated as follows:

The shabby shoes one evening were so thickly covered up in mud that at last Désiré could only stop and stare.

Désiré whispered aloud: “My God, my God! What surroundings! What shabby surroundings! And my shoes, how shabby they are now!”

Tárá-ráálá-rálárám, táráá-rárám, táá-ráláá-rárám, táráá-rárám. 

Táá-ráláá-rárám, etc.

Right in front of a pub, Désiré had a thought: What was it that Antoine said? Maybe a year ago. “Don’t stare like a fool if it rains, if it rains.” Very well then, thought Désiré, I’ll keep on going, then.

Tárá-ráálá-rálárám, etc.

My God, my God, what surroundings, what shabby surroundings, see my shoes, how shabby they are now!

Tárá-ráálá-rálárám, etc.

The sparseness rotates like a kaleidoscope, revealing unpinpointable, uncatchable moods, something like disappointment, dejection, resignation, thoughtfulness, remembrance, courage, and even then, a particle of comedy, because nothing happens here except that Désiré stops, whispers, thinks, and keeps on going. Nothing like an ode to persistence, it is rather a little story about a nonexistent, hapless Désiré—and a song that one remembers at much for the “tárárá” refrain as for poor Désiré’s plight. Yet it spills a truth. When writing the song together one afternoon in December 1970, Cseh and Bereményi could not have known fully what had just come into being. In a 1980 interview, both Cseh and Bereményi said that they didn’t know what the song was about when they wrote it, that it took on its own life.[17]

Those who treasure the songs of Cseh, Bereményi, and their artistic colleagues recognize that Cseh is more than a Hungarian Dylan, Vysotsky, or Brel and that his voice, so distinct and flexible, capable of vast ranges of expression, is not entirely his own, but born of profound relationships. Bereményi called Cseh “both more and less than a friend”—more, because the relationship was more intimate than most friendships, and less, because they had set strict limits on it from the start.[18]  This contradiction or paradox fills the songs as well: songs that might be about almost nothing, but a “nothing” that sends a letter off into uncertainty; a “nothing” that breaks down in an espresso bar; a “nothing” that disappears around the corner, naked but for a sheet; a “nothing” that makes the mind stop in its tracks, stare at the surroundings, and sing.


Footnotes[1] This story is adapted from Tamás Cseh’s own telling of it to László Bérczes in Bérczes, Cseh Tamás: Bérczes László beszélgetőkönyve (Budapest: Europa Könyvkiadó, 2019), 104–108). It has been told many times, with slight variations; the narration is in my own words, while the dialogue (immediately after the first paragraph) follows the Bérczes version, with adjustments for English colloquial language.

[2] Cseh narrates the initial dialogue between himself and Géza Bereményi in Bérczes, 106, and the origin of their first song in Bérczes, 108. The original Hungarian text of the quote (translated by Diana Senechal) from the song “Az ócska cipő,” from  Cseh, János Másik, János Novák, and Bereményi, Levél nővéremnek (Budapest: Pepita, 1977), can be found at Throughout this article, all quotes are translated by Diana Senechal, with the exception of the quote from an article by Anna Szemere, which was originally published in English (see n. 10). Bereményi gave Senechal permission to publish the translated lyrics included here.

[3] Bereményi, “Bereményi Géza: Más lett volna az életem, ha nem egy történelmi kényszervilágban élek,” interview by Márton Jankovics,, September 22, 2022,

[4] Bereményi, “Egy dologba vagyok szerelmes: az A4-es papírba,” interview by Gergely Bödők, Új Szó, November 14, 2022,

[5] For instance, the exhibit Helyzet jelentések – Cseh Tamás 80 at the Petőfi Literary Museum, curated by Borbála Cseh and Balázs Csengey, features photographs, recordings, memorabilia, manuscripts, interviews, commentary, film excerpts, and recreations of the scenes of certain songs. Also, H. Miklós Vecsei’s song-play Füst a szemében: Cseh Tamás története és dalai tells a story of Cseh’s life through Cseh’s music. Conceived and directed by Vecsei—who based the script on Bérczes’s book and the lyrics of Bereményi and Dénes Csengey—and featuring Huba Ratkóczi, Balázs Szabó, and Vecsei (as Cseh), this play premiered in Budapest at the Magyar Zene Háza on January 22, 2023.

[6] On October 30 and November 23, 2023, I visited the Cseh Tamás Archívum in Budapest, where I spoke with the curators, perused secondary sources, concert programs, and manuscripts, and listened to two unreleased concert recordings: of Cseh’s and Másik’s concert, based on the songs of Levél nővéremnek, at the R Klub on March 25, 1976; and of Cseh’s solo concert, based on the songs and stories of Antoine és Désiré, in Eger on April 27, 1978. Many thanks to the curators and staff for their generous help.

[7] For more on the suggestiveness of Cseh and Bereményi’s songs, see Miklós Almási, “Dal-dokumentumok a 7-es évek elejéről: Cseh Tamás műsora,” Színház, September 1975, 42–44; see also Anna Szemere, “Let’s Turn Hegel from His Head onto His Feet: Hopes, Myths, and Memories of the 1960s in Tamás Cseh’s Musical Album ‘A Letter to My Sister,’” Slavic Review 77, no. 4 (Winter 2018), 881–889.

[8] “Cseh and Bereményi: Seven Songs” (Spotify playlist created by Diana Senechal to accompany this essay),; Cseh, Másik, Novák, and Bereményi, Levél nővéremnek; Csen and Bereményi, Antoine és Désiré (Budapest: Pepita, 1978). To locate lyrics in the Cseh Tamás Archívum database, go to, hover over the “Cseh Tamás és kora” tab, select “Lemezgyűjtemény” in the dropdown, and then, when the page appears, select the desired album and song.

[9] Sándor Fodor, Cseh Tamás – interjúregény (Budapest: Graffiti, n.d.), 197.

[10] Szemere, 888.

[11] In an email dated November 16, 2023, Géza Bereményi explained the role of the házmester under socialism—and also explained that the line regarding the envelope is meant to suggest that the speaker himself is the letter being sent.

[12] Fodor, 60.

[13] For a political analysis of “Presszó,” see Szemere, 887: “The ‘presszó’ stands as a metaphor of entrapment in a country bereft of public spaces for creative and critical thought.”

[14] Bereményi and János Vető, Antoine és Désiré: Fényképregény az 1970-es évekből (Budapest: Corvina, 2017); Cseh and Bereményi, Antoine és Désiré. Cseh’s performance in Eger on April 27, 1978 (see n. 6), was entirely solo; for the solo nature of these concerts, see Grácia Kerényi, “A daloló uborkától az egyszemélyes színházig,” Színház, January 1980, 28.

[15] Dénes Csengey. “…és mi most itt vagyunk” (1983), in A kétségbeesés méltósága, e-book, Budapest: Digitális Irodalmi Akadémia, 2021,; Bereményi and Cseh, Összekacsintó (Hungarian television program), no. 3: “Még lesznek dalok,” interview by Pál Sándor, 1980. Courtesy of the Cseh Tamás Archívum.

[16] The two biographies can be found in the insert in Bereményi and Cseh, Antoine és Désiré, 1978, as well as in the Cseh Tamás Archívum,

[17] Bereményi and Cseh, Összekacsintó (Hungarian television program), no. 3: “Még lesznek dalok.”

[18] Bereményi, “Egy dologba vagyok szerelmes: az A4-es papírba.”



Works Cited

Almási, Miklós. “Dal-dokumentumok a 7-es évek elejéről: Cseh Tamás műsora.” Színház, September 1975, 42–44.

Bérczes, László. Cseh Tamás: Bérczes László beszélgetőkönyve. Budapest: Europa Könyvkiadó, 2019.

Bereményi, Géza. “Bereményi Géza: Más lett volna az életem, ha nem egy történelmi kényszervilágban élek.” Interview by Márton Jankovics., September 22, 2022.

Bereményi, Géza. “Egy dologba vagyok szerelmes: az A4-es papírba.” Interview by Gergely Bödők. Új Szó, November 14, 2022.

Bereményi, Géza, and János Vető. Antoine és Désiré: Fényképregény az 1970-es évekből. Budapest: Corvina, 2017.

Bereményi, Géza, and Tamás Cseh. Összekacsintó, no. 3: “Még lesznek dalok.” Television interview by Pál Sándor. 1980. Courtesy of the Cseh Tamás Archívum.

Cseh, Tamás, and Géza Bereményi. Antoine és Desiré. With Gábor Kecskeméti, Győző Lukácsházi, István Mártha, János Novák, Péter Román, and Ágnes Szakály. Budapest: Pepita SLPX 17548, 1978, 33⅓ rpm.

Cseh, Tamás, János Másik, János Novák, and Géza Bereményi. Levél nővéremnek. With Rudolf Tomsits and László Gőz. Budapest: Pepita SLPX 17524, 1977, 33⅓ rpm.

Cseh Tamás Archívum – Interdisziplináris gyűtemény. Cseh Tamás Archivum website.

Csengey, Dénes. “…és mi most itt vagyunk” (1983). In A kétségbeesés méltósága. E-book, Budapest: Digitális Irodalmi Akadémia, 2021.

Fodor, Sándor. Cseh Tamás – interjúregény. Budapest: Graffiti, n.d.

Kerényi, Grácia. “A daloló uborkától az egyszemélyes színházig.” Színház, January 1980, 27–30.

Szemere, Anna. “Let’s Turn Hegel from His Head onto His Feet: Hopes, Myths, and Memories of the 1960s in Tamás Cseh’s Musical Album ‘A Letter to My Sister.’” Slavic Review 77, no. 4 (Winter 2018), 881–889.

Vecsei, H. Miklós. Füst a szemében: Cseh Tamás története és dalai. Directed by Vecsei. Performed by Vecsei, Huba Ratkóczi, and Balázs Szabó. Based on Bérczes’s Cseh Tamás: Bérczes László beszélgetőkönyve and the works of Cseh, Bereményi, and Csengey. Premiere: Budapest, Magyar Zene Háza, January 22, 2023.