Work: Hungarian Rhapsody no 2 in C sharp minor
About This Work
Liszt was proud of his Hungarian origins, yet his command of Hungarian was poor and he remained a tourist in his putative homeland until the end of his life. This was a formula for misunderstandings, of which the Hungarian Rhapsodies are the richest,
most controversial, and most glorious. A European celebrity, Liszt made a triumphal return to Hungary in December 1839, staying until the end of January 1840, during which he made the acquaintance of Gypsy bands roaming the Hungarian countryside and heard them perform, on violins and cymbals, a great deal of music in a wildly impassioned, improvisatory manner which affected him deeply and impelled him to translate its effects to the piano. Unaware that many of the melodies upon which the Gypsies visited their flair - and which he notated scrupulously - were salon fare, Liszt supposed them to be parts of a vast "Gypsy epos," a sort of musical Hungarian oversoul, which he set about recreating in a series of piano pieces, the Magyar dalok & Magyar rapszódiák. But these proved to be mere preliminary drafts for the magnificent series of fifteen Hungarian Rhapsodies composed between 1847 and 1853. (The Rhapsodies XVI-XIX are much later and quite different in style.) Meanwhile, Liszt's confusion of Gypsy manner with Hungarian music was received as a national affront in Hungary, while the systematic exploration of genuine Hungarian folk music awaited the attentions of Kodály and Bartók in the early years of the twentieth century. But in the upshot, Liszt derived from the Gypsies the immemorial pattern of a slow, elegiac first section (lassú) leading to a propulsive, often vertiginous, fast section (friss), and a peculiarly kinetic improvised manner of bringing them off.
Of all the works in Liszt's enormous, labyrinthine catalogue, the Second Hungarian Rhapsody is the best known or, at least, the most familiar. Composed probably in 1847, and published in 1851, its popularity became baneful to Liszt himself, and it was one of a handful of works which he would not allow his students to play to him. Since, its satirical use by everyone from Bugs Bunny to Tom Lehrer has saddled it with risible associations which render it nearly impossible to hear in its appropriate context. Curiously, it is the only one of the series of Hungarian Rhapsodies I-XV whose thematic materials are not to be found in the Magyar dalok & Magyar rapszódiák. The effusively ruminative opening theme was noted by Liszt in a sketchbook of 1846 as something heard, but the origins of the remainder remain untraceable and may be original. Proceeding by a series of broad melodic coups piqued by cimbalom imitations, this surefire piece rises in giddy effervescence to a direction for a "cadenza ad libitum" which pianists from d'Albert and Rachmaninov to Marc-André Hamelin have been happy to supply. Supervised and reworked by Liszt, an orchestral arrangement in D minor by Franz Doppler has also become a repertory staple.
-- Adrian Corleonis
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