Liszt’s visits to his native country between 1839 and 1840 and in 1846 were important for the evolution of his personal musical style. Despite his German origin, mother tongue, and adopted French culture, Franz Liszt had not ceased to declare himself a Hungarian. It was during those visits, celebrated as the idolized national hero of romantic nationalism at a period of Hungary’s struggle for national and cultural independence, that he began to renew his Hungarian roots with more and more sincere feelings.
The early impressions of Hungarian national music that Liszt had not forgotten soon meant more to him then mere exoticism. This type of characteristic national music at its height at the time was by no means folk music, but an idiom of international descent. (Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly would discover the ancient Hungarian peasant songs much later in the early twentieth century.) The national music had developed from the verbunkos, a recruiting music (from the German Werbung) that had flourished since 1780. Verbunkos contained elements of Hungarian folk dances as well as Turkish, Near-Eastern, Balkan, and Slavic components—even elements of new Viennese and Italian music seeped into it. This conglomerate and yet characteristic Hungarian national music with its unmistakable stylistic features such as “heelclicking” cadences, dotted rhythms, and the “Hungarian” or “Gypsy” scale with two augmented seconds, was incredibly popular in Hungary. Hungary adopted it as its primary national symbol of identity. At times it was played on instruments to show resistance to Austrian censorship when national language and costume were forbidden. In the nineteenth century Hungary remained a feudal country without the bourgeoisie and without learned native musicians. The only performers of national music were the Gypsy bands whose characteristic features of interpretation became inseparable from it. It is this reason why it was called “Gypsy-music.” Authors of these popular art songs (magyar nota) were, with few exceptions, contemporary dilettante musicians of the Hungarian gentry class who could not write them down. The Gypsy bands could not read music, but learned and played by ear. In the early printed collections, learned musicians belonging to the German minority arranged the melodies for piano.
Both the character and interpretation of that music fascinated Liszt. In his first Hungarian compositions—the first fifteen Hungarian Rhapsodies (S 244) and their earlier versions—he wanted to declare his romantic patriotic obligation. Over time, however, Liszt, interested in everything which did not conform, adopted its elements (above all the “Hungarian” or “Gypsy” scale, and the abstractions extracted from it) to his own musical idiom, in a more and more personal, organic, systematic, general, and modern way. These characteristics appear more frequently in his works that have nothing to do with Hungary. They have their special meaning and serve, above all, the expressions of grief, sorrow, and mourning. Yet, not speaking Hungarian and only knowing the circumstances of its music superficially, Franz Liszt had several essential misconceptions concerning this music known as Gypsy music. He thought the melodies were ancient Gypsy folk tunes, fragments of a uniform-but-lost Gypsy epos. In fact, they were only a few decades old and inventions of Hungarian noblemen, often with Hungarian words. What he wanted to do in his Hungarian Rhapsodies in his capacity of rhapsodos, as he called himself, was to “reconstruct” this “lost Gypsy epos.”
These ideas were all nonsense, as we see it now, knowing the real Hungarian and the real Gypsy (“Roma,” as they call themselves) folklore. None of these pieces has anything to do with the so-called Gypsy music, except the typical features of Gypsy Auffuhrungspraxis. Franz Liszt, nevertheless, remained convinced of his misconception until the end of his life. In the late 1850s he wanted to formulate his theory in a short preface to his first fifteen Hungarian Rhapsodies. The preface Liszt intended grew to a complete volume under the control of Princess Carolyne. In 1859 Franz Liszt published it in Paris under the title Des Bohemiens el de leur musique en Hongrie (On Gypsies and on Their Music in Hungary), and, two years later, in Pest, in Hungarian and German translations. In addition to expounding upon Liszt’s incorrect theory, the book contained long, tedious, and silly chapters that Princess Carolyne wrote that had nothing to do with the topic, as well as considerable nonsense concerning Hungarian history. Hungarian proper and geographical names were printed with a terrible orthography, making them almost unrecognisable.
The unfortunate book gave rise to a national scandal in Liszt’s native country, following a period of the lost war of independence and of suffering under the severest Austrian suppression. His compatriots, the landowner gentry class who lacked musical culture, did not appreciate Liszt’s good will. They soon forgot all the fabulous amounts he had given for various institutions in Hungary. Suddenly, he became accused of something similar to high treason. Franz Liszt, the man so much honoured in his homeland—had he not even been awarded with a sword of honour, that symbol of gentility—had deprived his nation of its dearest symbol of identity by declaring this so-called “Gypsy music” to be Gypsy indeed and not Hungarian. To make matters worse, he committed his errors in favour of Hungary’s most despised national minorities, the Gypsies. The terrible confrontation between Liszt and Hungary that this book produced would have unfortunate consequences in Liszt’s later life and even after his death.