Classical music


Petra Gelbart

Franz Liszt and the Making of Legends

Franz Liszt

Franz /Ferenc) Liszt (1811–1886) remains, along with Béla Bartók, the best-known Hungarian composer of classical music, in addition to his fame as a virtuoso pianist. Although he was not Romani, he spent a good deal of time among Roma and identified closely with their creative output. Liszt, who had received minor orders in the Church, once wrote that he felt himself to be ‘one half “Gypsy”, the other a Franciscan’.

Liszt’s Error

Liszt’s relationship to Roma and the music they played, however, was both complicated and controversial. Much of Liszt’s compositional style was inspired by, or at least associated with, aspects of the music he heard from Romani ensembles and individuals. [See exhibit on the Hungarian Rhapsodies]. Liszt’s legacy includes the increased popularity of ‘Gypsy’ elements in works by numerous Western classical composers (Hector Berlioz, Hermann A. Wollenhaupt, Jeno Hubay, Elemér Szentirmay and others). And yet Liszt’s ideas about ‘Gypsy’ music, which he saw as a true Hungarian national style, have led to heated debates up until the present day.

Did the Roma create this music, or did they take it from Hungarian popular tunes and arrangements? Were both of these styles incomparable with the ‘pure’ music of the Vlax Romani subgroup, which had no bearing on the music that inspired classical composers? Was Liszt’s glorification of Roma simply a colossal mistake (as Bartók later claimed) rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of Hungarian musical styles? Scholars have yet to answer these questions fully.

Franz Liszt’s most widely discussed piece of writing is Des Bohémiens et de leur musique en Hongrie. Translated into English as The Gipsy in Music, the book is almost always interpreted as a highly positive portrayal of Roma and their musical contribution to Hungarian culture. The Hungarian musicologist Bálint Sárosi wrote that ‘[Liszt's] book to this day provides a model and a reference work for all those who want to give the Gypsies a wedding-cake, rose-tinted picture of themselves.’

Widely read responses to Liszt’s The Gipsy in Music (in which Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein also had a hand) are almost exclusively of two types: either they praise Liszt for his discovery or they disagree with one particular point: Liszt’s ascription of real creative potential to Roma. Béla Bartók’s famous negative stance to Liszt’s treatise was not the first instance of the latter reaction, but it has become a kind of prototype for other criticism of Liszt’s book. In other words, among those who dispute Liszt’s argument, Bartók is the most often cited instance. Bartók maintained, namely, that what is known as Gypsy music in Hungary did not originate with the Roma and that they only adapted (and ‘deformed’) what ‘true Hungarians’ had created and that Liszt was therefore fundamentally mistaken in attributing the music to them. This has reduced much writing on Romani creativity to a kind of parroting of either Liszt’s views or Bartók's. In terms of racialised language, however, the two composers share some important tenets of European thought.

Thanks to his book, the popular and scholarly imagination tends to see Franz Liszt as a friend and champion of Roma. If this is not sufficiently clear in positive assessments of Liszt’s work (e.g., Antonietto 1994), it is strongly implied in criticisms of Liszt’s views regarding the relative musical merits of Roma and Hungarians. Bartók’s correction of Liszt’s ‘fallacy’ is respectful yet resolute. Reproducing the tenor of an early review by Samuel Brassai, Bartók dismisses Liszt's attribution of ‘gypsy music’ to Roma. At the same time, he makes excuses for the disputed national hero, explaining that Liszt simply fell prey to the wrong information when he praised Roma so highly as creators. He terms the Hungarian label ‘gypsy music’ as ‘incorrect usage’ (Bartók 1931; Bartók, Jr. 1981). Liszt was, of course, guilty of great exaggeration when he suggested that Hungarian Roma were exclusively the authors of the music they played, and that this was the only kind of true ‘national’ music to be found in Hungary. Bartók and others subsequently took it upon themselves to overcompensate for Liszt’s fanciful historiography by stating that Roma were rarely or never the creators of their repertoire, the popular bulk of which they owed to Hungarian classical composers.

Yet although Bartók and Liszt seem to epitomise two sides of the debate over ethnically defined contributions – or lack thereof – to music in Hungary and in Europe more generally, is this really the case? Is Liszt really the champion of Romany creativity that even his harshest critics, Bartók and Sárosi, make him out to be? The Gipsy in Music is in fact somewhat ambivalent on the subject of musical origins. Liszt does take up a considerable amount of space extolling Romani creativity, and on this topic his reasoning is in one respect ahead of many twentieth- and even twenty-first-century ethnomusicologists: melding his own identity as a performer with that of the ‘Gypsy,’ he proclaims (exaggeratedly and simplistically) that the virtuoso is ‘just as much a creator as the writer’ (Liszt 1926: 266). The Gipsy in Music does, however, find ways of equalizing in some ways the credit ascribed to Hungarians and Roma in the development of ‘Gypsy music.’ The author asks, for example,

‘Why trouble whether the first linear trace of the monument mutually erected by Bohemian [Gypsy] and Magyar – whether the first loving kiss of this happy union was conferred by this one or that? ...without one and the other, it would never have been able to live, grow and develop as it has done ... both have an equal share in the honour... Bohemian art can never be separated from Hungary, whose arms it must forever bear on seal and banner.’

Liszt 1926: 274-5

This faulty image of fundamental Romani characteristics continues to be widespread in the twenty-first century, with serious political ramifications.

Liszt stresses that Gypsy music ‘owes’ its development and contemporary existence to the favourable and necessary conditions provided for Roma in Hungary, whitewashing Romani-Magyar relations in the process. For example, ‘[i]s it not by Hungarians alone that the Bohemians have been granted peace?’ (Ibid: 275) On one hand, the role of Magyars is painted as that of receptive patrons, but the ‘adopted child’ known as Gypsy music was ‘weak and ailing’ and ‘would probably have perished from inanition’ if it hadn’t been for the parental nurturing of ‘cultivated’ Hungary (Ibid: 273). Romani music, then, is wholly dependent on Magyars in Liszt’s view, even if they did not teach it to their Roma, and even if the Magyar creation of this music would have been impossible from a racial standpoint: ‘The music called Bohemian both contains elements and expresses a feeling far too savage to admit of its being the product of a people such as the Magyars have always been.’ (Ibid: 272) Roma are ‘essentially’ nomadic, whereas the Hungarian sedentary character is ‘eminently plodding’ (272). This faulty image of fundamental Romani characteristics continues to be widespread in the twenty-first century, with serious political ramifications.

Liszt implicitly elevates Romani ‘additions’ to the status of composition, even if such a rough product begs for the sensitive reception and input of musically educated Hungarians. In the end, the balance of Liszt’s crediting the Romani ultimately favour ‘a pure Bohemian art’ – his conciliatory remarks about Magyar musical taste and ability may be read to be just as backhanded as his pronouncements on the Romani character.

The Roma of Nature and the Nature of Roma

But there is another, far less discussed side to the story. Liszt’s characterization of Romani music-making, while full of poetic exuberance, is generally in keeping with his apparent idea that Roma are highly gifted, and while perhaps not quite savages, nevertheless barely human. As in life, the composer explains, ‘Gypsies’ recognise no principles or laws in music: their playing is completely instinctual and undisciplined. For Liszt, in addition to the all-important Romani element of sentiment, the ‘Bohemian genius’ stems from that race’s ‘mad and unrestrained liberty’ (Ibid: 98). Idleness, impulsiveness, coupled with a primitive and unreasoning character – these are among the traits that precede or follow all of Liszt’s descriptions of Romani music. If these are interpreted together not as an aesthetic sine qua non but rather as ethnic faults, then they occur at a rate of several negatives for every musical positive the composer lists. In terms of mental faculties, The Gipsy in Music presents its objects of study as idiot savants with all the more shockingly impressive musical ability. It is curious, then, that Liszt is still so commonly considered a friend of the Roma.

The general tone and content of Liszt’s praise for Romani musicians in The Gipsy in Music is reproduced in one of his letters:

‘Further, your Gypsy-Virtuosos would have found a sympathetic and avid listener in me, as I have drunk deeply from the fonts of their untamed and enthralling harmonies. The Gypsies are an old and abiding avocation of mine, and in earlier days I listened to and studied them at length... Their somber recitatives, their artless and exuberant grace, their incandescent rhythms; – the bold turns and indomitable impetus of that most striking style; – their whip-lashes of savage energy, their pricks of such provocative coquetry; – those sudden leaps and lavish streams of fantasy; that triumphant and unbridled verve; those whinnies of joy and sublime touches of originality, caprice, and at times, irony. All that genius of what is art, after all, is embodied in the Gypsies, who are its custodians (just as the Israelites are the custodians of the genius of commerce), and all, in short, that you feel when listening to them, much more than I could successfully put into words, are to be found nowhere but in their Lassans and Friskas, and those Adagios, and Allegros of our half- and quarter-virtuosos, enervated as they are by the salons, can never give any idea of them, – just as the turkeys in the back yards, though well-behaved and easily digestible, can never aspire to be condors.’

Suttoni 1984 [Liszt 1861]: 113

Most of the basic ingredients that constitute The Gipsy in Music can be found here: Roma as an uncivilised yet artistically noble Other set against Magyars or non-Roma in general, and as a supposedly meaningful contrast for a ‘polite’ jab at Jews. The letter, however, is slightly skewed away from the overriding ‘Bohemian sentiment’ of the book and towards the more sophisticated side of Liszt’s thoughts on the subject of Romani music, with descriptors such as somber, artless grace, sublime originality and even irony. The book better highlights the obverse of what Liszt and countless others have pinpointed in the way of innate Romani talent – in short, the implicit conclusion that such artists and their kind cannot live as normal members of society.

Rights held by: Matthew Gelbart | Licensed by: Matthew Gelbart | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive