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,