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Wish Liszt: How Budapest has laid claim to the composer

Franz Liszt among his pupils - Credit: Bettmann Archive

The composer’s actual association with the Hungarian capital was relatively fleeting. Yet the city has long laid a claim on him, says SOPHIA DEBOICK.

Formed from the separate locales of Buda, Óbuda, and Pest in 1873, Budapest is a city with an enduring commitment to music. Historic venues like the Pesti Vigadó concert hall, built in the 1850s, and the Hungarian State Opera House of the 1880s, are joined by the cutting-edge Palace of Arts, opened in 2005 – home of the Hungarian National Philharmonic and one of the most high-tech concert halls in the world – and the Budapest Music Centre, housed in a 19th century building made over with startling contemporary elements in 2013.

Budapest’s music has always pushed towards the next thing, but it has also been central to the making of a national identity, whether under the Habsburg imperial heel in the 19th century, under communism in the 20th, or rightist authoritarianism in the 21st.

For almost 200 years, Hungarians have made a claim to Liszt. That the town he was born in is now the other side of the Austrian border is of little matter – Liszt is the greatest figure of Hungarian music history. Yet in his lifetime his association with the country was more spiritual than tangible. Living in Vienna from the age of 11, and then in Paris and Geneva, it was only after his quasi-monastic retreat to Rome in his 50s, with his dashing and dynamic days long behind him, that Liszt finally took up an official position in Budapest.

A European first and foremost, Liszt spoke French more readily than Hungarian, but his famous 1838 charity concerts in aid of the victims of the Hungarian floods, which had left Budapest under several feet of water, marked a turning point in his attitude to his country. The celebrated Hungarian Rhapsodies followed and incorporated what he believed to be authentic folk melodies, becoming the foundation stone of a Hungarian national music.

Liszt’s compositions for the Budapest coronation of Emperor Franz Joseph as King of Hungary in 1867, when the city became the twin capital of the dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy, were also symbolic of his status as the Hungarian national musician. But as early as 1840 poet Mihály Vörösmarty could write a hyperbolic ode to Liszt which called him a “freeman of the world/ and yet our kinsman everywhere you go”, and there was a great popular clamour to get the composer back to Hungary where, it was felt, he belonged.

Things came to a head in 1870 as prime minister Gyula Andrássy presented a nearly 60-year-old Liszt with a fait accompli. The king had agreed to fund a National Royal Hungarian Academy of Music in Budapest – part of a programme of national renewal in the new kingdom – and Liszt was to be its president. The reclusive Liszt would refer to this prospect as ‘a sword of Damocles’, and managed to hold off the obligation for five years, but in 1875 he finally bowed to pressure, spending his winters living and teaching at the Academy of Music on the eastern, Pest side of the city.

Liszt spent more time in Weimar and Rome than Budapest during his tenure at the Academy, yet even in death, Budapestians still tried to secure he presence in the city. Efforts to transfer his body to Budapest from Bayreuth were kyboshed by his daughter Cosima when prime minister Kálmán Tisza insulted her father in parliament, saying Liszt was unpatriotic for having told the world that Hungarian music – at that time all the nation owned, he said – really belonged to the gypsies. This was part of a debate about the place of the Roma in Hungarian culture that echoed down the years.

A quarter of a century after Liszt had his arm twisted to become the first president of the institution that now bears his name and houses a Liszt museum, the Royal Academy of Music produced the only other possible contender for Hungary’s greatest musician. Béla Bartók was a child prodigy, but there his likeness to Liszt ended – while the latter was the very soul of dynamism, Bartók was sickly and shy. Born in present-day Romania, he went to study in Budapest in 1899 – following in the footsteps of the then notable Hungarian composer Ernő Dohnányi – at the age of 18, on the cusp of both adulthood and a new century.

Bartók jumped headfirst into the relationship between music and Hungarian nationalism by making the hero of the ill-fated 1848 Revolution, Lajos Kossuth, the subject of his first major orchestral work. Written in the year he left the Academy, it was also a time when Kossuth’s son, Ferenc, leader of the Independence Party, was fostering a wave of nationalist feeling in Hungary.

After leaving the Academy, Bartók’s contribution to a specifically Hungarian music only deepened. With the security of a teaching position at the Academy, awarded in 1907 and held for the next 30 years, Bartók joined forces with composer Zoltán Kodály to set about an ethnomusicological mission to unearth the ‘authentic’ folk music of the minority ethnic Hungarians.

Bartók and Kodály did extensive fieldwork in the Hungarian countryside documenting the songs they heard and leading to them finding a synthesis between folk and modernism in their own work – Bartók’s charming For Children (1908-09) pieces for solo piano and his only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), were particularly marked by folk rhythms. But Bartók’s attitude to the music of the Roma which, he wrote in 1931, was only “destined to gratify undeveloped musical tastes”, revived the controversies around Liszt’s work and took on a dark implication with the rise of Nazism.

Today, Bartók is remembered in Budapest at the Memorial House which was his home from 1932 to 1940, when, having rode out the chaos that followed the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 – three short-lived Hungarian republics, partition, and the establishment of the Horthy dictatorship – he rejected Hungary’s increasing alignment with Nazi Germany and its anti-Semitism and fled for the US. He died there five years later, and although his more modernist works were banned in communist Hungary, in 1988 he was exhumed, given a state funeral and interred in Budapest’s Farkasréti Cemetery. Thus, in the dying days of communism, at least one of Hungary’s great national composers was finally physically reclaimed by the capital.

Viktor Orbán, educated in law at the University of Budapest in the 1980s, has loomed large over Hungary’s post-communist history, first becoming prime minister in 1998. His increasing exploitation of ideas of the threat of ‘outsiders’ to Hungarian national identity – from his supporters’ espousal of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Budapest’s own George Soros, the erection of a border wall against migrants entering via Serbia, and blocking of compensation payments to Roma for unlawful historic segregation in state schools – has sparked a response among musicians in Budapest, where Orbán’s Fidesz party has done markedly less well electorally than in the rest of the country.

Picking up the mantle from Budapest’s original rappers, Animal Cannibals – who made the city the subject of two of their most popular songs: Budapest nyáron (‘Budapest in Summer’) and Yózsefváros, the name of a rundown inner-city district – Dénes Hans Sallai, aka Dé:Nash, has become one of the most prominent faces of Budapest’s rap scene. Despite beginning rapping as a joke, his 2019 EP Tarsolylemez (the tarsoly is an emblematic part of a Magyar warrior’s uniform), lampooning Orbán’s ethno-nationalism, spoke to all those who reject the absurdity of his rhetoric.

Keresztes Hadjárat 2019 (‘Crusade 2019’) mocked Orbán’s xenophobic Christian righteousness, V4 Krú figured the anti-Brussels Visegrád countries as common thugs, while Turul lampooned the origin myth of the hawk symbol of Hungary appropriated by the far right. With his irreverence, Dé:Nash has punctured the pomposity of contemporary Hungarian nationalism, and along with Krúbi, who has rapped about Orbán in highly vulgar tones, the capital’s music is sure to continue to play a part in the endless negotiation of what it means to be Hungarian.


However vexed the position of Roma music in the history of Hungarian music, it is preserved in Budapest by ensembles who also perform around the world. Founded in 1951, the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble are based at the Hungarian Heritage House, while the Rajkó Folk Ensemble, of similar vintage, can be seen performing at the Danube Palace – their shows of both Roma and Hungarian folk music and dance are popular with tourists. Less contrived is the contemporary Roma music of Ando Drom (‘On the road’), founded in 1984.

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