Julian Rushton

© 2013 Julian Rushton

Nobody knows for sure who composed the Rácóczi-induló; but it was played by Hungarian bands in the century or so preceding Berlioz’s grandly symphonic arrangement and development of its material, designed as a climax to his concert in Pest on 15 February 1846. The question is really: how original was Berlioz’s version?

Alan Walker asserts that ‘It was Liszt’s famous piano arrangement … with its sequence of startling chords, that influenced Berlioz when he came to orchestrate the march for his Damnation of Faust during a visit to Pest….’.1 He quotes Liszt’s own claim from 1882: ‘…one of my earlier transcriptions served as the chief basis for his [Berlioz’s] harmonization, which differs strikingly from the rudimentary chords generally used by the Tzigane and other small orchestras when playing this march. Without the slightest vanity I am simply pointing out a fact which any musician can easily verify’.2 Whether or not Alan Walker took the trouble to verify Liszt’s claim, he errs in saying that Berlioz merely orchestrated the March; and he did not write it ‘for’ La Damnation, although he subsequently included it.

Liszt played the Rácóczi March as a child, but his first notated version (for piano) probably dates from 1839, when he played it in Pressburg (modern Bratislava). Berlioz was not present on either occasion. Several versions followed, but none was published before 1851.3 The version with the widest currency is Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15, composed 1847–53, published by Schlesinger in 1853; Liszt’s orchestral version came ten years later. It follows that to be ‘influenced’ by Liszt, let alone use his harmonization as a basis, Berlioz would have had to be acquainted with it prior to publication. It is possible that Liszt played it in Paris before 1845, when Berlioz set off for his second ‘German’ tour, visiting Vienna, Prague, and Budapest and composing much of La Damnation. But Berlioz probably did not know, when he left Paris, that he would visit Pest; in any case, even if he had a copy (MS) of Liszt’s version he would not have added it to the huge pile of scores and parts needed for his tour. Whether he heard it from Liszt or from the ‘gipsy’ band he probably heard in Vienna, Berlioz, when offered a selection of tunes that would appeal to Hungarian national sentiment, may have chosen this particular because he recognized it; its relative familiarity may have helped get the composition under way.4

Any ‘influence’ from or ‘basis’ in Liszt’s version could only have been from memory. But in any case, comparison of the two composers’ versions disproves Liszt’s claim. Some of the harmonies are indeed the same, because features of the melody (arpeggios) make the choice of chords inevitable. But where the choice is not inevitable, the composers usually make different choices. In the following, I give bar numbers from Berlioz only, as to locate the music in the various Liszt versions would require separate bar numbers for each (they differ in length of introduction, even where the treatment of the original material is much the same).

With the main theme, ‘gipsy’ versions stick to a single chord (A minor) under the first phrase; Berlioz alternates A minor and its dominant, E; Liszt, more complicatedly, alternates A minor with bass notes F, E, and D. In the second strain (bar 15) Berlioz accepts the E major arpeggio as defining the harmony; Liszt has a fine progression of E major, C# minor, G# minor. But at the end of this phrase Berlioz introduces a more surprising C# minor chord, followed by an inverted dominant seventh. Both composers give the grand descending phrase (bar 46) in close imitation, but Berlioz (having an orchestra, not merely two hands on a piano) adds a powerful ascending bass.

With the A major melody (bar 38), the harmony is determined by arpeggios. When the music reaches C major Liszt decorates that chord and then jumps back to A; Berlioz connects the keys by the ff intervention of trombones on a diminished seventh (bar 57): truly ‘startling’ and owing nothing to Liszt. Both composers develop the march in a crescendo, but Liszt moves mainly up in steps, with tonally indeterminate harmonies. Berlioz (from bar 75) moves by thirds and fourths, each key locally defined. Liszt’s closing idea is to precede the last A major chord with B flat (except in the orchestral version), whereas Berlioz ends with the more usual dominant and tonic (E to A).

In short: ‘any musician’ should not come to the conclusion that Berlioz owed much if any of his harmonization to Liszt. Berlioz’s choices are sometimes more conventional, though no less effective, especially in an orchestral setting. Berlioz’s version did not influence Liszt’s, either, although earlier works – notably Symphonie fantastique which Liszt knew with the intimacy of a lover, having adapted it for piano – could have provided the younger composer with the model for his bold diminished sevenths, his juxtapositions of unrelated triads, and his occasional near-abandonment of tonality. But in 1882, on the specific matter of influence on the harmony of the Marche de Rácóczy, Liszt’s memory of his erstwhile friend’s work (dedicated to him) seems to have betrayed him.

Julian Rushton

March-April 2012


1 Alan Walker, Franz Liszt. The Virtuoso Years. London: Faber, 1983, p. 320–1, note 5. 
2 Cited by Walker, ibid., from La Mara, Liszt’s Briefe II, 336. 
3 Ferenc Liszt. New Edition of the Complete Works. Series I vols. 4 and 18. Editio Musica Budapest, 1973 and 1985.
4 Emil Haraszti, ‘Berlioz et la Marche hongroise’, special issue of La Revue musicale, 1946.

* We are most grateful to Professor Julian Rushton for granting us permission to reproduce this article on our site.  

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 15 April  2013.

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