How Hungarian was Liszt?

Coby Lubliner

To Franz Liszt’s biographers, his nationality is a matter of controversy. But most people, be they ordinary listeners of music or writers of encyclopedia articles, think of him as Hungarian.

It is certainly because he is perceived as a Hungarian that a biographical film about Liszt was called “Hungarian Rhapsody,” not because he had composed a series of pieces with that title; otherwise a film about Brahms might well have been titled “Hungarian Dance.”

Nor is there any doubt that Liszt thought of himself as a Hungarian. Early in 1840, when he addressed the public at his first concert in Pest upon his return to his native Hungary after an absence of almost two decades, he began with the famous words Je suis Hongrois (or, more likely, Hongrais, as I will explain below).

Yes, he said it in French. For Liszt had not simply forgotten his Hungarian; he had never learned it. In 1873 he wrote, in a letter to a friend, Man darf mir wohl gestatten, dass ungeachtet meiner beklagenwerthen Unkentniss der ungarischen Sprache, ich von Geburt bis zum Grabe im Herzen und Sinne, Magyar verbleibe (It must surely be conceded to me that, regardless of my lamentable ignorance of the Hungarian language, I remain from birth to the grave, in heart and mind, a Magyar).

What kind of Hungarian, then, was Franz Liszt?

For one thing, the phrase “his native Hungary” must be read with some caution. A present-day traveler in Hungary would not find Liszt’s birthplace there, for it’s located in the town of Raiding, in the Austrian province (land) of Burgenland.

There are two things to be remarked about the just-cited letter. The first is that its language is German, Liszt’s native tongue. After he was brought by his parents to live in Paris at the age of twelve, French very quickly became his primary medium of expression – witness his Pest declaration – and the overwhelming majority of his letters, even those addressed to other ethnic Germans (including his Austrian-born mother), are in French. His German schooling in Raiding was rudimentary, and, as he attested several times, he found it a chore to write in German. For him to do so would imply that the recipient (in this case a Hungarian nobleman) was not proficient in French, something most unusual for an educated European in the nineteenth century.

The other salient feature is Liszt’s self-reference as Magyar. The usual German word to designate a Hungarian, especially when the intended meaning is that of a native or a citizen of Hungary, is Ungar, while Magyar is used (as in English) primarily to denote Hungarian ethnicity. One of the cornerstones of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, which was already in full bloom at the time of the letter, was the recognition of minority nationalities (strictly observed in Austrian lands, much less so in Hungary – more on that later). And it so happened that nationality was defined precisely by primary language (and not, as in the Ottoman Empire, by religion – one of the reasons why Austro-Hungarian Jews did not have nationality status). A Magyar who was “ignorant of the Hungarian language” was, then, a contradiction in terms.

Liszt was an Austro-Hungarian citizen, but it is unlikely that he was aware of the contradiction implied by calling himself a Magyar. In his book Des Bohémiens et de leur musique en Hongrie (‘Of the Gypsies and of Their Music in Hungary,’ published in 1859) he occasionally uses Magyar, but mostly – and seemingly without distinction – Hongrois, except that he spelled it Hongrais, a variant form representing an older pronunciation that, as Liszt’s friend Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables, was practiced by King Louis-Philippe (whom they both admired) and may well have been used by Liszt himself.

The issue of nationality must have struck the young Franz Liszt soon after his arrival in Paris, when he was refused admission to the Conservatoire. It turned out that, about a year before, the minister in charge, the Marquis de Lauriston, had issued a decree stating – somewhat redundantly – that no non-French foreign student was to be admitted (on n’admettra aucun élève étranger non français), and while the minister could make exceptions “in very rare cases,” he chose not to do so for Liszt, despite a letter of recommendation from Metternich. The Spanish prodigy Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, by the way, got in just before the decree went into effect.

If Franz was non français, then what was he? The obvious answer would have been autrichien. The Kingdom of Hungary, on whose western fringe he was born, was ruled by Austria, and represented in Paris by the Austrian embassy. Ethnically he was undistinguishable from an Austrian; his mother, as noted above, was a native of Austria proper. Moreover, as an Austrian musician he would have been viewed as a successor to Haydn and Mozart, whom the French remembered fondly. But his father, Adam Liszt (originally List – he Magyarized the spelling of the name in order to facilitate its pronunciation by Hungarians), instilled in Franz the sense of being Hungarian, even though Adam himself seems to have been of purely German ancestry and spoke only a smattering of Hungarian. (Adam’s father Georg adopted the changed spelling late in life, after his grandson made it famous.)

The emphasis on the Liszts’ Hungarian identity seems to have come to the fore after they left Hungary for Vienna, when Franz was ten. The first printed mention of Franz Liszt appears in a German-language newspaper in Bratislava (then a largely German-speaking city called Pressburg, though it was also, as Pozsony [in Hungarian] or Istropolis [in Latin], the seat of the Hungarian Diet). It’s a rave review of a recital by the nine-year-old prodigy at the house of Count Michael Eszterházy, but what makes it interesting is the typesetting. By a typographic convention that was in effect well into the nineteenth century, German-language text was normally printed in fraktur (black letter), but any interpolated non-German words (including names) were set in antiqua (roman). In this case the name Eszterházy, being Hungarian, is set in antiqua, but Liszt’s is in fraktur (actually written as Lißt), indicating that the reviewer (or editor) did not perceive the German-speaking boy as a Hungarian.

Two and a half years later, the announcement – almost certainly composed by Adam – of Franz’s concert in Vienna not only has the qualification aus Ungarn gebürtig (‘a native of Hungary’) following the name, but ‘Liszt’ is set in antiqua.


* * *

The failure on Franz Liszt’s part to distinguish between ethnic and political nationality may be due to the fact that, in the course of his intellectual growing-up in France, he absorbed the “peculiarly Western” (in the words of the noted nationality scholar Anthony D. Smith), and specifically French, conception of the nation, which was defined by the Abbé Siéyès – one of the heroes of the Revolution – as “a legal entity (personne juridique) constituted by all the individuals constituting the state.” Nor was any other definition tolerated. “It is repugnant,” said the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, another figure of the Revolution, “for there to be a nation within a nation.”

The Bourbon Restoration, under which Liszt’s teenage years were spent, was in many ways a throwback to the Ancien Régime, but the Revolution’s concept of the nation was consistent with Bourbon centralism, and survived intact.

He came of age with the July Monarchy, whose king – the aforementioned Louis-Philippe – pointedly did not bear the title of roi de France (king of France) used by his predecessors but roi des Français (king of the French).

The designation roi des Français had occasionally been used in the late Middle Ages, but as a mistranslation of the original title, rex Francorum, which meant ‘king of the Franks’ in a tribal sense, and which was borne by all the Frankish kings, Merovingian or Carolingian, whatever part of the often fractured Frankish kingdom they might rule over. After the final east-west division of the kingdom in the ninth century, however, the eastern kings, whose subjects were predominantly members of German tribes, came to style themselves rex Germanicus (German king), so that rex Francorum came to designate only the western kings. The land over which they reigned, however nominally, came to be called Francia, and the title eventually became rex Franciae. Moreover, all their vassals, whatever their actual ethnicity, came to be called Franci. This is what the Bayeux tapestry of 1076 calls William the Conqueror’s soldiers (who were Normans, not Franks), and what contemporary and near-contemporary accounts (such as the Gesta Francorum and the Gesta Dei per Francos) calls the participants in the First Crusade (1095), while in the Spanish Cantar de Mío Cid (early twelfth century) it is the Catalans who are labeled francos, since Catalonia was theoretically subject to kings of France until the Treaty of Corbeil (1258).

To Louis-Philippe, however, the Français whose king he was were not his subjects or vassals but his fellow citizens, and he was in fact known as the Citizen King. Indeed, as I have proposed elsewhere, the feudal habit of identifying one’s nationality with the title of one’s overlord was one of the factors that led to the development of the Western nation-state: as feudal power declined, allegiance shifted naturally from the feudal lord to the monarch. Furthermore, the prevalence of Latin as the language of church and state made language-based ethnicity relatively unimportant as a badge of nationality.

In Hungary, certain medieval traditions survived longer than in Western Europe. One of them was the status of Latin as the official language of the kingdom until 1844 (Hungarian became the administrative language only in 1836). Another was the privileged status of the nobility: only nobles could own land, and they paid no taxes. The power that the high-ranking nobles, known as magnates, exercised over their hereditary domains – including the practice of droit du seigneur for which Prince Nicholas Ferdinand Eszterházy (Adam Liszt’s employer) was notorious – was not unlike that of medieval feudal lords.

The entire nobility of the Hungarian kingdom, regardless of ethnicity, was known as the Natio Hungarica or Hungarian nation (except that in Transylvania there were, historically, two other nationes: the ethnic Germans, known as Saxons, and the Székely, ethnically Hungarian but with the distinction that all of them were considered noble; the Vlachs or ethnic Romanians, who formed the majority, did not count). Thus an upper-class Croat, Slovak or Serb in Hungary could thus say Hungarus sum (‘I am Hungarian’) without necessarily betraying his roots.

Magyarization – the gradual imposition of the Hungarian language throughout the Kingdom of Hungary – actually had its beginnings around 1790, as a reaction to Emperor Joseph II’s failed policy of Germanization. At the same time, however, the non-Magyar ethnic groups (who together formed a majority of Hungary’s population) began to develop their own national consciousness, following Herder’s new model of nationality based on language and culture, and to seek cultural autonomy for their communities. This was true, at least, among the urban middle classes. But there were those who, though socially they might be middle-class or even of the minor nobility, were in a quasi-feudal relation with the magnates, and, whatever their actual ethnicity, followed the medieval custom of identifying their nationality with that of their masters. Two of the greatest figures of Hungarian nationalism, the politician Lajos Kossuth (the son of a Slovak father and a German mother) and the poet Sándor Petőfi (Serb father originally named Petrović, Slovak mother), come from this background (Kossuth’s father was a lawyer working for the Andrássy family). Perhaps because of their mixed parentage, Kossuth and Petőfi were raised speaking Hungarian, but their self-identification as Magyars had a mystical, romantic cast that went well beyond language. Kossuth went so far as to deny the existence of a Slovak nation, to claim that he “could not find Croatia on the map,” and to proclaim (to a delegation of Serbs seeking autonomy) that “the only nation that exists in the Hungarian Kingdom is the Magyar nation.” And a magyar nemzet, though a literal translation of Natio Hungarica, meant something far different, just as Magyar vagyok, the title (and recurrent phrase) of one of Petőfi’s most famous poems, was not the same as the old Hungarus sum.

Similarly, Georg and Adam List/Liszt were, in terms of educational status, what might be considered middle-class (they were at various times schoolteachers, musicians and accountants). But Adam, like Georg before him, spent most of his life in the employ – in various capacities – of the princely house of Eszterházy, in something very much like a feudal relationship. And so, in declaring himself (and his son) a Hungarian, he implicitly followed the medieval model of nationality as well.

But Adam Liszt had another motive for emphasizing his and his son’s Hungarian identity: it was his way of expressing his indebtedness to the aristocrats who supported Franz’s career, from that first concert in Pressburg. It was their help that made possible the Liszts’ stay in Vienna, where young Franz got to study with Carl Czerny, and the concert tour that eventually took them to Paris.

Once Franz Liszt became a celebrity, it was the Natio Hungarica’s turn to embrace him. Since it was clear from his first appearance in Pest that he was not ethnically a Magyar despite proclaiming Je suis Hongrois, the way to make him a Hungarus was to find noble roots for him. At that Pest concert he was dressed in a Hungarian nobleman’s traditional costume, and a group of noblemen presented him with a symbolic saber. Some members of the nobility began a formal effort to make him one of their own, presumably by finding a connection (now known to be fictitious) with an extinct lineage named Listhi. These efforts came to naught; there were absolutely no documents, even false ones, indicating such a connection, and when Liszt was finally ennobled by Emperor Francis Joseph, it was, as Franz Ritter von Liszt, a knight of the Austrian Empire and not of the Hungarian Kingdom.

To many in the audience at that concert, the highlight was Liszt’s performance of a bravura arrangement of the Rákóczi March, the unofficial national anthem of the Magyars (the official Himnusz, with music by Erkel and text beginning “God bless the Magyars,” was not written until 1844). The march was a highlight of his concerts throughout that Hungarian tour.

But when he played it in the largely Saxon city of Hermannstadt in Transylvania (now the Romanian city of Sibiu), the performance received whistles (the European equivalent of boos). Here, too, he does not seem to have understood that citizens of Hungary did not necessarily think of themselves as Magyars.

Though Liszt never formally became one of the Hungarian nobility, his personal connections with Hungarians seem to have remained within it. If his correspondence is any indication, he does not seem to have known any Hungarians of the middle class, let alone any Magyar peasants who might sing or play genuine folk music. Hence there was nothing in Liszt’s experience to counteract his mistaken belief, expounded in his aforementioned book about the Gypsies, that what he heard from the Gypsy musicians of the ethnically mixed region of his birth, and what furnished the thematic material of the compositions that he called Hungarian Rhapsodies, was Magyar folk music.

Much of the book is devoted to praising the Gypsies for their musical gifts and their untrammeled lifestyle while, by contrast, gratuitously denigrating the Jews for their lack of artistic originality and, of course, their greed. Liszt seems to have believed that only the Gypsies, not the Magyars themselves, were the true carriers of the folk music of Hungary. The fact that the csárdás – the archetypal Hungarian musical form that Liszt called hongraise – was created by the Jewish violinist and composer Márk Rózsavölgyi goes unmentioned in the book. (In fairness to Liszt, the book’s anti-Semitic tone may well be due to its having been written largely by his Ukrainian mistress, Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. Liszt had several Jewish students and friends, including Moritz Rosenthal, Carl Tausig and Hermann Levi.)

* * *

A failure to understand the ethnic aspect of nationality in Hungary could be excused in someone who, like Liszt, was educated in the West. It is far less excusable for the leaders of Hungarian nationalism in the nineteenth century, specifically those of the Kossuth-Petőfi stripe, to disregard, in their relentless campaign of Magyarization, the aspirations of the non-Magyar nationalities in Hungary. While most of the European Revolutions of 1848 failed, the failure of the Hungarian one was due in no small measure to the fact that the Croats, Romanians, Serbs and Slovaks of Hungary took the Austrian side. And while there were Hungarian leaders, such as Ferenc Deák and Count István Széchenyi, who were far more understanding of the problem of nationalities, theirs was not the path that was taken.

A few years ago I published an essay titled Turkey’s “Turkish” Problem, in which I pointed out that modern Turkey’s self-definition – a legacy from Atatürk – as a nation-state in the Western sense (that is, a state in which nationality and citizenship are equivalent) is geographically out of place, since Turkey lies to the east of the Seipel line, in a part of the world where the prime determiner of nationality (and nationalism) is ethnicity. Consequently Turkey’s supposed Kurdish problem, rooted in the unwillingness to recognize the Kurds as a national minority, is in reality a Turkish problem.

In my essay, I neglected to cite an earlier example of such a misplaced definition: post-Ausgleich Hungary. (To the Austrian statesman Ignaz Seipel, who first articulated the concept of the line to which I have given his name, his own country – and hence ipso facto Hungary – lay to the east of it.)

When the Habsburg empire was re-formed, in 1867, as the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, it was supposed to be on the basis of equal cultural (specifically linguistic) rights for all of its many nationalities, and the Austrian half promptly instituted such rights (in some places even to the detriments of ethnic Germans, as in the borderlands of Bohemia and Moravia). Even the imperial anthem Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser was translated, on the orders of Francis Joseph, into the various national languages of the Empire.

In Hungary, however, the Law of Nationalities of 1868, which was supposed to do the same thing, had a preamble beginning

Since all citizens of Hungary, according to the principles of the constitution, form from a political point of view one nation – the indivisible unitary Hungarian nation – of which every citizen of the fatherland is a member, no matter to what nationality he belongs...

The translation is taken from a 1908 book titled Racial Problems in Hungary by Scotus Viator, the pen name of a Scottish journalist named R.W. Seton-Watson. (Note that, in the usage of a century ago, ‘racial’ is equivalent to the modern ‘ethnic.’) Viator comments:

Like so many other laws on the statute-book of Hungary, the Law of Nationalities is vitiated by employing in the original text only a single word (magyar) for two essentially different conceptions – Hungarian, the wide geographical term embracing the whole territory of St. Stephen, and Magyar, the narrow racial term, applicable only to one out of the many nationalities of the country. The ambiguity of the phrase becomes apparent when “the political unity of a magyar nemzet (the Hungarian nation)” is under discussion; for the attempt has often been made to define “a magyar nemzet” as “az uralkodó nemzet,” in other words as “the ruling race,” not as “the Hungarian nation.”

The law continues:

Since by reason of the political unity of the nation the state language of Hungary is the Magyar, the language of deliberation and business in the Hungarian Parliament is in future also the Magyar; the laws will be promulgated in the Magyar language, but are also to be published in an authentic translation in the languages of all other nationalities inhabiting the country; the official language of the Government in all branches of the administration is in future also the Magyar.

While the law goes on to enumerate situations under which languages other than Hungarian could be used, in fact the old policy of Magyarization remained in place, especially with regard to Slovaks. And the Himnusz was required to be sung in Hungarian only.

Needless to say, the minority nationalities – except for the Jews, who believed they would benefit from being counted as Magyars – did not accept the Magyars’ position, and continued to agitate for autonomy. In 1895, an assembly representing Romanians, Serbs and Slovaks published a twenty-one-point program, whose second point asserted that “[t]he idea of a Magyar national state is a contradiction of the ethnical conditions of Hungary and her historic development, and threatens the existence of the other peoples.” The assembly furthermore decided to “form a League to protect their nationalities in all legal ways, and hope that the Germans and Ruthenes will join them.”

The minority nationalities’ rejection of the “Hungarian idea” led to the eventual dismemberment of the kingdom; all the areas where non-Magyars were in a majority voted, following the Treaty of Trianon, to join neighboring countries. In particular, Liszt’s true countrymen, the Germans who formed the majority of his native region (which they called Deutsch-Westungarn [German Western Hungary]), decided (except for the city of Sopron/Ödenburg) to join the similarly truncated Austria, which at first was called Deutsch-Österreich (German Austria) before the name was forbidden by the Treaty of Saint-Germain. Chances are that if any descendants of Sebastian List (Georg’s father) – that is, Franz Liszt’s kinfolk – were still living there, they would have voted the same way.

August 15, 2006

© 2006 by Jacob Lubliner

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