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Vol 3, No 13
2 April 2001
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Ferenc Liszt Chasms of Perdition
How Ferenc Liszt tried to tame the divine essence of the Romani soul
Dan Damon


Ferenc gets frenzied

Most of the many prejudices about the culture of the Roma only perpetuate irrational justifications for ancient discrimination; "untrustworthy, untrainable and untraceable." There is, though, one aspect of the stereotype which softens gadje attitudes to Roma; it is "gypsy music," the romantic notion of swarthy and frenzied rhythms plucked from the mysterious soul of nature. Our modern awareness of Romani music owes much to one man, the Austro-Hungarian maestro of the nineteenth century musical scene, Ferenc Liszt.

Liszt offended his Hungarian contemporaries by claiming that all Hungarian music was based on "gypsy rhythms." His reputation survives as a champion of the Roma and their musical expertise. By the standards of the day and from the distance of a century-and-a-half, he is usually rated as a pioneer in multicultural tolerance. His own words tell a much more uncomfortable story.

Ferenc goes into the forest

In the middle of the nineteenth century Ferenc Liszt wrote The Gypsy in Music, a book which captured the imagination of Europe's middle classes. It was translated into English in 1860 and sold thousands of copies in Britain and America. It tells the story of how Liszt pursued what he called "the expression of God's divine plan" in the music of the Roma of Central Europe. It describes how he visited the Roma in their woodland glades; how he studied with them and notated what he heard; and how he admired the natural spirit and creativity of Roma musicians.

But the book also describes Liszt's own unwillingness to accept that the Roma might be allowed to live according to their own laws, or indeed his refusal to recognise that they knew what law was. And it chronicles how he tried to "rescue" one young Roma violinist from his life of barbarity and reveals that a large component of Liszt's interest in the Roma was as a justification for his bitter anti-Semitism.

Perdition and stars

"The gypsy's life," writes Liszt, draws him towards "four chasms of perdition; love song, dance and drink." But those are also "four glittering stars" that ignite the gypsy soul to wondrous acts of musical creativity. So begins Liszt's search for the music of the region's Roma. He had returned to Hungary in 1839 after a long absence, first studying in Paris then touring Europe as a virtuoso and composer.

"We longed to hear those rhythms and harmonies on account of their appearing to us as emanating from another planet. They were so completely different from anything which European art permits, or even countenances, in any way, in music." With some musical friends, Liszt set out through Hungary's byways until he chanced upon a gypsy band of musicians. According to Liszt, it was a magical encounter.

Reclining like kings

Resting on animal skins on a bed of plants, the astonished party of gentle folk was entertained by violinists and dancers, the rhythms beaten out on goatskin drums. The stars twinkled above the colonnade of ash trees that sheltered them. "To complete the picture, the moss beneath our feet, being besprinkled with tiny flowers, recalled to mind those Mexican carpets which are made for the kings, and are woven from the plumage of the humming bird."

Beguiled and captivated, Liszt determined to find out more about the Roma's music and to bring it to a wider audience. But his efforts were frustrated by the character of the gypsy, he says. "It is highly rare to obtain from any individual the complete account even of an event in which he was the principal actor," complains our musical guide. The reason becomes clearer as he goes further.

The Roma wanted to be paid for their expertise, but Ferenc Liszt was of the opinion that since they were given this gift by God they should share it willingly. "We have to be on our guard against the trickery which is likely to be exercised in order to make the occasion one for obtaining a dole," he puffed. They should have been more grateful for his masterly attention to their crude music-making, perhaps.

Nevertheless, Liszt did manage to note down a long series of "Bohemian tunes;" either he paid up or carried the music away in his head. His career as the popularizer of "gypsy music" had begun.

"The spirited savage"

Some years later, Liszt resolved to carry out a more painstaking study of the natural, musical talent of the Roma. He wanted to try to train a young Roma to read musical scores and to learn to write down on manuscript what he played from the heart. This calculated experiment was made possible in a way which seems shocking today and must surely have roused some feelings in those who knew about it at the time. "I sought a young Bohemian gifted with talent for the violin," writes Liszt, "susceptible of being taught." When Liszt was on tour in Paris, the experiment began.

"Look, I have brought you a present!" With these words, Liszt was introduced to a boy of twelve years old brought to Paris by his old acquaintance Count Sándor Teleky. The "susceptible" boy with the natural talent had been found on the Count's own land; knowing what the great composer had in mind, the Count appears to have decided on a whim to spirit the boy away and to hand him over for the good of European musicology.

Liszt named him Josy. The feelings of the boy are never dealt with in Liszt's book. But it doesn't need much imagination to guess the terror he must have endured; a boy born in abject poverty on a rural Hungarian estate and transported to the centre of Paris where he understood little and had no idea of what was in store for him.

Liszt expresses apparently genuine shock and surprise when the experiment runs into trouble. The boy has undoubted talent, he says, but he won't study. "His entire young nature is dominated by pride; to steal whatever he pleased, embrace with all the girls, break any object of which he did not understand the mechanism." Liszt tells of one incident which left him and his party exasperated: the boy was given five francs to buy himself some clothes, "but he spends it straight away" on food and drink and to "make himself Adonis," suggesting the boy sought comfort in a low hostelry.

A far-off wood

Liszt persevered with his attempt to shape the "gifted Bohemian" into a concert platform showpiece. He sent him to a tutor in the Black Forest. "An excellent musician, employed by the Prince of Hohenzollern. We felt encouraged to base some hope of the result as a sort of last resource, removing him from the temptations of the city."

But in the end, the wriggling fish was thrown back into its small pond. "We brought him back to his tribe," says Liszt. "We never knew afterwards what became of this intractable scholar: and often wonder whether we shall meet him again some day at the corner of a far-off wood, violin in hand, smoking or sleeping."

Hungarian or nothing

Perhaps this kind of heartlessness was only to be expected in the world of nineteenth century Hungarian Liberals; people were to be forced to accept what was best for them, whether it was giving up their Romanian or Slovak nationality and becoming Hungarian, or abandoning their "gypsyness" and submitting to civilisation. But it's hard to give Ferenc Liszt the benefit of the doubt, because the earlier part of his book is devoted to a long invective against Jews in music. It is nasty stuff: Liszt deprecates their "clawed, pale hands" and avaricious stares.

It is likely that his intolerance was partly fuelled by his earlier personal squabbles with other ambitious avant-garde musicians at the Weimar court in
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Germany, where he had settled to live in 1848. Some of those musicians were Jewish. But Liszt had also come under the influence of Richard Wagner, whose espousal of racial theories of national greatness were especially and increasingly violent. Liszt's daughter Cosima became Wagner's mistress and later married him. She was the guardian of Wagner's racialist legacy after he died, although her own father she ignored when he was dying of pneumonia.

Beauty wins over bigotry

Whatever the explanation for his anti-Semitism, Ferenc Liszt made cynical use of the musical talent of the Roma to belittle whatever Jews had achieved. Liszt sought to prove that merely being persecuted and stateless was not enough to excuse the Jews for their material success and ambition. Liszt's thesis was: the gypsies glorified God through the creation of natural beauty in the form of music; the Jews could only manage the worldly creations of money and crafted goods. To Liszt, Roma were noble savages while Jews were too clever for their own good.

In the end, it may be enough for us today to take the best that is left to us from Liszt's fascination with Romani culture; some wonderfully complex pieces of music. But just as with Wagner, whose racialist obesessions added fuel to the madness of Nazi politics, it is worth bearing in mind that they were obviously both wrong; there is no dimension of racial purity to music. And it is only in politics that harmony and disharmony can cause real damage to humanity. Furthermore, Liszt's admiration was of little benefit to the Roma, just as his bigotry failed to bury the achievements of Jewish musicians.

Dan Damon, 2 April 2001

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