Happy Birthday, Liszt!

Friday was Franz Liszt’s two-hundredth birthday. He is Hungary’s most beloved composer.  In fact, this year the airport in Budapest was renamed in his honor.

In Debrecen, the university had a Liszt Feszt.  One of the benefits of living in Hungary’s second largest city (even if it is MUCH smaller than Budapest) is that going to cultural events is so easy.  Last Saturday, we walked to the university for a Pálinka Festival, and yesterday evening we went to campus for a concert.

First, a band performed Hungarian Rhapsody II.  At the end of the piece, everyone applauded, and then they began clapping in unison.  Jesse and I were puzzled.  Turned out this meant “encore.”  It was the first time I can recall a band playing a true encore: they sat down and played the first movement again.

Next was Hungarian Fantasy and Liszt’s Piano Concerto #1.

The musicians were average at best, but the soloists saved the day.  I always appreciate hearing a live performance, specially when the audience is so entranced that they won’t let the pianist leave the stage without playing two encores.  Liszt is a part of Hungary’s cultural heritage, and the people at the concert were truly moved to hear some of his most legendary pieces on his birthday.

Liszt was a cosmopolitan globetrotter who traveled around Europe performing and seducing countesses.  He really only spent the first few years of his life in Hungary.  Yet his music is truly Hungarian.

A rather creepy photo of an elderly Liszt was hanging in the auditorium, and he stared at us throughout the concert.  He had a prominent nose, to say the least, and several prominent warts on his face.  In his youth, though, he was a “rock star.”  He even had long hair.  The most acclaimed pianist of his day, women swooned when they heard him perform.

Today, people categorize as “classical,” although he was a Romantic composer.  It’s funny to think that he was cutting-edge in his time.  If he were alive, how would he feel about the American pop music that is played all over his homeland?

(Side note:  Before coming to this country, I always thought that ths “z” in Liszt’s name was pronounced.  I believe that Liszt spoke German more than he did Hungarian, so maybe he did say the “z.”  In Hungarian, however, “sz” makes a “ssssssssss” sound.  So “Liszt” sounds like the English word “List.” It means flour. For a native English speaker, Hungarian pronunciation is always counter-intuitive.  My students laughed at me when I said the name of the French Prime Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.  They informed me that Sarkozy is a Hungarian name.  In Hungarian, “s” is pronounced like the English “sh.”  So his name is properly said “Shar-koo-zee.”)

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