Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14 in F Minor

One of the first composers whose name I learned was Franz Liszt. That was a result of my Hungarian ancestry. My grandfather came to the United States in 1904, and my father, though born here, grew up speaking Hungarian. I had a friend named Nick Humphrey who calls me a hot-blooded Magyar, but in truth, in my youth, I was shy and part of that also had to do with my background.

My grandfather settled in northern Indiana after going through Ellis Island. My home town, South Bend, was a huge manufacturing center because of Studebaker’s, which made Conestoga wagons in the previous century and had become a major automaker in the first half of the 20th. Huge numbers of Europeans migrated to South Bend and to the Gary, Indiana and Chicago area around the time my grandfather did. Our city had large Polish, Hungarian, Italian, Belgian and German communities. The Poles and “Hunkies” even had their own radio shows on Sunday afternoons on the local AM radio station, WSBT.

On Saturdays, we visited my Hungarian grandfather’s house and on Sundays, my Belgian grandmother’s. On both sides of the family, I had many aunts and uncles and countless cousins, so these visits in the early 60s were quite fun for me. Of course, I liked Christmas time the best, but especially at my Hungarian grandfather’s house. My dad’s sisters used to cook wonderful sweets: kifli--which were small buttery croissants of flaky pastry filled with ground walnuts, egg whites, and sugar–and kolach, a sweet yeasty bread roll filled with ground, moistened and sweetened poppy seeds.

My aunts and uncles used to talk about the culture of the Austro-Hungarian empire and particularly the composer Lizst. What’s odd is that I don’t remember ever hearing any of them play Lizst on visits to their house and none played any musical instruments that I know of. Even stranger still is that I somehow feel more of a connection to my Hungarian roots than my Belgian. Something about being Hungarian seemed to set me apart.

That feeling began to develop when my Hungarian grandfather died in 1964. My father had a younger brother named George, who at the age of 18 was crippled by arthritis, which bent his body into a 90 degree angle. Uncle George never married and lived with his parents. When grandpa died the task of caring for grandma fell to Uncle George. He was helped in that by his sister, my aunt Helen, who was married but didn’t have any children. My father used to visit to help Uncle George fix things around the house, garden, or just relieve Helen who kept house during the week.

Often, I was left inside to watch grandma, who spent most of the next six years until she died in a trapezoidal area whose corners were formed by the television, her bed, the kitchen and the bathroom. Eventually, the poor circulation in her legs limited her range to the triangle of the bed, kitchen and bathroom. My job then was to help her, when she called to me, get out of bed and shuffle to the bathroom. She spoke one word of English: “Eat!” which she would tell me as we passed through the kitchen if Helen had left some treat out for me.

This was a confusing time for me as I spent hours sitting alone in the house as the shadows lengthened, trying to occupy myself as best I could. Usually, I sat in the parlor which had huge paintings. In one Our Lady of Lourdes appeared to the children, and in another, the sacred heart of Jesus–on fire and encircled with a ring of thorns–floated in front of a life size portrait of the saviour. Sometimes I read Reader’s Digestand did the “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power” quizzes, or I would just watch television.

When my grandmother died in 1970, I had just turned 15 and I was nominated to be a pall bearer. For an adolescent, I can’t think of anything more traumatic, but I tried to take my job seriously and act dignified. Making it more affecting was the fact that that was the first time I ever saw my father cry. I thought I had pulled it off fairly well, but then afterwards people started asking me, “Was it heavy?” which seemed to me kind of sacrilegious.

Around this time, I found Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14 in F Minorin a stack of used records at a garage sale in Nowheresville, Indiana. It quickly became one of my favorite pieces and not just because Liszt was Hungarian.

Supposedly Lizst was one of the first mega-stars of serious music. He toured quite a bit performing the works of Scarlatti, Chopin and himself.  He was kind of the Michael Jackson or Tom Jones of his day. Women flocked to his concert and would throw their long white gloves onstage while he played, just as women in the 1960s would throw their underwear at Tom Jones.

Because of this, Liszt has sometimes been dismissed as more of a showman than a really great composer. True, he made his own pieces increasingly showier and technically more challenging. My friend John Kim tells me that modern pianists can only play about 60 per cent of the piano music that Liszt wrote.

But listening to the Rhapsody No. 14, you hear much more profound feelings. It begins with a funeral march, and a short melody is is played in a stately manner. You think it’s going to be a somber piece. But then Lizst starts improvising on the melody. He plays impossible chords and then these incredible glissandos at lightening speeds. They are so fluid that they always remind me of water. It finishes joyously and brings one out of any morose one might have had.

For a quiet, shy boy from Indiana born in an immigrant community, this music helped me find solace for my lonliness and gave me a glimpse of the glory to be found in art.

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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