Nowadays we take it for granted that two songs are always performed on our festive occasions: one of them is the Hungarian national anthem, Ferenc Kölcsey’s Hymn (Hymnus, 1823) set to music by Ferenc Erkel (1844), while the other one is Mihály Vörösmarty’s Appeal (Szózat, 1836), with music by Béni Egressy (1843). However, during the decades before these two compositions had been born, it was the Rákóczi March that counted as the most important musical symbol of the Hungarian nation. The march, in parallel with the canonization of Hymn and Appeal, managed to remain popular and has been respected ever since. Composer Mihály Mosonyi, for example, wrote the following in Zenészeti Lapok (Musical Papers) in 1860: “»Rákóczy March« is the same to the Hungarians as Homer’s »Iliad« is to the Greeks, the »Talmud« is to the Jewish nation, the »Bible« is to the Christians, or the »Quran« is to the Turks. It is our holy national relic, to which fabulous historical memories are attached.” So it is not surprising that the Rákóczi March got into the print, entitled “The Three Songs of the Nation” and published by Rózsavölgyi Publishing House, as an equal third piece after the Compromise of 1867, that 20th-century folk music collectors had recorded the Rákóczi March as a ritual closing number of numerous festive occasions, that during World War II, the march also served as a source of the interval signal of Budapest 1 radio station, and that for long decades, it had been the usual opening number of the daily program flow on Radio Kossuth.
Our website makes an attempt to give a brief review of the major 19th-century instrumental adaptations of the march. At the same time, the musical scores of versions of various difficulty are also made available, in order to hopefully help the Rákóczi March regain its old glory, by way of more frequent performances.
The tune known today as the Rákóczi March originates from the so-called Rákóczi Song. The history of the latter goes back to the mid-17th century: versions of the “song”, which later became known with the lyrics “Hey, Rákóczi, Bercsényi”, had emerged in the Vietórisz Tablature, the Kájoni Codex and in György Nárai’s collection entitled Lyra Coelestis (1695). The tune had remained in use until the beginning of the 19th century when Gábor Mátray (former Róthkrepf) published his own special variant in the third volume of Pannónia vagy: Válogatott Magyar Nóták Gyűjteménye (Pannonia or: Collection of Selected Hungarian Songs). This version is one without lyrics and, abounding in elaborate ornaments, it is instrumentally inspired. As regards form, slow and fast music sections are juxtaposed, and due to these special characteristics, it could be become the model of the Rákóczi March, as we know it today.
The author of the march, based on the above variant of Rákóczi Song, cannot be identified for sure but the most probable scenario is that the currently known form of the tune had been formed by Nikolaus Scholl, who was the conductor of the No. 32 Imperial and Royal Infantry Regiment and served Esterházy. He must have been inspired by the performance of famous first violinist János Bihari. The majority of data related to this subject emerged during a press debate exploding in the early 1860s. The debate can be followed up in detail on the pages of Zenészeti Lapok (Musical Papers) launched in August 1860. Editor of the weekly Kornél Ábrányi, who is considered to be one of the most active writers of period music life, expressed his views about the issue of authorship on several occasions.
However, the debate carried on by Ábrányi and others can be regarded as somewhat superfluous, since the earliest two piano versions of the Rákóczi March, published in Vienna in 1820, both named Scholl as the author. But this knowledge was soon forgotten and in the publications of the 1840s, including Franz Jüllig’s collection entitled Ungarische National Melodien (Hungarian National Melodies), the tune of the Rákóczi March was published without mentioning the name of its composer.
Erkel who, in the 1830s, became known as one of Hungary’s best pianists did his very best to make the Rákóczi tunes popular. As journal Honművész (Artist of the Mother Country) reported, on the eve of November 30, 1838, in the Hungarian Theater of Pest “Mr. Erkel, composer and conductor, played from his own composition a fantasy and variations on the piano, accompanied by orchestra, on the Transylvanian-like Rákóczi melody.” Several months later, on March 23, 1839, the Rákóczi March was played in the theater, according to Dezső Legány’s assumption, conducted and adapted by Erkel again. Some eight days later, at a concert given jointly with Munich-based cellist Joseph Menter, Erkel played his composition entitled Fantasy for Piano on the Theme of the Transylvanian Rákóczi Song.
While the above compositions are known only by their title, the adaptation of the Rákóczi March by Erkel was published in January 1840, under the title In Memory of Franz Liszt. As you will see on the next page, Liszt had a huge success when he performed the march at his concert held on January 4, 1840 in the National Theater of Pest. Erkel tried to grasp the effect of this performance in his own version, which was available in shops merely a few weeks after Liszt’s concert. As the columnist of journal Honművész put it: “The aim of the adapter is to communicate [the march] in such a manner as Mr. Liszt played it, as close to how he played it and how we experienced it, not to count one or two characteristics of Mr. Liszt, which Mr. Erkel deliberately refused to follow, all in all, successfully communicating.” The adaptation, published by József Wagner who was a good friend of Erkel, had several editions and it was also published in a simplified version for those who were less skilled in playing the piano. Entitled The Rákóczy March in an Easy Method for Piano, this version was also published together with the march in Erkel’s opera entitled Mária Bátori. However, it is not clear whether the simplified version was made by Erkel himself, or the publisher asked someone else to do the routine job of simplifying the original version.
When in December 1839 Liszt arrived in Hungary after more than 15 years of absence, he received an extraordinary welcome. The highlight of celebrations was the afore-mentioned concert held on January 4, 1840, at the end which six Hungarian aristocrats, led by Count Leó Festetics, brought a magnificent sword decorated with precious stones onto the stage, as the inscription engraved into the blade put it: “To the great artist, Ferecz Liszt, in appreciation of his artistic merit and fervent patriotism.” Later on, the French press frequently made fun of this “martial” award. A famous caricature by Joseph Lorentz depicted the sword on the horse-riding pianist’s right side, which was his side incapable of fighting. However, Liszt always recalled the handing over of the sword as a nice memory, all the more so, that he recommended his later Rákóczi adaptation, published by Haslinger Publishing House in 1847, to the six aristocrats who gave him the present.
Liszt had planned to publish by Haslinger the version of the Rákóczi March, played at the memorable concert in Pest, as early as January 1840 but the Viennese censorship intervened. Probably this was one of the reasons why versions “modeling” Liszt’s performance appeared so quickly: the adaptation by Erkel entitled In memory of Franz Liszt (presented on the previous page) and Georges Micheuz’s Rákoczy Marsch version (“in such a manner as Mr. Liszt played it at his concerts”) both took on the task of “replacing” the banned original by Liszt. Those, who are interested in the subject today, can get access even to the unpublished form, since it most probably corresponds with the version which survived in an autograph manuscript under the title Rakozy Marsch and which is kept in the Music Collection of National Széchényi Library. Liszt might have put down this version in the hope of publishing it in Vienna. This is indicated by the notation of an “easy version” jotted down and then abandoned in the middle of the manuscript. The latter would have served as a basis for a simple version dedicated to amateur pianists, just like the modified “in an easy method” form of Erkel’s adaptation.
In 1851, four years after the Haslinger edition, Liszt released a new version of the Rákóczi March at Leipzig-based Kistner Publishing House. The Marche de Rakoczy, as it is called, is a real “popular edition” which was meant to serve the needs and technical potentials of the piano-playing general public.
Nearly two years later, Liszt published yet another adaptation of the Rákóczi March at Berlin-based Schlesinger Publishing House, which became generally known as the 15th piece of the series entitled Hungarian Rhapsodies. Following the available adaptations, written almost exclusively for piano, Liszt rewrote the march for orchestra, too, in the middle of the 1860s. The premiere of this totally new version was conducted by the composer himself in Pest on August 17, 1865. After his solo concert held just two weeks later, Zenészeti Lapok (Musical Papers) wrote the following in connection with the piano score of the new adaptation: “what followed playing this march was no longer an applause but it was a nation’s deification reaching to the skies, by which it raised its great son to the glorious throne of the utmost chosen.” In spite of the huge success, Liszt published his version written for orchestra only years later, in 1871, at Leipzig-based Schuberth Publishing House, but then he did publish it in several versions at the same time. The score and the entire orchestral part, the two- and four-handed versions, and even the two- and four-handed versions for two pianos as well as the simplified piano score were published at one and the same time. The musical setting for two pianos presented here was dedicated to Krisztina Kubinyi, wife of Leó Festetics by the composer himself.
The orchestral adaptation made by Liszt was explicitly and implicitly meant to compete with the famous Rákóczi March of Berlioz, the formation of which will be presented on the next page. With the relatively late publication of his own version, Liszt wished to tactfully avoid open rivalry with the French master whom he held in high esteem. As Liszt put it in a letter written in 1871: ”While Berlioz, who dedicated his own »Rákoczy« in »The Damnation of Faust« to me, was alive, (...) I did not want to come up with my own version for orchestra.”
In early 1846, Berlioz visited Pest, in order to make his compositions better known to the Hungarian public at two orchestra concerts, one held on February 15 and another one on February 20. As it was usual on such occasions, the composer tried to make his guest appearance more attractive to the local public by the adaptation of a popular national melody. Berlioz composed the best ever known version of the Rákóczi March on this special occasion.
In his memoirs, Berlioz gave a detailed report about the excitement caused in Pest even by rumors of a Rákóczi adaptation being in the making. Lázár Petrichevich Horváth, editor of Honderű (Mirth of Home), for example, went to see the man who copied the orchestral parts, in order to get to know the composition as soon as possible. After this visit he rushed immediately to Berlioz and asked him whether the sotto voce introduction of the theme would not disappoint the audience used to the exuberant and triumphant performances of the Rákóczi March. However, Berlioz’s decision was justified by the concert, as we can read it in his memoirs:
“…the audience remained silent at this unexpected introduction but when fragments of the theme were played fugue-like, in one long crescendo, interrupted by the blunt beats of the tambour, resembling the sound of remote gunfire, an indescribable rumble started stirring in the hall, and the moment the liberated orchestra, as if it were in a wild grapple, finally released its long withheld fortissimo, the hall was shaken by unprecedented shouting and stamping of feet. (…) We had to start again but on the second occasion, too, the audience could hardly or not at all control themselves, just like on the first occasion. (…) It was wise of me to put the Rákóczi March at the end of the concert because anything that would have followed, would have been lost.”
In the light of this tempestuous reception, it is hardly surprising that music publisher József Treichlinger, who prior to the arrival of the French guest had distributed the adaptation of a former Austrian publication in his own edition, released the piano version of the Berlioz adaptation a few months later, and also hired piano teacher Antal Zapf to prepare a new arrangement. It was also due to this great success that the original manuscript of the Rákóczi March by Berlioz remained in Pest. The composer must have given it to Ferenc Erkel, then conducting the orchestra of Hungary’s National Theater, in the hope of further performances. Finally, in 1904, the autograph of the score got into the collection of National Széchényi Library from Erkel’s legacy.
In the wake of the success of the Berlioz adaptation, the Rákóczi March became more and more popular across Hungary, but the fall of the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence of 1848-49 put an immediate end to the series of public performances because any form of citing the revolutionary melody became politically dangerous. Strict prohibition was lifted only at the end of the 1850s, as the troops of the Monarchy lost a series of battles and their strength gradually weakened. The Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra founded in 1853 started playing the Rákóczi March as of November 1859 (tactfully referring to it on playbills as the Pest Memory of Berlioz).
Violinist Ede Reményi, who himself had been forced to emigrate after the capitulation at Világos, returned to Hungary as a result of amnesty in January 1860, and he would naturally play the Rákóczi March at his first concert in Pest. His own adaptation, which was also published in print a couple of months later, was severely criticized by Mihály Mosonyi in Zenészeti Lapok (Musical Papers). Mosonyi insisted that Ede Reményi should have approached the well-known melody of the march with the utmost modesty: “It is such a unique composition of ours that there is no need to change anything on its tune, on the musical accompaniment or on its form; because from the first size [i.e. from the first beat] to the last, it has a brave and honorable expression, and it combines the most sparking fire with the ideal of musical greatness. Like the Holy Writ, the text of which is holy and authentic only if it is not forged. (…) By his above-mentioned score, Mr. Reményi has cut a deep wound hurting a vital vena on the altarpiece of our national sanctuary because, like in a Venetian carnival, he made a spring board of it, in order to present artistic somersaults from it, to entertain the gazing audience.”
With the political climate gradually easing, several further adaptations of the Rákóczi March appeared in the 1860s. Antal Sipos, who had been a student of Liszt in Weimar for two years and who became famous by establishing a “private academy of music” in the mid-1870s, published his own version in 1865. Erkel’s adaptation, which had been distributed under the title In Memory of Franz Liszt in 1840, was now printed as an independent composition on several occasions by Rózsavölgyi Publishing House.