By Ann Hicks
They were nineteenth century Hungarians, two musical giants born a year apart. Ferenc Erkel in 1810, and Franz (Ferenc) Liszt in 1811. They shared abiding love for their country’s national music – flavors of verbunkos and csárdás – and each in his own way – Liszt mostly abroad and Erkel at home – elevated it to heroic heights. Caught up in the Pan-European revolutionary fervor of the 1830s and 1840s, Erkel and Liszt, young and gifted, were deeply inspired by the emerging nativist literature, visual art, and music, that rose amidst the quickening social change.
They were in good company.
The Polish Frédéric Chopin, the Czech Bedrich Smetana and Russia’s Mikhail Glinka among numerous others – East and West – strove to promote and embrace the Enlightenment ideas of the Romantic Era. Eugéne Delacroix’s brush rose to hail the Common Man at-the-ready with Liberty Leading the People; while Alajos Stroble’s monumental sculpture, Szent István, erected in Buda, shouted the Magyar people’s pride in their first native king crowned in 1000 A.D. on Christmas Day.
Erkel, born on November 7, in Békés-Gyula, hailed from a middle-class family whose members held music and literature in high regards. Later in life, Erkel recalled being taught “art nurtures the soul.” As a child, he was an eager learner initially tutored in piano education by his father, Joseph. While the elder Erkel soon noted his son’s aptness to be a great pianist he nevertheless urged his son to choose a profession appropriate to his social standing – lawyer, doctor, or teacher, but not a professional musician. Nevertheless, as his Muse would have it, the younger Erkel chose to devote his life to the musical arts. He did complete his general education to include fluency in five languages. By his early twenties, he was hailed as a piano virtuoso and performer that led to an extended invitation to concertize in Transylvania. For the next six-years Erkel’s fame as a pianist and later as the conductor of the newly formed symphonic orchestra of Cluj (Kolozsvár) Transylvania, spread far and wide. In the 1830s, the Hungarian-majority city – now part of Romania – outshined the cities of Pest and Buda with its culture and sophistication. Transylvania also afforded Erkel familiarity with its ethnic music, Székely, fertile with emotional folk themes.
The conducting career provided Erkel an opportunity to gain fluency in the art of orchestration and composition. Concurrently, he continued with his jubilant public concerts. At that time, in the first half of the 1800s, keyboard artists of Erkel’s caliber were scarce in Hungary due largely to lack of established higher-level music education and public halls in which to perform.
Much in demand, Erkel treated his adoring audiences to works by Beethoven, Weber, Hummel, Moscheles, Herz, Kalkbrenner, Thalberg and Liszt. The latter’s legendary success abroad was much heralded in his native country where he was a yearly visitor in the 1830s.
At age 28, Erkel left Transylvania for Pest where he was invited to become the first director of the city’s newly opened National Theater (Nemzeti Szinház) Orchestra. He remained at that post for nearly two decades. During his lengthy tenure, Erkel composed and published operas, solo piano and orchestral works, and the Hymnusz, Hungary’s national anthem (officially adopted in 1844).
Erkel also established Pest’s first opera company whose singers alternated at center stage with the National Theater’s renowned thespians. Even as the company’s repertoire featured works by Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, and Carl Maria von Weber, all along Erkel nurtured a profound desire to bring to its stage Hungarian-themed operas. He had a problem. There was only one such opera: Joseph Ruzitska’s 1822 Béla’s Flight.
Not to be denied, Erkel set to work and during the next three decades wrote seven operas. The last one, Bánk ban became his magnum opus. Premiered in 1864, it continues to be a frequently produced work. As recently as August, 2019, Placido Domingo guest-performed the opera’s lead ariain Hungary. Domingo’s rendition of the opera’s best known aria, Hazám, Hazám (My Homeland), earned him a standing ovation.
At the beginning of the mid-eighteen hundreds the lives of Erkel and Liszt began to intersect as the perapatetic virtuoso felt the need to reconnect to his native roots and upped the frequency of his visits to Pest to play and dazzle.
At his first homeland concert in 1839, Liszt insisted that his program and the tickets be printed in the Magyar language and not in German, as it was the custom. This was a bold step toward the official legitimization of the country’s language. From then on, all ticketed performances for his and other artists were printed in both Hungarian (Magyar) and German. Liszt’s world renowned fame was the difference and the cause for the reluctant permission to allow it by the court of Franz Joseph I, the young ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
According to the Oxford Companion to Music, ’’from 1839 to 1847 he (Liszt) toured most of Europe (incuding Russia and Turkey) as the most celebrated pianist the world had seen – feted and idolized by audiences…”.
The bond between Erkel and Liszt grew stronger reinforced by Liszt’s fervent support of the 1848-1849 Hungarian war for independence from its Habsburg rulers. The revolt was crushed by the combined forces of the Austrian Emperor and the Russian Tzar whose forces aided him.
By the latter part of the century Erkel and Liszt had become intimate friends and cohorts. In 1871, Liszt established permanent residence in Hungary’s capital where reportedly the focal point of his salon was an 1880 Chickering piano. In addition to Budapest, he maintained two other residences, one in Rome and the other in Weimar. He composed most of his large ouvre at the latter city. Included among this body of work are his Hungarian rhapsodies. The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. is by far the best-known of the 19 works.
The pinnacle of the compatriots’success was the establishment of a music academy in Budapest. Named the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music – later renamed the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music –was permanantly funded by the government. It opened its doors in 1875. Erkel helmed the school as its first director responsible for the academy’s operation, development and expansion. In the ensuing years Erkel and Liszt both taught piano performance at the academy that in time gained worldwide recognition for excellence.
For that alone, not to mention all their other achievements in the annals of Hungarian music, Erkel and Liszt will always be venerated as its lodestars.