Berlioz: Hungarian March from The Damnation of Faust, Opus 24

Hector Berlioz (1803–69) was a French composer, but he knew how to take a Hungarian subject and turn it into a showpiece to entertain listeners far beyond the borders of a country in Eastern Europe. In his 1846 concert-theater piece The Damnation of Faust (based on the dramatic poem by the German Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who takes us farther from Hungary still), Berlioz wanted to introduce his brilliant orchestration of the Rákóczy March (aka the Hungarian March). This was named for Ferenc Rákóczy II, leader of an uprising at the beginning of the eighteenth century in the Hungarians’ endless struggle for independence from Austria. The march was originally composed by János Bihari, a Gypsy fiddler, but found a wide audience thanks to Franz Liszt, who transmuted it into one of his Hungarian Rhapsodies. Berlioz treated the march as a little drama all in itself, and at the outset he presents the music as an unassuming (though a commanding) march tune. All that changes over the course of the piece, which builds to a tremendous climax. Berlioz described the initial Hungarian audience’s excitement as “a volcano in eruption,” against which “the thunders of the orchestra were powerless. . . . We had to repeat the piece, of course. The second time, the audience could scarcely contain itself. . . It was a good thing that I had placed [it] at the end of the program, for anything we had tried to play after it would have been lost.” Incidentally, Goethe’s Faust does not travel to Hungary. Berlioz invented a scene that takes him there—purely as an excuse to introduce his march.—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(July 2019)