Appropriate (the verb)

Shay Loya’s book Liszt’s Transcultural Modernism and the Hungarian-Gypsy Tradition

During the production of Feydeau’s  The Girl From Maxim’s at Ryerson Theatre School—just concluded last night—I had lots of opportunities to sit and read, between cues.  I read most of a book recently arrived in the EJB library namely Shay Loya’s Liszt’s Transcultural Modernism, and the Hungarian-Gypsy Tradition.

I’d grabbed it, mindful of a recent series of questions to Topher Mokrzewski, who performed the Liszt transcription of the Liebestod at the Wagner Exchange recently.  I tend to speak in Liszt’s defense to anyone who’ll listen even if it flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, which has long tarred him with several different brushes.

As I’d hoped this new book –part of the Liszt centennial buzz—digs deeply into the complexity of the man and his work.  While it may not seem to most people that he needs rehabilitation, that’s because they’re naturally happy with the little corner they’ve driven him to:

  • Virtuoso
  • Second-rate composer of trashy music
  • Loyal supporter of Wagner

I don’t think Loya’s book has an agenda to defend Liszt, but it does problematize the old assumptions, the stereotypes about him and his music.  His relationship to modernism –aka “the music of the future”—is itself a complex nut to crack.  When we add in Liszt’s other musical activities, it’s that much more complex.  In a nutshell, Loya makes me feel much better about being a Lisztomaniac.

I will write more about the book later (haha when I FINISH might be a good idea).  But for now I find it illuminates elements in the music I’ve been playing this week.  For the Feydeau play, we’ve been using three tunes from Die Fledermaus (J. Strauss) and one each from La Belle Hélène (Offenbach) and Das Land des Lächelns (Lehar).  In each case the composer incorporated a style from another medium in a manner somewhat reminiscent of what Loya speaks of.  While the Offenbach number (utilizing march rhythms) has little connection to Loya’s book, the other four in various ways  seem to parallel some of the trans-cultural phenomena found in Liszt, a composer whose allegiances are hard to know.  He’s a Hungarian, which is not to be confused with a “gypsy” (more properly the Roma a people persecuted throughout the world) even though so-called gypsy music is strongly associated with Liszt.  Nothing captures this ambivalence better for me than his name: which is “Ferenc” rather than “Franz”.  Liszt is both a Hungarian nationalist but also part of the movement surrounding Wagner, which is at least one reason he’s regularly treated as though he were German.  The Austro-Hungarian empire (later Austria-Hungary) was a fascinating and complex place that i don’t pretend to understand. I suspect that a Hungarian in this world would face some of the same choices that a Francophone Quebecois faces in Canada, seeking an authentic relationship with their heritage, balanced with possible career aspirations that might lead them to learn English.

Notice how the rhythmic ornaments in this song (“chacun a son gout”) resemble some of the figures found in gypsy music, and the song –now that i look at it–is built in two parts that resemble a dance (perhaps a csardas?), with a slow start and faster finish.  Hearing this after reading Loya makes me want to somehow unpack the exotic assumptions of a listener of the time.  I can’t help wondering how different this is from more recent conversations about cultural assimilation in our own time. 

And yes, I say this recognizing how politically fraught the word & the culture of Roma people are even now, let alone in the 19th century.  Their music was regularly imitated and appropriated.  I put the parenthetical in the headline to distinguish “appropriate” (the verb) from “appropriate” (the noun).  I suppose i was concerned because the noun usage is exactly the opposite of what i feel: that it’s inappropriate to appropropriate.

You hear some of the same type of thing going on in the famous overture.

Argh…. need to finish the book.

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