A Tour of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2

We’ve been talking about Liszt a lot lately, and we’re not done yet! Today we’re going to take a tour of his Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2.

We recently did a two-part series on the history of Liszt, and looked at some of the easiest pieces he wrote for piano (spoiler alert: none are easy).

And if you’re looking for even more Liszt after this, we’ve also done a full analysis/listen-through of his Liebestraume as well – definitely check that out.

Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2, S. 244, is one of his most famous piano compositions. In this video, we’ll talk about the history of this famous piece, look at its form, do a bit of musical analysis (though nothing too heady) – all things I hope will give you a deeper understanding of this awesome piece.
And, as always, there will be audio clips scattered throughout, so you can actually hear the things we’re talking about.

Let’s get started!

Hungarian Rhapsodies

There are actually 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies in total, composed by Franz Liszt between 1846-1853 (though a couple later ones were written in the 1880’s, near the end of his life).

They are all based on Hungarian folk tunes, or at the very least, what Liszt assumed were Hungarian folk tunes. See, even though Liszt’s nationality was Hungarian, he wasn’t familiar with the language, and didn’t live there for the majority of his life.

So he ended up making some assumptions. Some of these Hungarian Rhapsodies were not actually gypsy folk tunes at all, but tunes composed by middle-and-upper-class folk, which the gypsies integrated into their own music.

These Rhapsodies are killer for piano players; they’re among some of the most challenging repertoire that exists. Liszt was, after all, a virtuoso musician.

Arrangements for other mediums

His original piano rhapsodies have also been translated to different mediums – some have been arranged for orchestra by Franz Doppler (which Liszt helped with).

Liszt himself also arranged some of the rhapsodies for piano duet (like no. 18 and 19) and piano trio (no. 9 and 12).

In today’s video we’ll be focusing on the solo piano version of Rhapsody no. 2.

Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2

So we’ll be specifically talking about the second Hungarian Rhapsody today. The bold opening theme was noted by Liszt in 1846 as something he had heard, but we really have no idea what its origins are.

Let’s take a really quick listen to that introduction so you can start getting this piece in your head.

Composition of rhapsody no. 2

This work was composed in 1847 and published in 1851, when Liszt was 40 years old. Even in his own time it was a hugely popular piece, which ended up annoying Liszt. It’s like Radiohead’s “Creep” all over again. He actually didn’t even let his students play it for him (probably because it was often butchered badly).

Hungarian Gypsy scale

Let’s talk about some gypsy folk music elements that Liszt incorporated into his Hungarian Rhapsodies.

An element that Liszt liked to incorporate into his rhapsodies was the Hungarian gypsy scale.

The Hungarian gypsy scale is essentially a harmonic minor scale, with an extra raised note to make it sound extra harmonic (in this case, the fourth note is raised).

This type of scale is also very common in Flamenco music.

Aside from Liszt incorporating this funky scale into his Rhapsodies, he also blended in other elements of gypsy music, such as its rhythmic spontaneity and expressive, almost seductive qualities.

Gypsy music

Another aspect of gypsy music was phrases being rounded off with a type of melodic cadence, or musical period, known as bakázó. This melodic phrase end starts with the second scale degree, moves to the tonic, and then dips down to the leading tone.

At the start of the Lassan (more on this shortly), you’ll notice that Liszt does one (of many) of these on the fifth and sixth measures.

Gypsy rhythm

A final note on gypsy music before we get into this, and that’s the rhythm. The second section of verbunkos are marked with running fast notes, like so:

There also tends to be repetitive dotted rhythms, like so:


Again, it’s worth mentioning that Liszt’s understanding of Hungarian folk music wasn’t deep, and he made a lot of assumptions. Instead of being a historical snapshot that captures the music of a people, his rhapsodies are more like spin-offs of a few stereotypical concepts of what gypsy music was.

Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 Form

This is a large-scale piece, and a full performance runs around 12 minutes long. This large-scale structure was influenced by the Hungarian dance/music genre verbunkos, which had several parts with different tempos.

Another element found in this Hungarian Rhapsody are the two structural elements of a typical gypsy improvisation:

Lassan (slow section)
Friska (fast section)

Liszt did some cool harmonic symmetry for these sections. The Lassan begins with an introduction with a C# major chord, though after several bars we move into C# minor.

In the Friska section, we open with F# minor, but after several bars, we move into F# major.

Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 Lassan

In this piece, the Lassan section is very serious and dramatic, while the Friska is incredibly fast, challenging and pure fun.

Let’s take a listen to a bit of the Lassan, so you can get a sense of its character. There’s plenty of modulation (moving through keys), and it’s mostly quite moody.

The section we’re going to listen to, from the very beginning of the Lassan, starts in the key of C# minor, but modulates to the key of G# minor. I made some harmony notes, but don’t worry if you find it confusing – it’s a bit advanced. The roman numerals simply represent chords (where i is C#m, and V is G#m, and so on).

Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 Friska

The lively and playful Friska starts in the key of F# minor, but interestingly doesn’t start on an F# minor chord – instead, it starts on the dominant chord of C# major, alternating with the tonic (F# minor). This gives us a feeling of restlessness and unease, since we’re constantly shifting from a tension note (C#) to a comfortable note (F#).

Let’s take a listen to this part – it’s very haunting, and you can tell Liszt is slowly building us up to something.

More on the friska

After the build-up, the volume increases, the tempo increases, and finally we arrive at the main theme of the Friska, in the key of F# major.

It’s at this point where Liszt begins to pull out all the stops and let loose. Our harmonies are still simple (alternating tonic and dominant), but move at a lightning pace.

Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 Cadenza

This energy and enthusiasm continues on for quite a while, and performing it is a feat of massive endurance. But before the big and bold ending, we have a cadenza ad. lib which is worth discussing.

Basically a cadenza is a little improvisational passage, usually very difficult. There are a few written cadenzas, like the playful one by Marc-Andre Hamelin, or Sergei Rachmaninoff’s. Liszt hand-wrote some cadenzas as well, but they’re way too intense for the vast majority of performers.

You’ll notice Rachmaninoff’s cazenda involves lots of jumping, free-flowing fast notes and glissandos. The one we’re about to listen to is different, but it gives you a sense of what a cazenza is. This is just a small snippet; the cadenza actually goes on for quite some time (a good minute or two).

Rhapsody no. 2 Ending

The rhapsody ends with huge fanfare and flourish in the key of F# major. It’s written in prestissimo (very fast), and there are jumping octaves that span the entirety of the keyboard.

This is how Liszt ended almost all of his rhapsodies – with fortissimos, wide octave leaps, trills, cadenzas, and other impossibly fast and complicated features.

Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 in Pop culture

Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 has been used extensively in pop culture, notably in cartoons like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny (Rhapsody Rabbit). It’s also been in Tom and Jerry, The Simpsons, Animaniacs, and some non-cartoon shows too, like movies by the Marx Brothers (A Day at the Races being one).

Piano recordings

There’s a great blog post resource you guys can check out, which systematically reviews and explains all of the important recordings of Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2. It goes in order from old to new, and also features some very new performances a la Valentina Lisitsa, which is one of my favorites.

I also love Horowitz’s version, though he takes many creative liberties in interpretation. Not only does he do his own cadenza, he also changes some of the sections, making it entirely his own.


I hope you enjoyed today’s musical tour of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2! I highly encourage you to check out the full recording – it’s a blast.



Accessed at imslp.org
Performer: Martha Goldstein
Publisher: Pandora Records/Al Goldstein Archive

Copyright:Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.