Shay Loya, The mystery of the seventeenth Hungarian Rhapsody

Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 17 is a puzzling miniature written towards the end of the composer’s life: much of its idiomatic material, as well as the traditional slow-fast pairing, is represented in a highly abstract way that defies generic listening. The work’s largely euphonious harmony and ambiguous genre perhaps explain why it has not fitted well into received narratives and discourses on Liszt’s late music: but it is precisely its harmonic and anti-generic aspects that deserve closer attention.

This article therefore begins by contextualizing the work as a Rhapsody and then proceeds to examine salient ways in which Liszt creates a quasi-“distancing effect” that denies listeners the pleasure of immersing themselves in exoticism, nationalism and virtuosity. The second part looks more closely at how this work avoids the affirmative affective route expected in a Rhapsody, and instead continuously transforms three idiomatic (and extremely simple) motifs in order to create something closer to a dreamlike psychological drama or even a nightmare – unlike any other Rhapsody ending in a fast tempo.

The final part examines the role tonality plays in creating this dream world; more specifically, Liszt’s cryptic key signatures and note spellings, some of which seem to go against a more intuitive perception of harmony. Two contradictory readings, employing both Neo-Riemannian and prolongational perspectives, highlight this riddle. The first demonstrates that, notwithstanding Liszt’s D minor-to-major key signatures, the work can be heard as tonally coherent when B-flat is considered to be the central sonority against a largely chromatic background. The second reading takes Liszt’s key signatures and spellings seriously and presents a tonal process that is only a fragment of a greater, imperceptible whole, much like other elements in this fascinating work.


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