Mr. Cope’s Cave: Some Nuggets for Your Liszt Bucket


Last month, I made a horrible, horrible mistake, right here in this blog space. I said that one of my all-time favorite pieces of music was Franz Liszt’s "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 3." I don’t know how I could have made such a blunder. It makes me feel like I’m losing it. That crazy old Mister Alzheimers has moved into the attic of Cope Manor; that I’ve started slipping down that slimy, sad sluice into the sump of senile senescence; that whatever time I have left will be spent trying to remember things like my address and where I left my dentures before I went to bed last night. That… that… oh shit, I forgot what I was going to say.

Anyway, it bothers the hell out of me that I wrote such a thing in a public forum. Anyone with even the most modest awareness of musical history could tell you that what I probably meant to say was Franz Liszt’s "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2." Did you catch that?… No. 2!

Not No. 3! Gad, I feel so stupid.

It’s not unusual that I would love that particular piece (No. 2) so much. Were you to assemble 100 people who know even a little bit about Liszt and his music and ask them what their favorite piece of music by that composer is, I’ll wager 95 of them would say the "Hungarian Rhapsody No. Something-or-other," and they would mean No. 2. Old Franz wrote a lot of stuff—symphonic poems, piano concertos, tons of solo material for piano and 20 Hungarian Rhapsodies in all—but No. 2 is undoubtedly his most popular.

I first heard it at the age of 3 or 4 in a Disney nature film, the name of which has escaped me. At that time—the '50s—Disney was known almost as much for the wonderful nature productions as for the movies. The one that absolutely curled my toes—the name of which still escapes me, dammit!—was on water birds. Ducks, loons, swans, geese, grebes, flamingos—and the astounding cinematography was set to… you guessed it… the complete "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2." It was for me then, at that tender and unsophisticated age, and remains to this day, as thrilling a musical experience as a human being can get out of 12 different notes.

Growing up, I kept hearing pieces of it in some great cartoons, most notably the one where Bugs Bunny is a concert pianist with a mischievous mouse living in his grand.

No. 2, like all of his other rhapsodies, was originally written for solo piano, but the more popular rendering was the arrangement Liszt scored for orchestra. That’s the first version I heard, the full orchestration. I wish I could find that bird film and present it to you here, today, but I can’t. In lieu of that, I argued with myself over whether to insert the original solo piano version or the orchestral version.

Ah, but I finally remembered this is a blog. Unlimited time, unlimited space. Choose for yourself which you want to hear, or do yourself a favor and listen to the three arrangements I’ve picked. The orchestral rendition will move you, the piano version will amaze you and the brass quintet will have you dancing like a gypsy.

P.S.: If anyone knows where I might find that Disney nature film about the birds, send me a link to I would be forever in your debt.

P.P.S.: Another reason I’m giving this to you today—perhaps the real reason—is that "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" is a good model to follow for progressive-minded Americans in the wake of that disastrous election—starting as it does in a somber, introspective, almost funereal tone, then erupting into energy and joy, ending with resounding exultation.