Outside the German-speaking world, few of us have read Goethe, either in translation or the original language. But his colossal stature in the Romantic literature still echoes in the music he inspired: Beethoven’s Egmont, Schubert’s Erlkönig and Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, the operas Werther by Massenet and Mignon by Thomas, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas, not to mention epic settings of Faust by Gounod, Boito, Mahler, and Berlioz. However, the rousing little Hungarian March that ends Part I of Hector Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust wouldn’t count as one of them.
In fact, there’s nothing in Goethe’s Faust about Hungary or a Hungarian army that’s featured so prominently in Berlioz’ musical drama. The composer’s only reason for setting the action there was to give himself a reason to insert a crowd-pleasing march:
I took the liberty of bringing my hero to Hungary at the start of the action, as he witnesses a Hungarian army marching across the plain where he wanders lost in his dreams. A German critic found it very odd that I made Faust travel to such a place. I do not see why I should not have done so, and I would not have had the slightest hesitation in taking him anywhere else, had this benefited my score in any way.
Berlioz began sketching Faust while on a concert tour through Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and Silesia in 1846. Before leaving for Hungary, a Viennese friend advised him that “if you want to please the Hungarians, write a piece on one of their national themes.” Taking the hint, he wrote a march based on a popular Hungarian song about the 18th-century patriot Ferenc Rákóczy. The Rákóczy March was composed in a single night and premiered in Pesth (the future Budapest) to a cheering audience. It was so wildly successful, Berlioz played it in every city on his tour and eventually shoehorned it into his Faust. His memoir of the first performance not only describes the audience reaction vividly but offers a road map to the piece:
On the day of the concert, I felt, all the same, a certain tightening of the throat when the time came to produce this devil of a piece. After a trumpet flourish based on the opening bars of the theme, the march appears, as you recall, played piano by flutes and clarinets with a pizzicato accompaniment on the strings. The audience stayed quiet and silent at this unexpected opening. But when, over a long crescendo, fragments of the theme reappeared in a fugato, punctuated by muffled notes on the bass drum simulating distant cannon-fire, the hall began to seethe with an indescribable sound, and when the orchestra erupted in a furious mêlée and hurled forth the long-contained fortissimo, shouts and stamping such as I had never heard shook the hall… Thank goodness I had placed (it) at the end of the concert as anything one might have wanted to play after would have been lost.