The most cartoonish piece of music in the world?

liszt rhapsodies

Franz Liszt published his Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 in C-Sharp Minor in 1851, but it was some seventy years later it made is cartoon debut cementing the piece in American popular culture.

In an early Walt Disney cartoon, The Opry House, Mickey Mouse is forced to battle a manic piano while performing the popular encore.

Liszt’s irrepressible music reappeared just two years later in Krazy Kat’s Bars and Stars. Disney used it again in Silly Symphony, and this cartoon, along with Max Fleischer’s Car-Tune Portrait, presented the unique challenges animals face when performing classical music.

When Warner Brothers’ looney genius Fritz Freleng discovers the Rhapsody’s potential, it becomes one of the funniest pieces of music imaginable. Freleng first uses it in Rhapsody in Rivets, a wordless masterpiece produced for Merry Melodies in 1941. In the cartoon (frustratingly unavailable on Youtube!) we watch a Leopold Stokowski look-alike conduct the construction of the building, using the blueprint as a score, all choreographed to Liszt’s Rhapsody no. 2.

Of the half dozen Freleng cartoons to feature the music, none is as memorable as Rhapsody Rabbit, in which Bugs Bunny makes his concert debut performing the piece only to find an unwelcome helper. Without straying from Liszt’s score, Freleng animates their conflict with magical timing in this clip below.

Bugs answers a phone during his performance (“What’s up, Doc?”) and says, “Who? Franz Liszt? Never hear of ‘im.”

The bit is lifted almost immediately by competitors Hanna and Barbera in the Tom & Jerry cartoon A Cat Concerto.

The Rhapsody no. 2 has also been performed by Woody Woodpecker, Rowlf the Dog, and in a violent piano duel by Daffy Duck and Donald Duck in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It appeared in three Marx Brothers films, and was used in a song about all the flavors of ice cream by the Animaniacs.

Throughout all this, the Rhapsody remains a concert favorite, often used by pianists to present their virtuosity in an encore. Liszt’s score enticingly invites the performer to add a cadenza. Many great pianists have written additions, notably Sergei Rachmaninoff and Arthur Rubinstein. From the very beginning it was a concert favorite, and as records were introduced it became a recording staple.

The recording used in this post, incidentally, is by Alfred Brendel, one of our favorite pianists of all time. Although he was known for his serious, scholarly attitude towards interpretation (once saying his “responsibility is to the composer and to the piece,” not the performer), Brendel likely appreciates the Rhapsody’s comic potential. In a recent retrospective interview he talks about his appreciation of early cinema:

As a child, I had played a lead in a children’s theatre and watched movies by Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The fascination of the cinema has remained, culminating in a film series that I curated a few years ago under the heading “Between Dread and Laughter”. Great acting in the theatre as well as on the screen has continued to inspire my urge to play roles as a musical performer, and to treat musical pieces as characters.

Liszt himself was said to be one of the greatest pianists of his time, if not of all time. Few reliable accounts really tell us what he was like in performance, although he was occasionally mocked in reviews for his dramatic nature. He was known to add his own cadenzas to other works, or to include fluid changes of tempo to existing scores. In one letter he admitted doing all this to gain applause from the audience. We cannot imagine what Liszt, who life was tantalizingly close to the age of recorded music, would think of all these appearances in cartoons, but we think he would approve.

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