top of page

DAVID POPPER (1843-1913)

Hungarian Rhapsody, Op.68 (1893)

The composer, teacher, and celebrated cellist David Popper likely won't have the mass name recognition as Paganini or Liszt; still, he is a mammoth icon in the realm of all things cello. His 60-plus cello works, including the bible of advanced etudes, the 40 Studies: High School of Cello Playing, Op.73, are staples of the cello repertoire. Like violinists/composers Eugène Ysaÿe and Fritz Kreisler, Popper is in the obscure category of the often overlooked performer-composer, composers who extensively and exclusively write for their instrument. 


Popper studied at the Prague Conservatory with the Hamburg cellist Julius Goltermann and quickly amassed a high-profile performing resume. During an 1863 tour of Germany, Popper won praise and support from the conductor and protege of Franz Liszt, Hans von Bülow. Bülow intersected with many titan figures, including a love triangle with Liszt's daughter Cosima and Richard Wagner. By association, Popper was equally entangled in the upper echelons of high music society. Popper's concertizing history is a whos-who of the Western Anthology of Music (Late Romantic chapters). In addition to Bülow, Popper performed under Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Karl Goldmark, Anton Rubinstein, Carl Reinecke, with Béla Bartók, and gave the world premieres of several works by Johannes Brahms, including the Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op.60 in 1875, and the Cello Sonata in F Major, Op.99 in 1886, with Brahms at the piano. 


The Hungarian Rhapsody (Ungarische Rhapsodie) is a dazzling showpiece, offering a perspective of skillful idiomatic virtuosity through a Jewish lens of Hungarian folk music. The rhapsodic work channels the Czárdás, a traditional Hungarian dance characterized by fluctuating slow and fast tempi in 2/4 or 4/4. Comparisons with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Hungarian Dances of Brahms are immediate, with some sections sharing similar folk themes. Originally composed for piano and cello in 1893, Max Schlegel orchestrated the work four years later. The 9-minute score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. 


Unfolding in six contrasting sections, a grand orchestral introduction begins marked Andante maestoso. Following a cadenza, the cello takes up the orchestra tune with declamatory lyricism. Cellos and basses hint at the next haunting Andante with pizzicato. Dotted rhythms foreshadow the upcoming Allegretto, which will use the same theme from Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 and Brahms's Hungarian Dance No. 15. The technically demanding Presto, a perpetual motion, hurls sprinting scales with ascending and descending figurations. With the same theme from Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.8, a second slow and soulful Adagio is a moment of reprieve before a fiery Allegro vivace finale. The work concludes with a compilation of sorts, using themes from Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies 6, 8, and 14. Popper premiered the work in Budapest on April 4, 1893, and dedicated it to Belgian cellist Jean Gérardy.


David Popper was born on June 16, 1843, in Prague, Czechia, and died on August 7, 1913, in Baden bei Wien, Austria. © MTF

(Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai)


2019 National Sphinx Competition winner Sterling Elliot and maestro Dane Lam join forces with your Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra in a program with six degrees of separation. A lost treasure rediscovered, Mahler's Blumine, once part of the mammoth First Symphony, sounds once more along with Popper's electrifying Hungarian Rhapsody, Brahms's radiant Symphony No. 2, and the spellbinding Clockwerk of Australian composer Maria Grenfell.

bottom of page