In the Hungarian Fantasy, Franz Liszt reworks the popular songs, verbunk melodies and dance material performed by Hungarian gypsy musicians which also formed the basis of his Hungarian Rhapsodies. The composers of these melodies are unknown, but some of the tunes were published in a Hungarian collection issued in 1847. Others we must presume Liszt heard and noted down himself. This Fantasy was written in 1852 and at its Pest premiere, the piano solo was performed by Hans von Bülow with an orchestra conducted by Ferenc Erkel. Liszt was not present at this concert, organised at the National Theatre, and the event was somewhat bereft of the anticipated “star” glamour. Indeed contemporary newspapers make little reference to it, concentrating instead on the two act French comedy, Parisian Loafer which was the other work performed that evening.
The most important, frequently recurring theme of the composition is a folk-like art song which translates as “The crane flew high.”
We hear it at the very beginning of the work in a highly serious guise in the minor (this similar minor key setting features in Liszt's 14th Hungarian Rhapsody in the Marcia Funebre section). The piano initiates the fast section with heroic pathos (Allegro Eroico). The orchestra also assumes the “Crane” theme (this time in the major), while the piano ornaments the melody with breathtaking passage work. New themes are introduced, but after each individual formal section, the “Crane” melody resounds. In his notebook, Liszt described the theme of the final larger unit before the climax as the Poet's Csardas. The composer furnishes the work with a highly effective coda again utilising the “Crane” melody.