At the beginning of 1846, Berlioz was in Vienna. Following a farewell concert on January 11th, with the virtuoso Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst taking the viola solo in Harold en Italie, the intendant of the Hungarian National Theater, Count Ráday, suggested to Berlioz that if he wished to score a success in Pesth, which Berlioz was to visit, he should arrange the national Hungarian air, Rákóczy-induló, or Rákóczy march. Locked into the forced marriage of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Hungarians were seething with anti-Austrian sentiment, and Berlioz was, after all, from a nation which had seen two revolutions within living memory and was, moreover, widely regarded -- if in a somewhat different sense -- as the most revolutionary of living composers.
He sketched the march the evening before leaving Vienna and completed it upon his arrival in Pesth. It was included in his first concert there, given on February 15, a Sunday morning, with the Roman Carnival Overture, movements from the Symphonie fantastique, and Harold en Italie. Wisely, Berlioz reserved it for last. An open letter to his friend, Humbert Ferrand, included in his Memoirs, describes with inimitable verve one of the most stupendous successes of his career. Before the concert, a newspaper editor, one M. Horváth, after examining Berlioz's arrangement of the Rákóczy air as it lay beneath the hand of the copyist, presented himself to the composer. "Well?" Berlioz asked. "Well -- I'm nervous...You state the theme piano. We, on the contrary, are accustomed to hearing it played fortissimo." With the serene assurance of the great master depicted in August Prinzhofer's pair of oft-reproduced engravings, made just weeks before, Berlioz replied, "Don't worry, you shall have such a forte as you have never heard in your life." Indeed, after a fanfare, the theme is announced by flutes and clarinets, set off by string pizzicati, and repeated several times with suspenseful alternations of loud and soft until, as Berlioz writes, "a long crescendo...with fragments of the theme reintroduced fugally, broken by the dull thud of the bass drum, like the thump of distant cannon...." The excitement was palpable and electric, and "as the orchestra unleashed its full fury and the long-delayed fortissimo burst forth, a tumult of shouting and stamping convulsed the theater...." The piece had to be repeated, to even greater excitement. During his central European tour, Berlioz had begun the composition of La Damnation de Faust. With his arrangement of the Rákóczy air such a superbly accomplished fact, he did not hesitate to designate its opening scene as "the plains of Hungary," and to have Faust, like Hamlet, view troops passing to the strains of the Rákóczy March, for which he added a more elaborate coda. The autograph score was purchased by Count Casimir Batthianyi for 500 francs.