Gypsy Kings


The verbunkos, a Hungarian Roma dance. The musician is playing a gajda, a free-reed pipes made from goatskin (the goat’s head is still attached!).

The third movement of Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major.

The young Brahms first heard Roma music as a boy in Hamburg, which, as a major port on the North Sea, was a way-station to America for refugees from the many failed revolutions throughout Eastern Europe in 1848-49.

In 1853, Brahms embarked on a concert tour with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi. Reményi was himself a refugee of the failed Hungarian revolution of 1848, had been banished from Austria-Hungary, and had fled to the United States. He returned in 1852 and looked up Brahms, whom he’d met and played music when the latter was still a teenager, prior to Reményi’s flight from the authorities.


Reményi (l.) and Brahms in 1852.

Reményi, who claimed Romani ethnicity, was in fact not Roma but Jewish; he was born Eduard Hoffmann. Nevertheless, he introduced Brahms to verbunkos music. Some of the folk melodies that Reményi taught Brahms appear in the latter’s Hungarian Dances for four-hands piano. 

Brahms drew on Hungarian/Romani music in other pieces as well. The last movement of his Op. 25 Piano Quartet in G minor is marked “Rondo alla zingarese” — Rondo in Gypsy style. The sound quality of this live recording is not the best, but I chose it because the young players play it with both passion and authority, and, to my ear, capture the spirit of the “all zingarese” style — the wild, sawing bow-strokes, the heartfelt slurs, and a tempo so fast that it threatens to send the piece spinning out of control. It is not beautiful. It is un-beautiful. Brahms was going for something other than beauty. What was it?

The goal of live musical performance, after all, is to give the impression that this is the first time the piece has ever been played — that the players are making it up as they go along, that it is coming from them, from their deepest emotions, from their spirits.

This is a Romani instrument called a cimbalom.


In his Hungarian Rhapsody no. 11, Franz Liszt (above) directed the pianist to play “quasi un zimbalo” — like a cimbalom. Does the piano sound like the cimbalom?

The distinctions between Romani and Hungarian musics, for Reményi, Brahms, and Liszt, were blurred; both cultures were exotic, “oriental,” other. For Liszt, moreover, Romani music was Hungarian music, and he used sonic ideas of “Gypsy-ness” and “Hungarian-ness” interchangeably in his project to infuse classical music with ethnic nationalism.

Liszt’s “symphonic poem,” Hungaria, a tribute to the failed Hungarian revolution of 1848:

In fact, Liszt, in spite of having been born in Hungary, never learned to speak the Hungarian language; he grew up in a family of musicians who served the noble Esterházy family, and who spoke German and French. Nevertheless, he declared, “I remain from birth to the grave, in heart and mind, a Magyar” (Hungarian).

Other famous examples of “Gypsy” music:

Brahms Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs).

Translation of the first song:

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 11.05.22 AM

The translations and text of all the songs can be read here:

What makes these songs sound Romani?

In his 1875 opera Carmen, Georges Bizet composed music for the Gypsy anti-heroine, Carmen, using Cuban and Spanish music forms. Here is her famous Habanera (a Habanera is a dance form from Havana, Cuba):

Her aria “Près de ramparts de Seville” is a seguidilla, a Spanish dance.

So, as Northern and Central European composers mashed up “Hungarian” with “Romani,” the Southern European composer Bizet mashed up “Spanish” with “Romani.”

An example of actual Spanish Romani music:


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