Gypsy Kings

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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.

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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. 

This is a Romani instrument called a cimbalom.

Franz-Liszt-oil-canvas-Henri-Lehmann-Carnavalet-1840

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” 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:

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

https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/3917

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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