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:

Free, But Lonely


(Joseph Joachim in 1868.)

“Frei Aber Einsam” — Free but lonely — was the personal motto of Brahms’s best friend, the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. In 1853, for Joachim’s twenty-seconnd birthday, Robert Schumann, his composition student Albert Dietrich, and Brahms decided to collaborate on a present for their friend: a sonata for violin and piano based on the musical notes F, A, and E, in honor of Joachim’s motto.


The title page is inscribed:

F.A.E.: In Erwartung der Ankunft des verehrten und geliebten Freundes JOSEPH JOACHIM schrieben diese Sonate R.S., J.B., A.D.

(F.A.E.: In expectation of the arrival of their revered and beloved friend, Joseph Joachim, this sonata was written by R.S., J.B., A.D.)

Brahms wrote the third movement, a scherzo.

The propulsive rhythm of Brahms’s contribution should be a bit . . . familiar to you.

Do  you think Brahms was consciously imitating Beethoven?


Don’t forget that earlier that same month — October, 1853 — Schumann had written an article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in which he essentially anointed Brahms as the spiritual son of Beethoven, calling him

one whose mastery would not gradually unfold but, like Minerva, would spring fully armed from the head of Jupiter. And now he has arrived, a young blood, at whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch. His name is Johannes Brahms, . .  His comrades greet him at his first entrance into the world of art, where wounds may perhaps await him, but bay and laurel also; we welcome him as a valiant warrior.

Schumann was a very influential composer and critic, and this essay, entitled “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths) — in your course reading packet — was read as far away as America, where it was published in translation in the New-York Herald Tribune as well as other papers. “Neue Bahnen” made Brahms’s career.

It has been suggested that Schumann had been actively looking for someone to inherit the mantle of German music after the death of Beethoven — someone who was not a member of the Lisztian New German School, which he detested, but a proponent of “pure” (absolute) music.

What must it have been like for Brahms, at twenty, to have to live up to this hype?

Incidentally, Joachim was one of the first violinists to make recordings, and, when, in the early days of Youtube, I found some uploads of his remastered recordings, it was thrilling to hear his unadorned style, with very little vibrato; it gave me some idea of the way that Brahms wanted his music to sound. Here is Joachim playing his Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no. 1.