A child prodigy

Panna Cinka (Panna Cinková), or in the traditional Hungarian name order and spelling, Czinka Panna, was one of the first stars of Hungary’s ‘Gypsy music.’ Born around 1711 to a musical family, she was a child prodigy who attracted the patronage of the local Hungarian magnate, János Lányi, who facilitated her receiving further violin instruction from another Romani musician from a nearby town.

After her marriage at age 14 or 15, she formed a four-part ensemble: she led on violin, her husband played bass, and her brothers-in-law played cimbalom and kontra (chordal accompaniment on violin or viola). Her sons later replaced her brothers-in-law in her band. The band received land and uniforms from Lányi and appeared at his house every day, but also performed frequently among the Hungarian nobility and others in the surrounding area, even performing for Empress Maria Teresa before her death in 1772.

That date, recorded in a lengthy obituary written in Latin (probably by a student fan), commemorated with Panna’s ‘black beauty,’ her pipe-smoking, her laughter, and above all her ability, through her violin playing, to exert a ‘truly magical force’ over Hungarian dances and over her audiences. (J. Waigand, ‘Totenklage über Panna Czinka,’ Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 12, no. 1-4 (1970), 302.)

A historical first?

According to Bálint Sárosi, Panna Czinka’s group was the earliest known ensemble using the instrumentation of the ‘classical’ Hungarian Gypsy band (violin, kontra, cimbalom, bass), and ‘Thus Panna Czinka can be regarded as the first [Hungarian G]ypsy leader [primás] in the modern sense of the word.’ (Bálint Sárosi, Gypsy Music (Budapest: Corvina, 1978), 71.)

In some versions of her story Czinka was the composer of the Rákóczi march, a musical icon of Hungarian identity from this period, although Rákóczi’s rebellion ended before she was born; another tune bearing her name – ‘Panna Czinka’s song’ [Czinka Panna nótája] – circulated in the nineteenth century, including one spectacular arrangement as one of the Scènes de la csárda sur des melodies anciennes hongroises (op. 65, no. 9) by Hungarian violinist and pedagogue Jenő Hubay (1858-1937).

An exceptional legend

But despite Czinka’s fame and her prominent role in its founding, few women have followed her into this genre. Rather Czinka, to the slight degree that her biography has been written at all, played the part of an ‘exception woman’: ‘the very magnitude of her achievement serves to allay fears about the invisibility of other women.’ (Ruth Solie, ‘Clara Schumann: Artist and Woman, by Nancy Reich [Review],’ 19th-c. Music 10, no. 1 (1986), 75. Borrowing this concept that came to be in the context of art music practiced by white Europeans is not, of course, without its problems for a non-white ‘folk musician.’)

Czinka became a ‘legend,’ her story retold and used as an inspiration to Roma children throughout the Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian-speaking lands of Central Europe, depicted in stories, novels, poems, plays, paintings, and at least one film. The image and reality of the Gypsy violin virtuoso through the next two-and-a-half centuries, however, has remained overwhelmingly though not exclusively male.