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Matthew Gelbart

Brahms and the Roma

There are several stories of the composer passing hours listening with fascination to virtuosic Romani bands.

Romani bands

Johannes Brahms (1833–97) had a close relationship with the “Hungarian Gypsy” style throughout his entire adult life. There is evidence that relatively early on, he heard Romani bands playing in his native Hamburg.

By the time he was in his late teens, he had become an accompanist for the Hungarian virtuoso violinist Ede Reményi, who had fled from Hungary to avoid persecution after the failed revolution of 1848. Brahms toured with Reményi in the early 1850s, and they played arrangements of various Hungarian Romani songs.

Later, Brahms moved to Vienna, where he made many Hungarian friends, and both visited and toured Hungary several times. There are several stories of the composer passing hours listening with fascination to virtuosic Romani bands, both in the Prater in Vienna and during his visits to Budapest.

The style hongrois (“Hungarian style”)

It appears that Brahms, more than perhaps any other famous “art music” composer, conceived of “Gypsy fiddlers” not only as exotic stereotypes but as capable musicians who had forged a style potentially compatible with the German idioms he most prized.

All these contacts left a strong mark on Brahms’s music, and the resulting influence runs the gamut from vaguely “Hungarian” passages in a large number of pieces to the publication of the famous Hungarian Dances for four-hands piano (in sets dating from 1869 and 1880).

What is perhaps most rare in the case of Brahms (although Schubert may have served as precedent to some extent) is that, especially later in his life, he incorporated the style hongrois not only into the stereotypically rubato accelerating slow pieces and “fiery” fast pieces but into his most “serious” slow movements.

It appears that Brahms, more than perhaps any other famous “art music” composer, conceived of “Gypsy fiddlers” not only as exotic stereotypes, but as capable musicians who had forged a style potentially compatible with the German idioms he most prized.

“Gypsy Rondo”

Let us consider some of the most famous examples of Brahms’s “Gypsy” style. Among the earliest to be published was the “Gypsy Rondo” (Rondo alla Zingarese) finale from the composer’s first Piano Quartet, Op. 25.

The style presented here is archetypal, with its accented, percussive rhythms, the minor key and the frequent grace notes. Furthermore, the tradition of the rapid finale in light-hearted “Gypsy style” had a strong pedigree in chamber works for piano and strings: Brahms surely paid a certain homage here to Haydn’s famous “Gypsy Rondo” from his G Major Piano Trio, Hob. XV:25.

The Hungarian Dances were described by Brahms as ‘genuine children of the Puszta and Gypsies. Not begot by me, merely nourished by me on milk and bread.’

The Hungarian Dances

It is in the Hungarian Dances that Brahms used the “Gypsy” style most consistently. He had a habit of not giving opus numbers to works when he saw himself as the arranger rather than the composer, and that was true in the case of these pieces. Brahms probably composed three of the twenty-one dances himself, but the others can be traced to various pre-existent melodies, around many of which Brahms and Reményi had improvised when they had toured together.

As with Brahms’s settings of the German Folksongs, the composer showed great care and skill with arrangement, using his favourite compositional and contrapuntal techniques. In a letter to his publisher Simrock, he called the short dances ‘genuine children of the Pusta and Gypsies. Not begot by me, merely nourished by me on milk and bread’ (Quoted in Avins 363).

The Hungarian Dances became some of Brahms’s most famous and popular works. The composer later arranged them for solo piano as well. Slow and fast, they combine typical styles rooted in verbunkos and csárdás music. They also include passages that imitate the cimbalom, such as the tremolo at the opening of dance No. 4.

Zigeunerlieder and the Clarinet Quintet

In the 1880s, Brahms turned to arrangement once again, this time of vocal pieces. His Zigeunerlieder Opp. 103 and 112, which set German translations of songs published by Zoltán Nagy in Hungarian, are much looser arrangements, however, in which he took significantly more liberty with the melodies that he took from Nagy’s collection as inspiration (and it was for this reason that he gave the works opus numbers).

The texts of the Zigeunerlieder are first-person love songs ranging from invocations by outsiders (‘Hey, Gypsy, Strike Up the Strings!’) to a description of a presumably interracial dance (‘The Brown Lad Leads his Beautiful Blue-eyed Girl to the Dance’).

Musically, the Zigeunerlieder intermittently integrate the exotic elements into Brahms’s more German style, and this is not an isolated case: toward the end of his life, Brahms increasingly slipped into and out of the “Hungarian style” in a fluid integration with other influences on his music.

Moreover, he increasingly turned to style hongrois elements in slow movements in chamber music (and other larger-scale) works. Examples are the slow movement of the Violin Sonata Opus 100 and the adagios of the String Quintet Op. 111 and the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. In the last-named, the middle section in minor features rhapsodic runs in the clarinet accenting augmented seconds.

A mark of the fluidity of influence here is that the hushed tremolos in the other instrumental parts are both common in string chamber music and once again reminiscent of the cimbalom.

Taking Roma out of the equation?

As the musicologist Margaret Notley has outlined, slow movements came to be seen by nationalists in the last decades of the nineteenth century as the “profoundest”, “deepest” and therefore most “German” music. That status could rub off, too. Hungarian critics and historians were quick to note Hungarian influence on the most esteemed music of great German composers.

It is sadly predictable to see later historians take credit away from Romani musicians whenever they do not promote fantasies of over-emotional, unthinking children of nature or the commercial corruption of the true folk song.

Predictably, however, especially after Bartók’s attempts to separate Romani music and influence from “true Hungarian folk music” in the early twentieth century (see Bartók, Sárosi, and the Question of Origins in Romani Musicianship), historians suddenly stopped calling referring to the “Gypsy” style.

Lajos Koch, for example, claimed that in his late slow movements, Brahms had moved away from being influenced by Romani music and was now invoking ‘the true, unadulterated character of Hungarian folk music’ (Ebert 155).

Obviously, Brahms, acting on the nineteenth-century assumption that Hungarian folk music was cultivated and created mainly by Roma, would not and could not have made that distinction (See Notley 195). His idea of Hungarian music was “Gypsy music”.

Indeed, Koch’s claim is even more ridiculous when he repeats similar assertions about the Zigeunerlieder, as though Brahms would have dissociated these from “Gypsiness”! In these works, Koch suggests, ‘Brahms leaves aside Gypsy bombast, the exaggerated, hardly sensible virtuosic runs and the excessive rubatos [sic] – the worst butchering of the Hungarian folksong’ and instead gives us the ‘Hungarian element in its purest and most natural form’ (Ebert 163).

Toward the end of his life, Brahms integrated the Hungarian-Romani style seamlessly into his own, not least in the most German of German movements.

While it is sadly predictable to see later historians take credit away from Romani musicians whenever they do not promote fantasies of over-emotional, unthinking children of nature or the commercial corruption of the true folk song, there is nevertheless an intriguing aspect to these observations about Brahms’s late style.

It is certain that Brahms, one of the most skilled composers ever at setting one melody against another and at pacing and unfolding music over time, would bring his own personal style to Hungarian Romani music.

But given the composer’s own German cultural nationalism – his interest in building primarily on what he saw as centuries of German styles, folk traditions, and musical learning – it is thus all the more striking that towards the end of his life, he integrated the Hungarian-Romani style so seamlessly into his own, not least in the most German of German movements. Indeed, in many cases, he seems to have stopped thinking of the style as “exotic”.

In Brahms’s late style, often seen as “autumnal” and imbued with bittersweet nostalgia, he seems to think of Romani music as part of his past, part of his own growth and evolution as a musician, part of his palette, part of himself.