Romani Influence on Hungarian Classical Music

Perspectives Ensemble

Familiar Strangers: Gypsy Musical Heritage – Hungary

Tisch Center for the Arts, 92nd Street Y

Program Notes by Sato Moughalian © 2013


Any attempt to address the question of the Roma (the preferred name for people commonly referred to as Gypsies) influence on the classical music of Hungary is a bit like trying to hold a drop of mercury in one’s hand. The mercury is immediately recognizable, brilliantly silvery, and has a distinctly visible shape, but try to grasp it, divide it, analyze or define it, and it fragments into a thousand equally beautiful, equally reflective particles. It is a daunting task, impeded by nationalistic and ethnic sensitivities, complexities in scholarship, the historic absence of a substantial written tradition by the Roma, and a blur of changing political boundaries in Eastern Europe over the last several centuries. The questions of Roma influences are only a part of a larger and perhaps even more important human question of trying to understand the culture and legacy of a group that claims no geographic home solely as its own, but has remained steadfastly through the centuries the invaluable bearer of artistic traditions in each country it has inhabited– traditions that are tragically today threatened with extinction in the face of electronic media, shorter attention spans, changing popular tastes, and worldwide migration from rural to urban centers. It is also an immense challenge simply to sort through the stylistic influences that permeate the range of Hungarian classical music and its performers–from the orchestral masterpieces, operas and operettas, chamber works, songs, and solo piano music of Franz Lizst, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Ernö von Dohnányi, Franz Lehár, and Leopold Goldmark, to the worldwide influences of the teaching and playing of Leopold Auer, Joseph Joachim, Jeno Hubay, the virtuosos David Popper, Joseph Szigeti, Eduard Remenyi; and of the great conductors Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Anton Seidl, and Antal Dorati. These names represent just a fraction of the enormous musical heritage of this astoundingly music-loving country. Can we separate the work of these men from the formative experiences and environment of their artistic growth? Is it necessary to find a pristine definition of source and influence or must we find ourselves mimicking the dialogue of a bickering couple in court in the midst of a messy divorce?  In 1861 the great Joachim graciously expressed his impressions of the renowned Roma violinist Ferkó Patikárus saying, “never had his mood been so stirred by a musical performance as by this.” Franz Liszt was so electrified by the playing of the numerous Roma musicians he heard that not only did he immortalize their musical idiom in his Hungarian Rhapsodies and other works, but in 1859 published in Paris his two-volume work Les bohémiens et leur musique en Hongrie, (raising also the comparison between the fates of the Gypsies and the Jews) enthusiastically over-crediting–in his romantically poetic and inimitably scandal-raising manner—the creation of a Hungarian national music to the Roma. Liszt’s book stirred a fiery controversy about the question of the relation of Roma music and musicians to Hungarian music—an argument that maintains its vehemence up to the present day. It is indisputable, though, that in countless memoirs, compositions, and biographies of Hungarian artists, indeed in those of Beethoven, Haydn and European royals, we hear repeatedly of the impact of such Roma musicians as János Bihari, Béla Radics, Jancsi Sági Balog, János Salamon, Pál Tendi–of their ciganyzene (Gypsy music), verbunkos (recruiting dance) and czárdás (two-step dances), virtuoso violin and cimbalom music, so present in Hungarian musical life, in some cases as intermingled as food coloring when mixed in water, and in other cases as distinct as the droplets of mercury  we find we cannot grasp in our hands.

Tonight we present only a small sampling of the Hungarian Roma musical heritage and the classical works that are influenced by it, limited primarily to the medium which is most closely associated in the minds of the general public with the idea of Hungarian Gypsy music–namely, music for strings and cimbalom. We have included both works of the village style, as performed by the Szászcsávás Band, and the more floridly virtuosic style which many Hungarians refer to affectionately as the “restaurant” or urban style. Over the years, a great many Roma violin virtuosi have literally made their livelihoods performing in restaurants, hotels, and at popular spectacles. The greatest of these musicians,  (including the dynastic families of violinists) are represented today by a new generation of virtuosi who are actively performing and recording. What is even more remarkable about the musical achievement of the Roma who have excelled in this latter style, is that the great conservatories of Hungary denied them access until fairly recently. Mr. Sánta is one of the first Roma graduates of the Ferenc Liszt Academy in Budapest, and is also a member of an esteemed family tradition of musicianship.


As a starting point, though, we offer the Fantaisie Pastorale Hongroise of Albert Ferenc Doppler (1821-83), a work that stands squarely in the center of the flute repertoire and has enjoyed immense popularity over the years, perhaps precisely because it captures almost iconically those qualities which characterize a “Gypsy-influenced” piece: the copious use of the interval of the augmented second (which lends the composition an “oriental” harmonic flavor) and the long, improvisatory opening section, transforming gradually and finally into a rousing  czárdás-like dance. Doppler was born into a musical family, studying at first with his father, and was a flutist, composer and conductor, as well as a talented orchestrator. He wrote five Hungarian operas, a number of German ones, ballet music and orchestrations of the piano music of Lizst. One can also hear in this work, as in his operas, the influence of the bel canto style, particularly in the short flute cadenzas. He and his brother Karl were instrumental in the founding of the Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra. Although Doppler was a relatively prolific composer, he is remembered today primarily for this work.


The Szászcsávás Band will play selections of slow and fast csárdás dance music from the Székelyföld region of Transylvania. In these remote settlements of Hungarian minorities within present-day Rumania, the musical heritage of each small village is unique. The Szászcsávás Band is popular for its performances of these works throughout this region.


Kálmán Balogh performs his arrangement of a slow lamenting song by the famous late- eighteenth-century cimbalom player Pál Tendi. Tendi’s virtuosity left its legacy in the form of a number of showpieces which remain in the cimbalom repertoire today. This piece will be followed by slow and fast csárdás melodies from the western Hungarian region of Sopron.


Ferenc Sánta will play a selection of compositions by János Bihari (1764-1827), the Gypsy Primas (musical leader) whose consummate artistry as a violinist was legendary. Bihari himself did not read musical notation, but a sizable number of his compositions have been transcribed by others. He was engaged frequently to work for the recruitment of soldiers, particularly around the time of Napoleon’s military campaigns of 1809. The function of the Roma violinist in that situation would have been to play verbunkos, or recruiting dances, which had their origins in popular music, specifically a vigorous kind of male peasant dance that had been used in recruitment events since the mid-18th century.


The great Hungarian violinist Josef Szigeti suggested to clarinetist Benny Goodman that he commission Béla Bartók (1881-1945) to write a chamber work for violin, clarinet and piano. Contrasts in its original form was completed in Budapest in September of 1938. It was, in that first version, a Rhapsody in two movements: Verbunkos and Sebes (Fast). The work was premiered in 1939, and in 1940 Bartók added the beautiful slow middle movement, Pihenö (Rest). Hungary had seen its population decimated by the atrocities of the Great War, and this work, with its evocations of the village music–haunting harmonies, retuned strings, and rousing dance rhythms—evoked the beauties of a vanishing way of life through the musical perspective of one of the 20th-century’s greatest musical geniuses.


Ernö Dohnányi (1877-1960) was an extraordinarily influential Hungarian musician, active as a composer, conductor, pianist, and teacher. He performed an enormous number of concerts as a pianist, and as conductor championed the works of Bartók and numerous other Hungarian composers, insistently keeping them in the public’s view until they found widespread recognition. The second movement of the Ruralica Hungarica, in its violin and piano version (it also exists in versions for solo piano and for orchestra) is called “alla zingaresca.” This is clearly a reference to both the sonorities of a Gypsy violin and cimbalom, evoked by the rolling piano writing, but also the intense, passionately improvisatory writing for the violin. These are the characteristics of the Hallgató, or lamenting song, which precedes tonight’s performance of the Dohnányi. This particular Hallgató is called “Vén Cigány” or “Old Gyspy” and is one of the most typical tunes of this genre.


Angus Fraser, in his excellent book, The Gypsies, describes the integration of the Roma musicians into Hungarian musical life:


In Hungary, a number of the old-established Gypsies (known to others of their race as romungre or Hungarian Rom) had quickly become serviceable to the Magyars as minstrels…Their ascendancy in music was already evident in the mid-eighteenth century, when they became indispensable not only to the folk in the villages but also to the Magyar nobility, and at banquets it became customary for a Gypsy minstrel to stand by the host’s chair, ready to minister to his musical mood. Soon Gypsy bands-led by a virtuoso violinist-were making numerous successful appearances. Individual musicians achieved personal reputations. Untutored, their spontaneous freshness and quickness to adapt ensured a continuing ability to please Hungarian listeners: music-making, rather than smithery, became regarded as the highest of the Gypsy occupations…By the middle of the nineteenth century they were to be found all over: ‘Gypsy music’ was in high fashion.


A description from Liszt’s book Les bohémiens et leur musique en Hongrie does give a vivid image of his impressions of Roma performers in his day: “The gypsy artist is one who takes the theme of a song or a dance just like the text of a discussion, as a poetic memorial, and who moves and flutters round this notion, of which he never loses sight, in the course of his improvisation. Most admired of all is one who lavishly enriches his own subject with runs, appoggiaturas, leaps, tremolos, chord stopping, diatonic and chromatic scales, troups of notes in such a way that on account of this abundance of ornamentation the original idea is scarcely more apparent than the broadcloth in the sleeve of a brown cloak through the artistically worked out lacing and braiding which covers it with a dense and multicolored network.”


This passage could equally well describe Liszt’s own piano writing in the Hungarian Rhapsodies. The works are varied, but Rhapsodies Nos. 3 and 11 are particularly filled with the augmented seconds and cimbalom-like writing that are the typical markers of Roma influence. And the body of the nineteen Rhapsodies as a whole is imbued with the sense of exultation, wild passion, freedom of form and expression that were the qualities of the finest Gypsy performers–and the defining characteristics of the high Romantic era in music as well. This yearning for ecstasy, the sublime, and oneness with nature, the longing for something that Freud somewhat later described as the “sensation of eternity, of something limitless, unbounded, something ‘oceanic’”– something larger than oneself– has been the object of pursuit not only by artists, but by humanity as a whole for centuries.  The sense of intoxication by music described by the ancient Greeks was partly the subject of an attempted reconstruction in the Florentine camerata, around the year 1600—an effort that resulted in the birth of opera. The idea of the power of music to move men, and the success of the greatest Roma performers in accomplishing just that, particularly when they were perceived as social outcasts, has always been exceedingly captivating.


Other composers, writers, and artists of Liszt’s era had fallen deeply under the spell of Romani culture. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, innumerable works drew from Romani traditions with varying degrees of authenticity: Bizet’s Carmen, Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder, Falla’s El Amor Brujo, Johann Strauss’s Gypsy Baron, the virtuoso violin works of Kreisler and Sarasate including La Gitana and Zigeunerweisen, Ravel’s Tzigane, Victor Herbert’s The Fortune Teller, Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs are but a few of the works inspired by aspects of this enigmatic and intriguing culture.
The actual history of the Roma (the preferred term for people commonly referred to as “Gypsy”) is a long, complex, and painful saga of a rich and varied culture that has been primarily transmitted through oral tradition. It is fraught with misunderstanding and prejudice. Ian Hancock, Romani scholar and representative to the United Nations for the International Romani Union, explains:


The understanding of Gypsy identity among the non-Roma is vague, which usually results in prejudice. There are many reasons for that: the association of the Roma with the Islamic takeover of parts of the Christian world; color prejudice, specifically the association of darkness with sin; the exclusionary nature of Romani culture, which does not encourage intimacy with non-Roma and creates suspicion on the part of those excluded; fortune telling, which inspired fear but had to be relied upon as a means of livelihood in response to legislation curtailing Romani movement and choice of occupation;..the fact that the Roma have no territorial, military, political, or economic strength and are therefore easily targetable as scapegoats because they cannot retaliate, and the fact that the “gypsy” persona has an – again unchallenged – ongoing function as a symbol of a simpler, freer time. . .


The early history of the Roma is unclear. It is generally believed, though, that the original group, which may have numbered 12,000 or so, traveled to Persia from northern India in the tenth century. Even at this early point in their history, they were identified as musicians. From Persia they traveled to Armenia, Turkey, the Byzantine Empire, Greece, the Balkans, the Kingdom of Hungary, Transylvania, and ultimately to the Eastern, Central, and Western European countries. In many of the countries they entered, they were viewed as dangerous intruders because of their itinerant ways, their lack of desire to assimilate fully into the local cultures, and the mystery surrounding their origins — a mystery often cultivated by the Roma themselves as a protection against hostile authorities. Frequently in their history, the Roma have been subjected to barbarous oppression. In Spain, in particular, by the end of the seventeenth century, sedentarization of the Roma was a goal so fervently sought by the royals that Roma were allowed to live only in places that had 200 or more inhabitants. Moreover, they needed written permission to travel and they were prohibited from engaging in any profession unconnected with cultivation. They could be seized by local authorities almost at will, and any outsider found guilty of aiding or protecting them could be fined or even sent to the galleys. The situation continued to deteriorate through the first half of the eighteenth century and reached a climax in July 1749 when Ferdinand VI, acting with the advice of the Bishop of Oviedo, devised and instituted a plan to round up approximately 12,000 Roma, including women and children, and send them off to forced labor camps. These actions foreshadowed Hitler’s treatment of the Roma during the Holocaust, in which as many as half a million were deported and massacred by the Nazis. Those that survived were “redistributed” and to this day remain largely uncompensated by the German government. In Wallachia and Moldavia, Roma were enslaved for centuries, not achieving full freedom until 1856.


The Roma have been known traditionally for their expertise in professions that could co-exist with an itinerant life: metalworking, basket-making, horse-dealing, hawking, tinker, knife grinding, and of course, professional entertainers — bear trainers, musicians, card and palm readers. It is astounding that this group has exhibited the strength to survive and maintain its culture in the face of terrible oppression. In a culture with little written legacy, music has served the important function of reinforcing and passing on tradition. Music is a critical strand in the fabric of life, marking not only important celebrations and holidays, but in Roma life serving to express centuries of bitter experience. In Hungary, where changing social conditions have threatened the traditional musical forms that had been handed down through many generations, the Roma have, in their determination to preserve major elements of their way of life, also succeeded in helping to preserve a heritage which has been in danger of extinction. And ironically—given the painful history of the Roma– these traditions number among the most recognizable elements not only of Gypsy art but of Hungarian culture as well. And so in the face of centuries of effort to oppress and even eradicate the “familiar strangers” in a worldwide diaspora–a people who today form the largest minority in Europe (estimated between six and twelve million people)–the Roma have triumphed through the strength of their culture. It is this culture that helped nurture the countless brilliant and passionate works that have helped make Hungarian music known throughout the world and also eternally intertwined with its Roma inspirations.

— Sato Moughalian

For further information:
J.P. Liegeois, Roma, Gypsies, Travellers (Council of Europe Press, 1994)
M.Stewart, The Time of the Gypsies (Westview Press, 1997)
Angus Fraser, The Gypsies (Blackwell Press, 1995)


These three books were recommended to me by the renowned Romani scholar Andrzej Mirga, when I was looking for accurate sources of material on the Roma.


Perspectives Ensemble is deeply grateful to the Trust for Mutual Understanding

for its generous support of this program,

 and to Stuart Stein, Yves Abel, Barbara Taylor, and Jonah Giacalone for their support and assistance.

We would also like to thank Kálmán Magyar of Centrum Management

for his assistance with the participation of our Hungarian guest artists.

Perspectives Ensemble is a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization,

and all contributions in support of our programs are tax deductible

to the full extent of the law.


Perspectives Ensemble

PO Box 3066

Church Street Station

New York   NY   10008


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