Albert Franz and Karl Doppler and the Romani Influence on Hungarian Classical Music

Albert Franz and Karl Doppler and the Romani Influence on Hungarian Classical Music–an essay prepared for Claudi Arimany’s forthcoming 10-CD collection, Flute Music of Albert Franz and Karl Doppler

Any attempt to address the question of Roma—the proper name for people often referred to as Gypsies—influence on Hungarian classical music is a bit like trying to hold a drop of mercury in one’s hand. That liquid element is immediately recognizable, brilliantly silvery, and has a distinctly visible shape, but try to grasp it, divide it, analyze or define it, and the droplet fragments into a thousand equally beautiful, equally reflective particles. Parsing influences is a daunting task, impeded by nationalistic and ethnic sensitivities, the historic absence of a substantial written tradition by the Roma, changing boundaries in Eastern Europe over the last several centuries, and a general lack of knowledge regarding Europe’s largest minority. And the question of the Romani imprint on European classical music is only a part of a larger and perhaps even more important human question of learning to understand the culture and legacy of a group that claims no geographic home solely as its own, but has remained through the centuries the manifest bearer of artistic traditions in each country it has inhabited.
Romani musical influences—from urban virtuoso soloists to iconic village bands—permeate a range of Hungarian classical music: symphonies, operas and operettas, songs, chamber and solo works by composers including Franz Lizst, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Ernö von Dohnányi, Franz Lehár, Leopold Goldmark, and György Ligeti. Hungarian instrumentalists Leopold Auer, Jeno Hubay, David Popper, Joseph Szigeti, Eduard Remenyi, Zoltán Kocsis, Albert Franz and Karl Doppler; conductors Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Anton Seidl, Antal Dorati, Georg Solti, Zoltán Kocsis, Iván Fischer; singers Éva Marton, Sylvia Sass, and Márta Sebestyén; and the magnificent Takács Quartet are just a small fraction of the legendary classical musicians and pedagogues associated with this astoundingly music-loving country. Can we separate the output of these artists from the musical environments and formative experiences of their artistic growth?

In 1861, the great violinist and teacher Joseph Joachim recalled his impressions of renowned Roma violinist Ferkó Patikárus: “never had my mood been so stirred by a musical performance as by this.” Franz Liszt was electrified by the playing of numerous Roma musicians and attempted to capture their musical idiom in his Hungarian Rhapsodies and other works. In 1859, in Paris, he published Des bohémiens et de leur musique en Hongrie, enthusiastically crediting the creation of a Hungarian national music to the Roma. Liszt’s book stirred a fiery controversy—a nationalist argument that maintains its vehemence to the present day. Countless memoirs, compositions, and biographies of Hungarian artists, and indeed even the writings of Beethoven, Haydn, and European royals, cite the powerful emotional impression made by Roma musicians such as János Bihari, Béla Radics, Jancsi Sági Balog, János Salamon, János Lavotta, Pál Tendi, their exquisitely nuanced violin and cimbalom playing, and their ciganyzene (Gypsy music)—verbunkos (recruiting dances) and czárdás (two-step dances)—so pervasive in Hungarian musical life. In some cases, styles and forms intermingle like colorant dissolved into water, and in others, they remain as distinct as the droplets of mercury we find we cannot grasp in our hands.

Angus Fraser, in his informative book, The Gypsies, describes the historic integration of 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, Des Bohémiens et de leur musique en Hongrie, gives 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, troupes 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 might equally describe the Doppler brothers’ flute writing in Hungarian-flavored works heard in this set of discs. It could also describe techniques Liszt used in his own Hungarian Rhapsodies, six of which Albert Franz Doppler orchestrated and published. Rhapsodies Nos. 3 and 11, in particular, are filled with the augmented seconds and shimmering cimbalom-like writing that are typical markers of Romani influence. The nineteen Rhapsodies, as a whole, exude a sense of exultation, wild passion, freedom of form and expression that were the quintessential qualities of the finest Roma virtuosi—and the defining characteristics of instrumental music in the high Romantic era as well. The Romantic yearning for ecstasy, the sublime, and oneness with nature, the longing for something that Sigmund Freud later described as the “sensation of eternity, of something limitless, unbounded, something ‘oceanic’” has been pursued by artists for centuries. Around the year 1600, composers belonging to the elite Florentine camerata had attempted to recapture the phenomenon of “intoxication by music,” as described by the ancient Greeks. Those experiments resulted in the birth of opera. The Greek idea that music held the power to move men and the success of the greatest Roma performers in achieving exactly that effect held an enormous attraction for a wide public.

Other composers, writers, and artists of Liszt’s and the Doppler brothers’ 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, and Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs are just a few of the works inspired by the lives and art of these often misunderstood people. Romani influence is apparent in much of the output of flutist-brothers Albert Franz (1821-83) and Karl Doppler (1825-1900), who like Lizst and many other nineteenth-century musicians, enjoyed dual careers as performers and composers. Additionally, each of the Doppler brothers spent decades as flutists and conductors in Austrian and Hungarian theaters in the ultimate years of the bel canto opera era, when beauty of sound production, the dramatic quality of the breath, and long, spinning lines prevailed as musical values.

The Dopplers skillfully integrated both improvisatory and rhythmic elements characteristic of both virtuoso urban and village Romani musicians into their enormous catalogue of flute compositions, exploiting the vocal, registral, and rhythmic-percussive capabilities of the instrument. Albert Franz Doppler’s best-known flute work, Fantaisie pastorale hongroise, Op. 26, is a paradigm of a Romani-influenced classical piece and has landed at the core of the repertoire, universally beloved by flutists. The atmospheric modal opening, at times evoking a shepherd’s pipe, is ornamented with delicate appoggiaturas and turns. The work progresses through dance-like sequences and ends in a rollicking czárdás. The cadenzas provide the performer with ample opportunity for ardent outpourings, interspersed between songful melodies and brilliant passage work. (In this writer’s opinion, student flutists could gain crucial stylistic knowledge by listening to recordings of great Roma violinists including Ferenc Sánta, Sándor and Roby Lakatos, and cimbalomist Kálmán Balogh in order to hear descendants of the musical dynasties that inspired the Doppler brothers. Village music recordings by the Szászcsávás Band and Muzsikás Folk Ensemble would provide further valuable context.)

The history of the Roma is a long, complex, and painful saga of a rich culture—a narrative that has largely been transmitted through oral tradition. Attitudes toward the Roma and the diverse subgroups under the umbrella of that broad appellation—Romanichals, Manouche, Sinti, Ashakli, Beyash, Romanlar, Domari, Lom, and many others—are fraught with misunderstanding and prejudice. Ian Hancock, Romani scholar and former 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 commonly believed, though, that the original group travelled from northern India to Persia around the tenth century. Even at this early point in their history, many of them were identified as musicians. From Persia they proceeded to Armenia, Anatolia, the Byzantine Empire, Greece, the Balkans, the Kingdom of Hungary, Transylvania, and subsequently, throughout the European countries. In many of the nations 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 sometimes cultivated by the Roma themselves as a protection against hostile authorities.
Frequently in their history, the Roma have suffered barbarous oppression. In Spain, by the end of the seventeenth century, the royals sought so fervently to settle transient Roma that they were allowed to live only in places that had two hundred or more inhabitants. Moreover, they needed written permission to travel and were prohibited from engaging in any profession unconnected with cultivation. The Roma—known in Spain as Gitanos—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. This situation continued to deteriorate through the first half of the eighteenth century and reached a climax in July of 1749 when King 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 World War II Holocaust, in which as many as half a million Roma were deported and massacred by the Nazis. Twenty-three thousand Roma were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, at least 19,000 of whom were murdered there. Those that survived were “redistributed” and to this day remain largely uncompensated by the German government. In Wallachia and Moldavia, Roma were enslaved for five hundred years, not achieving full freedom until 1856.

In earlier centuries, Roma were known for their expertise in professions that could co-exist with an itinerant life: metalworking, basket-making, horse-dealing, hawking, knife grinding, and, of course, as professional entertainers—bear trainers, musicians, card and palm readers. In cultures that historically possessed little written legacy (although this is now rapidly changing), music served the important function of reinforcing and transmitting traditions through generations. Music was a critical strand in the fabric of life. It marked not only important celebrations and holidays, but served as a vehicle to express centuries of bitter experience.

In Hungary, where changing social and political conditions have threatened musical traditions previously handed down from parent to child, the Roma, determined to preserve important elements of their own ways of life, have also succeeded in preserving a larger repertoire in danger of extinction. Ironically—given the history of the Roma—these works of music number among the most recognizable elements, not only of so-called “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—who today form the largest minority in Europe (as many as twelve million)—the Roma have triumphed through the enduring strength of their culture. It is this very culture that has helped make Hungarian music—including the brilliant and passionate works of the Doppler brothers—known throughout the world and eternally intertwined with its Romani inspirations.
–Sato Moughalian, flutist and Artistic Director, Perspectives Ensemble ©2016

Support for this essay was graciously provided by the Jarvis & Constance Doctorow Family Foundation