Close Encounters With Music
The Original Soul Music
By David Mermelstein

In the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, European composers regularly inflected their music with tunes rooted in Gypsy culture, whether heartfelt laments or exuberant dance tunes. The result was a warmly embraced hybrid that bridged cultures by enrichment rather than condescension. The sources of these Gypsy melodies varied from authentic to ersatz, with many folk-like pieces “improved on” by their incorporation into more urbane works. 

It is worth noting that the terms “Gypsy” and “folk” are often used interchangeably, even though the overlap is far from total. In fact, Gypsy music and European folk music are often derived from entirely different sources. But departing from the vernacular just to be musicologically precise risks descending into pedantry. Besides, many of these composers didn’t make such distinctions, so why should we?

The list of composers who wrote works indebted to or influenced by Gypsy music is substantial and prominently includes Joseph Haydn (Piano Trio in G, Hob. XV: 25), Franz Liszt (15 Hungarian Rhapsodies), Johannes Brahms (Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25; 21 Hungarian Dances; and Eight Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103), Antonin Dvorák (7 Ciganske Melodie, Op. 55), Pablo de Sarasate (Zigeunerweisen), Georges Bizet (Carmen) and Maurice Ravel (Tzigane). 

Haydn’s most famous piano trio—in G, Hob. XV: 22—was written in 1795, during his second sojourn in London. It was one of three dedicated to a widow with whom he’d had an affair. The composer had explored the form—for keyboard, violin and cello—at various points in his life, but this trio, with its distinctive Gypsy-like finale, stands out from the rest. (About a decade earlier, the composer had concluded his famous D-major Piano Concerto in similar fashion.) Nothing in the trio’s elegant opening, an exquisitely proportioned Andante, hints at that conclusion. Nor do Romany airs infiltrate the calm of the subsequent movement, marked Poco adagio-Cantabile. But in the sort of surprise we’ve come to expect from Haydn, the finale is a colorfully rustic Rondo all’Ungarese, in spirited Presto mode. 

Brahms’s G-minor Piano Quartet (Op. 25) marks his initial foray into a form he would revisit twice more. He began work on these pieces in 1855, finishing the first two in the early 1860s and the third nearly a dozen years later. The G-minor was premiered in Hamburg on November 16, 1862, with Clara Schumann at the piano. Exactly one year later, Brahms himself would play the keyboard in this piece as he made his public performance debut in Vienna. The string players were members of the Hellmesberger Quartet, the city’s premier chamber ensemble. 

As can be gleaned from an essay by Christopher H. Gibbs in The Compleat Brahms (Norton, 1999), reaction to the G-minor quartet was mixed. Reviewing that concert and one two weeks later at which the Second Piano Quartet received its premiere, the respected critic Eduard Hanslick described the G-minor’s themes as “insignificant…dry and prosaic.” Such an opinion seems downright churlish given the tuneful invention of the work in general, and its finale in particular. That fourth and final movement—Rondo all zingarese: Presto; meno presto; Molto presto—is among the most energetic and colorful in all chamber music, its considerable vigor unleashed at the outset and continuing, with only brief pauses, until the movement’s breakneck final pages. 

Clara Schumann, though, apparently loved the last movement. Even greater encomium came from the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, a friend to Brahms and one of his music’s most persuasive executants. Only a few years before, Joachim had dedicated his Hungarian Concerto for violin to Brahms. Now, in response to the G-minor quartet, he wrote: “You have outstripped me on my own territory by a considerable track.” 

But highest praise for this singular composition came some 65 years after the premiere, when Arnold Schoenberg opted to orchestrate it, the premiere given in Los Angeles by Otto Klemperer. Explaining himself to a local critic, Schoenberg enumerated his reasons for undertaking the task: “1. I like the piece. 2. It is seldom played. 3. It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.” (We trust the performance you are about to experience will allow you to hear everything even without Schoenberg’s orchestration.)

Among the most unusual claims to fame of Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875) is the presence of a Gypsy as the eponymous, albeit hardly sympathetic, lead. Yes, Gypsies had appeared in operas before this one. They play important roles in Verdi’s Il Trovatore (1853) and Un Ballo in Maschera (1859). But not until Carmen did a Gypsy dominate an opera. Bullfighting and dragoons notwithstanding, Carmen is an opera about Gypsy passion. That said, Bizet’s score is remarkably devoid of musical references to the Roma. Carmen’s famous “Habanera,” the supreme musical expression of her untamed spirit, was, in fact, adapted by the composer from a Cuban song and dance form, as is suggested by its name, derived from Cuba’s capital city. 

Even the “Seguidilla,” through which Carmen seduces the callow Don José at the end of the opera’s first act, derives not from a Roma tune or form, but rather from a Spanish dance first mentioned by Cervantes and his contemporaries near the beginning of the 17th century. The term seguidilla also defines a type of flamenco music, and some scholars believe that flamenco, which originated in Andalusia, was a byproduct of that region’s multiethnic culture, in which Roma, Muslim and Jewish musical forms intermingled. In any case, the capital of Andalusia is Seville, which is where Carmen is set. 

In his memoir With Strings Attached (Knopf, 1947), the sublime violinist Joseph Szigeti calls Ravel’s Tzigane a “brilliant…synthetically produced pastiche.” As a native-born Hungarian, Szigeti readily acknowledges that his own “somewhat chauvinistic ‘hands-off’ attitude when it came to Hungarian folk lore” may have annoyed the composer, with whom he enjoyed a warm friendship. But Szigeti then lauds Ravel’s gifts for a similar effort, relating how in the early 1900s Ravel had entered a contest in Moscow for the harmonization of folk songs. Having written seven songs on popular themes from various countries, Ravel won four of 10 prizes: French, Italian, Hebrew and Spanish. 

For those of us less sensitive to questions of Gypsy authenticity, Tzigane seems the quintessential Gypsy work by a “serious” composer, a perfect amalgam of Romany gusto and classical craft. It was composed in 1924 for Szigeti’s compatriot Jelly d’Aranyi, a grandniece of Joachim, who not long before had introduced both of Béla Bartók’s two unaccompanied Violin Sonatas. D’Aranyi performed Tzigane with piano accompaniment, which is how the piece is generally played on chamber programs (there is a slightly later orchestral arrangement as well). But Ravel had also prepared a version of this piece for violin and luthéal. 

Invented by a Belgian organ builder, Georges Cloetens, not long before Ravel composed Tzigane, the luthéal was essentially a modified grand piano that, thanks to altered hammers and dampers, produced a sound suggesting a harpsichord or harmonium. More to the point in this case, the luthéal evoked the cimbalom, a Hungarian dulcimer and mainstay of Gypsy orchestras. Though Cloetens’s instrument never gained currency, a couple of modern reproductions have been assembled in recent years, with at least one recording of Tzigane on violin and luthéal resulting. 

Gypsy strains continue to inflect other musical forms to this day. But the impact on what is now called Western art music is negligible. Instead, the influence of the Roma can be most potently experienced in genres like rock and jazz. Yet the appeal of classical-Gypsy hybrids remains strong. Many are among the most beloved pieces in the standard repertory. And classical programs that emphasize Gypsy roots remain popular season after season. If you doubt it, ask yourself why you’re sitting where you are, waiting for the music to begin. 

David Mermelstein writes about classical music for various print and online publications, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg News and MusicalAmerica.com.