Haydn and the Gypsies

by Linda Burman-Hall

It is generally not well understood how Gypsies came to play a most significant role in European music-making. Though despised and persecuted as a people and traditionally traded as slaves, the wandering Roma seem to have managed in most cases to maintain some cultural continuity with their ancestors, who are believed to have migrated to Persia from northern India from around 420 BC when 10,000 Luri (a caste of musicians and dancers) were brought at the request of the King. On the move with the Turkish army who used them as professional musicians, the Roma dispersed throughout Europe from the 15th century, living on the fringes of society as tinkers, craftsmen and horsetraders, as well as entertainers. Whether dancing with trained bears or playing for a village wedding, Gypsies in the Austro-Hungarian empire made themselves indispensable as performers to villages of various ethnicities (Saxons, Vlachs, Magyar and Moldavians, etc., to name just the groups of Transylvania).

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Gypsy musicians and bands were beginning to enjoy the patronage of the middle classes and especially the aristocracy, who increasingly regarded their lives and performances as exemplifying an idealized Romantic "freedom". Violinists usually dominated these small bands, which could include viola and cello, or even cimbalom (hammered zither)or various wind instruments. In the Austro-Hungarian court of Esterháza, where the great Joseph Haydn wore servant's livery in his role as royal composer, Gypsy bands played in the courtyard and from 1715 also travelled from village to village accompanying the "strong" dancing of soldiers who recruited continuously for Nicolas the Magnificent's military operations. The style of this verbunkos (the so-called "recruiting" music), -- a deliberate fusion of earlier Gypsy music (such as the 16th century works preserved in organ tablature) and elements of the western European tradition, -- influenced Haydn and other classical composers because it was favored by public taste. As a national fashion this style remained popular through the 19th century with composers such as Beethoven, Hummel, Schubert, Brahms, von Weber, Doppler and especially Liszt writing in a "style Hongrois" influenced by the jagged rhythms and fantastic cadences of the verbunkos style.

Of the many "Hungarian dance" composers from this period, only János Bihari (1764-1827) a virtuoso bandleader, is known to have been of Gypsy origin. Antal Czermak, celebrated as a virtuoso violinist, worked (as did Bihari) in the national opera. From around 1810, when the Rakóczi War of Independence (a military uprising) had failed, the performance of commemorative Hungarian music (like the Rakóczi settings of Matray and Lugasi) acquired nationalist fervor. The settings of Hungarian dances played in the large (up to 6000 capacity) music halls of Vienna by the renowned fortepiano virtuoso Johan Nepomuk Hummel are accurate and enjoyable ethnographic transcriptions, while Rozsavölgyi's "Hungarian" dances show greater influence from the Romantic salon.

The piano trios of Joseph Haydn present vivid imaginative worlds through the cooperation and contrast of of treble and bass instruments whose parts seem to arise from within the virtuoso keyboard part. It is recognized that the years of stability and artistic freedom Haydn enjoyed under the patronage of the Esterháza court supported his numerous path-breaking formal and textural experiments. In these works, spacious lyrical melodies contrast with brilliant final movements influenced by folk dances, including of course the dazzling tunes and rhythms of the popular rondo "in the Gypsies' style". Here as in other "Hungarian Gypsy" works, the fortepiano variously suggests a cimbalom, drones in the manner of the ancient folk hurdy-gurdy, or simply alternates bass notes and chords in the style of Polka music.

Copyright © 1995, Linda Burman-Hall, from Lux Musica, by Lars Johannesson