In search of Romani Music with Brahms

by Gabriel Paquin-Buki

After experiencing first-hand the savour of Romani music (formerly called “Gypsy” music), many composers found in it a tremendous source of inspiration. Among these composers, Brahms was one of the first to seriously incorporate this folk music in his works, notably his Violin Concerto. The following text explains how the young Brahms came to discover Eastern European music, and how his openness in incorporating this music in his own works was unlike his predecessors.

“Orientalism” and Romani Flair

As Franz Liszt pointed out in his writings, from the Classical period to the beginning of Romanticism, composers were not accustomed to giving folk music serious consideration; to their ears, this music could not equal their own creations in terms of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic depth. Because of this, some of the ornaments, intervals, or modulations of Romani music were often presumed to be errors, and the most virtuosic performances by Romani violinists were judged nonsensical, incomprehensible, or even impudent.

According to Liszt, Romani music features three inherent characteristics that are neither to be overlooked nor dissociated: its scale (a minor scale with an augmented fourth), its rhythms (often irregular) and its ornaments (trills, mordents, appoggiaturas, etc.).

Classical minor scale

The “Gipsy” minor scale as described by Liszt, whose distinctive feature is the augmented 4th degree.

It was not, however, unseemly for these same composers to borrow certain selected elements from popular music to lend a touch of whimsy to their works which “thirsted for the picturesque,” to quote music author Mario Bois. A few Romani intonations here, a few turqueries there; in the manner of a Western musical trend named Orientalism, scattered elements of music from other cultures were sprinkled onto an established framework, resulting in pieces that were no less Viennese as a result. A propensity to employ Hungarian folk material is what gave the style hongrois its name, something that quickly rose to popularity in the Classical era, a compelling example being the rondo of Haydn’s “Gypsy” Piano Trio no. 39. But the fact remains that, as a rule, in the 18th century and up until the first half of the 19th century, the paths of classical and folk music hardly ever crossed. Toward the middle of the 19th century, however, certain composers embraced change in their way of perceiving and integrating popular music into their “learned music.” Brahms is a good case in point.

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Jeune bohemienne à la mandoline,1870

Eduard Reményi et Johannes Brahms vers 1853

Brahms’ Romani Accents

In 1848, the young, highly accomplished Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi took refuge in Hamburg after fleeing the revolution that raged in Budapest. As he waited for a place on an outgoing ship to America, he settled in the city and gave a few concerts that blended classical and Romani idioms, and soon became a great celebrity in Germany. One evening, Reményi was hired to play for a wealthy ship owner, who provided him with a young accompanist by the name of Johannes Brahms. Reményi was dumbfounded by Brahms’ talent, his bewildering ability to adapt his playing to a panoply of styles, including Hungarian folk dances. A close collaborative friendship was immediately born. When Reményi returned to the Old Continent after a short time in America, he hired Brahms—who had just turned twenty—to accompany him on an extensive concert tour. For the young composer, what an adventure!

Mornings soon became occupied with perfecting concert repertoire, and Brahms set about developing his accompaniments to the Hungarian dances Reményi would introduce. Brahms could not have imagined the success these works would bring him during his lifetime—and well beyond—, nor the fact that these “Gypsy” sounds, for Brahms, a mix of Hungarian folk tinged with Romani colours, would permeate many future works in his catalogue, including his Violin Concerto. The impact of this tour on Brahms’ life was unmistakable and grew day by day. In addition musical experiences and discoveries the concerts with Reményi would bring, he also tried out some of his new compositions—his Sonata in C major, op.1, for example—and make some thoroughly decisive encounters. In Hanover he paid a visit to the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim, who would play a critical role in his musical output and to whom he dedicated his Violin Concerto. Shortly thereafter, passing through Weimar, he made the acquaintance of the great Franz Liszt.

Johannes Brahms and Joseph Joachim in 1855

In the years following this tour, Brahms enjoyed collecting Hungarian folk melodies and incorporating them in his concerts. So successful were these moments in his works that his publisher insisted that he issue relevant excerpts. Brahms rejoined, however, that “passages that we have played so freely, and for such a long time, are very difficult to notate.” Indeed, transcribing this folk music remains an awkward task for classical musicians, especially with respect to ornamentation: Hungarian folk music does not easily lend itself to being tamed and confined to classical notation. Nevertheless, Brahms took up the challenge and in time, came to rank among the classical composers who contributed the most to raising the profile of Eastern European folk melodies. In this endeavour, Brahms was joined by Liszt and Kodály; all three are reunited in the concert Brahms’ Romani Accents, presented on October 20 and 21. Be carried away by their folk-inspired works as French conductor Lionel Bringuier leads these two concerts at the Maison symphonique.

Score of Brahms Hungarian Dances