Romani Music: The Synthesis of Western and Eastern Europe

A nomadic people from Northern India (known as Romani) traveled as far west in Europe as Ireland and acted as entertainers and tradesmen.  Their dress and traditions may have differed from area to area, and they may have been known by different names, e.g., tinkers or travelers in Ireland, Romany in Scotland, Gypsies in England.  (As a side note, you may want to watch the Katharine Hepburn movie, The Little Minister (1934), an adaptation of the 1897 J.M. Barrie play of the same name, in order to understand how the Scots felt about the Romani.  However, what you will also hear is a beguiling score, written by Max Steiner for the movie, interlacing traditional Scottish airs, such as “The Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond,” “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” and “House of Argyle,” in with his own music.)

In Spain, the Romani are known as Gitanos and have contributed significantly to the Andalusian musical tradition known as flamenco.

Donát Bihari, Hungarian Violinist

Janos Bihari

In Hungary, Janos Bihari (1764-1827) was a virtuoso violinist of whom Franz Liszt said: “The tones sung by his magic violin flow on our enchanted ears like the tears….”  It has been said that Bihari’s melodies were used by Liszt, Ludwig van Beethoven and others.  He was born in the city of Nagybony, a Hungarian settlement that is now part of Slovakia.  Bihari was an accepted classical musician, but he was also Romani and an interpreter of verbunkos, a Hungarian dance and music genre.  It was said that under Bihari and Jozsef Kossovits verbunkos were interpreted with characteristic Gypsy style.

By 1837, the verbunkos style is said to have changed again under the influence of Ferenc Erkel, a composer of opera (Hunyadi Laszlo, 1844).  Bela Bartok’s Contrasts (1938) has a first movement, named “Verbunkos.” Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 is also considered to be an example of the verbunkos style.

Another traditional Hungarian folk dance is Czardas, derived from csarda (an old Hungarian term for “tavern”).  The dance was popularized by Romani music bands in Hungary and neighboring lands of Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Moravia and Bulgaria.  A good example of the Czardas (we use the historical spelling, although modern spelling goes back to the Hungarian word, csardas) is Vittorio Monti’s “Csardas” (1904), here performed by the United States Air Force Band. 

Note the irony of an Italian composer writing a Czardas in 1904 that has been played by every Romani musician since then.  This is yet another example of cross-cultural development of music.

Classic composers who have used Czardas themes in their works include Emmerich Kalman (many of whose shows were imported to Broadway), Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahams, Leo Delibes, Johann Strauss and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

One of the great orchestral works using traditional Czardas was Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, C sharp minor.  We are providing a recording by Valentina Lisitsa; but we recommend that, unless you are a devotee of the Rhapsody, you start at the 5 minute mark. 

It is said that one of the most famous examples of this dance in vocal music is found in Rosalinde’s songs in Strauss’ Die Fledermaus (1874).