Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897
Brahms rounds out our program of Hungarian (and Hungarian inspired) music by representing the European classical and romantic eras prior to Kodály and Bartók where stylized “Gypsy” music lent an exotic, rustic and presumably Hungarian folk element to the music of numerous composers from Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Hummel and Weber to Liszt, Brahms and Ravel. Among the most obvious and cherished examples, Haydn wrote a piano trio nicknamed “The Gypsy Rondo” while Liszt (who was Hungarian) wrote his virtuosic Hungarian Rhapsodies and Brahms, his own Hungarian Dances. Like Haydn’s trio, the finale of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in g minor is also a “Gypsy Rondo”, but it is instructive to compare the two composers’ actual titles. Where Brahms wrote “Rondo alla Zingarese” (“in the Gypsy style”), Haydn wrote “Rondo all’Ongarese” (“in the Hungarian Style”). Both the words and the elements of musical style are subject to confusion here. As Kodály and Bartók eventually revealed, the labels “Hungarian” and “Gypsy” are by no means synonymous.
The English word “Gypsy” derives from a misnomer that inaccurately associates the Romani people with “Egypt”. They actually originated in India, migrating sometime before the year 1000 into Eastern Europe, North Africa and up into Spain and France. Nomadic master musicians, they typically absorbed and mimicked the local culture, likely introducing their own elements of style and performance creating a hybrid that was neither strictly “Gypsy” nor, in the case of Hungary, strictly “Hungarian”. Kodály and Bartók discovered older strata of pentatonic Hungarian folk musics not related to the Gypsy-performed verbunkos dances (themselves not of Gypsy origin) just as other countries found Romani “Gypsies” making music of distinctly non-Hungarian cast, for example, Spanish Flamenco. Of course, despite a muddling of labels, styles or ethnic attributions and the significant contrast between the sounds of the classical “Gypsy” rondos on one hand, and the field recordings of Kodály and Bartók on the other, the music of Haydn, Liszt and Brahms is still marvelous music of a distinctive style with authentic origins in Hungary and easily heard within the Austro-Hungarian empire, around the Esterházy estates, or in the streets of Vienna.
A twenty-eight-year-old Brahms wrote his ambitious Piano Quartet No. 1 in g minor in 1861. The third composition in what would become an oeuvre of some twenty-six chamber music masterworks, the quartet enjoys a fine reputation in no small part because of the vigorously effective Gypsy Rondo itself. No less than Arnold Schoenberg found the quartet worthy of his own orchestral transcription. The finale is indeed a tour-de-force of rhythmic and melodic bravado where the sectional form of the rondo serves as a brilliant vehicle for dynamic contrast of the very sort found in traditional Hungarian dances and Bartók’s rhapsodies. In the main refrain, Brahms employs a characteristic 2/4 meter, swift with a stomping dactyl accent on the first beat, a mirror of the Hungarian language that tends to accent the first syllable of each word (as in the words “Kodály” and “Bartók”). In subsequent episodes, Brahms creates fleet and ringing piano textures as if to intentionally evoke the sound of the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer commonly found in Hungary and Romania, particularly among the Gypsies. Brahms leverages a rather subtle and intricate rondo structure for a calculated drama delivering the wild escalation and unbridled release of our most thrilling conception of the “Gypsy Style.” Needless to say that Brahms precedes the Gypsy rondo with three marvelous and expansive movements provoking additional commentary for which there is no more space available. As it has done for nearly over one hundred and fifty years, the quartet is left to speak eloquently for itself.