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Gypsy Music in Hungary by E. C. R.

1876

We have all, at some time or other, felt our curiosity and interest excited by the bands of wandering gypsies whom we may sometimes have come upon in their encampments pitched in some remote or sequestered wood or dell—wild-looking men and women and dark, ragged children grouped about fires over which hang kettles suspended from stakes arranged in a triangle; mongrel curs which seem to share their masters' instinctive distrust of strangers; and donkeys browsing near the tilted carts which convey the tribe from one place to another. We feel a sort of traditional repulsion for these people, almost amounting to dread, for stories of children stolen by gypsies, and of their dark, mysterious ways, have taken root in our infant minds along with those of ghosts and goblins, robbers and Indians. There are, it is true, romantic associations connected with them, and we try to fancy a Meg Merrilies in the swarthy old woman who examines the lines of our hand and tells us the past, present and future—sometimes with a startling consistency and probability. But few of us would have supposed that this race of vagabonds and outcasts had ever risen much above their traditional occupation of tinkering, far less that any portion of it had displayed original artistic genius. We have, however, from Robert Franz the composer a most interesting account of the wonderful music of the Hungarian gypsies or Tziganys, which he had several opportunities of hearing during a visit to OUR_MONTHLY_GOSSIPa friend in Hungary. He had been much impressed in his youth by the wandering apparitions of these people in the streets of Kiev, and by the strange, wild dances of their women, whose outlandish garb was rendered still more effective by the pieces of red stuff cut into hearts and sewed all over their skirts. "These caravans of strange beings, who preserve under every sky their dreamy laziness, their rebellion against the yoke, their love of solitude," had always possessed an irresistible charm for him, and he had never understood the scorn and disgust of which they were the object.

Being informed of the arrival of a gypsy band within eight or ten miles of his friend's château, he took his immediate departure for the forest where they had made their temporary home. The sun was going down when he reached the camp. It was in an open glade, where the ground was trampled down, in some places blackened by fire, and covered with fragments of coarse pottery, wooden bowls, bones, parings, etc. The gypsies were there pell-mell—men, women and children, horses, dogs and wagons. The men, lounging about in various attitudes, were smoking: all had a look of careless nobility about them, an air of melancholy, and eyes which burned with slumbering passion. Old women were cowering about the fires, surrounded by children whose meagre limbs were frankly displayed to view. Tall girls, with Oriental eyes, firm and polished cheeks, and vigorous forms, stood facing the horizon, and were distinctly defined against the blue of the sky. Some wore scarlet gowns, bodices covered with metallic ornaments, embroidered chemisettes and a profusion of glass trinkets. In the centre was one, taller by a head than her companions, her face of a fine and delicate oval unknown amongst us, with magnetic, disquieting eyes which suggested splendid vices; a black turban confined her black locks; a chemisette of dazzling whiteness half opened on her breast; she wore, as a necklace, twisted five or six times about her neck, a long chaplet of yellow flowers, clusters of which she held in her hands. The red rays of the setting sun flashed with fantastic effect upon the scene: then night fell, and in the flickering glare of the fires gleaming eyes, white teeth and mobile hands emerged from the gloom.

Franz had expressed his wish to hear their music, but for a while all was silent. Suddenly a strange, prolonged note vibrated through the air like a sigh from the supernatural world; another followed; then after a pause a majestic but sombre melody was developed. The sounds swelled like an immense choral, with incomparable purity and nobleness, fraught with memories of ruins and tombs, of lost liberty and love. Another pause, and some strophes of unbridled gayety burst forth; then again the principal phrase, detaching itself like a flower from its stem, among myriads of winged notes, clusters of vaporous sounds, long spirals of transparent fioritures. Still the violins grew bolder and more impetuous. Franz rose from his seat while watching these men standing with their violins pressed against their breasts, as if they were pouring their life's blood into them: he felt oppressed with anguish, when, by an ingenious inversion, the gloomy theme was transformed into a graceful, poetic melody. The sounds passed away rapidily like sparks, then were extinguished for a moment. A ferocious violence animated the last measures, and the gypsies laid down their bows. But, divining a sympathetic listener, they recommenced and played on till the night was far advanced. At length they ceased, and Franz left the camp, carrying with him the revelation of a hitherto unknown art.

Three principal features (he tells us) determine the character of Tzigany music—its intervals, not used in European harmony, its peculiar rhythms, and its Oriental fioritures or grace-notes. In the minor scale the Tziganys take the fourth augmented, the sixth diminished and the seventh augmented. It is by the frequent augmentation of the fourth that the harmony acquires a wonderfully audacious and disquieting character. The educated musician at first thinks he hears false notes, but the law of their harmonies is to have no law. Their abundance is incalculable, and the solemn and intoxicating effects resulting from the rapid and beautiful transitions cannot be imagined. As for the grace-notes, they give to the ear a pleasure like that which Moorish architecture gives to the eye: the architects of the Alhambra painted on each of their bricks a graceful little poem; the gypsies adorn each note with melodious designs and luxuriant embroideries. But (we quote M. Franz throughout) who shall describe the impalpable flame of Tzigany sentiment, the strange, subjugating charm of which is a vital animation almost adequate to life itself? or the mysterious equilibrium which reigns in this undisciplined art between the sentiment and the form? Mystery of genius, which bears in itself its inexplicable power of emotion, and which science and taste in vain deny!

When Franz again heard Tzigany music it was under very different circumstances. A fete was given by a Hungarian gentleman, of which this music was to be one of the attractions, the most distinguished performers being Farkas Miska and Remenyi Ede. The arrival of the latter on the morning after the first evening concert (the fete seems to have lasted some days) was announced to M. Franz by a great noise, a banging of doors and windows and moving of furniture in the room next his own. It at length ceased, and he was just getting to sleep again when some one knocked at his door, and a pretty, fair-haired boy entered, who announced himself as Ptolemyi Nandor, the fervent disciple of Remenyi Ede, who, he said, had just arrived and was about to take possession of the adjoining apartment.

"Well, sir, is it to inform me of your name and your fervor that you have come to prevent me from sleeping?"

"No," said the boy decidedly: "it is to ask you to dress yourself and go out for a walk."

To the astonished exclamation of M. Franz he replied that his master wished to practice, beginning early, and that it annoyed him to have any one hear him.

"Go to the devil, you and your master!" naturally shouted our composer.

The boy became purple. "What!" he said, "send him to the devil?—him, the great violinist, the successor of Czemak, of Bihary!"

"Is your master a gypsy?"

"No, but he is the only living violinist who possesses the authentic tradition of gypsy music."

"I love this music; therefore I will get up and go down to the garden."

"Oh no, sir: go into the fields. See!" and he opened the window, "every one has left the castle." And actually the master of the house and his guests were all defiling through the garden-gate, having had only three hours' sleep. M. Franz soon joined them, and heard from them the story of Remenyi.

At the age of seventeen he had been attached to the person of Görgey during the Hungarian war. Leaving his country with the emigration, he had shared the exile of Count Teleki, Sandor and others; then passed some time at Guernsey, where he knew Victor Hugo. He had afterward performed with brilliant success in London, Hamburg, etc., and his renown, after his return to Hungary, went on increasing. He traveled about the country in every direction, astonishing nobles and peasants, and playing with the same enthusiasm and poetry in barns as in palaces. On hearing this our author slipped back to the garden, where he hid himself to listen to Remenyi, who, to his great disgust, was playing a concerto of Bach's.

At breakfast, Remenyi appeared, a very commonplace-looking man, full of his own praises, and always speaking himself in the third person. "Remenyi practiced well this morning," said he.

"Yes, a concerto of Bach's!" Franz.

Thereupon Remenyi asked for his violin, and they heard a marvelous specimen of real Tzigany inspiration. Vanity disappeared—passion, nerve and sentiment took its place. He had all the qualities demanded by science, together with those of imagination. It was the passionate inspiration of genius. After his performance was over, he went gravely to the mantelpiece, stopped the clock, and said to the master of the house, "Let this hand mark for ever the hour when Remenyi played at your house."

M. Franz taking no pains to disguise; his admiration, Remenyi, gratified by it, invited him to accompany him home. Wherever he went he received a perfect ovation. At one place he ordered a pair of boots, which were sent home, paid for by the municipality. Art is a national glory in Hungary, especially that of the gypsies, which has taken root in the very heart of the soil.

Remenyi's house at Rakos-Palota, near Pesth, is a long, rambling building, the courtyard of which is given up to chickens, ducks and pigs. M. Franz says the poplars before the door look like exclamation-marks, and he thinks they are planted there to serve as such. There are heaps of rare and precious objects of every imaginable description—all gifts—but the ones which the owner shows with most pride are his Hungarian sabre and a pair of boots which Liszt wore when a child.

The question is often discussed in Hungary whether the national Hungarian music is the production of Tzigany genius, or whether the gypsies are only the exponents of what properly belongs to Hungary itself. The gypsies are proved to have been in Hungary as early as the thirteenth century, and their musicians were celebrated in the sixteenth, some of their names still living in the memory of the people. What has been preserved of genuine old Hungarian music (some melodies of Timody Stephens) has no charm save its antiquity. These and other facts—but, above all, the impression produced on him by the music itself—have convinced M. Franz that the gypsy faculty is one not only of execution, but creation. Gypsy art proceeds from the sentiment, the genius, of the Tzigany race. It is too strange, its elements are too wild, to be the exclusive product of a thoughtful, wise, believing, practical and civilized people; but the Hungarians have understood this art—they have surrounded it with love and respect. Gaining new life, warmth and vigor from the welcoming applause of Hungary, it belongs to her by virtue of her admiration and sympathetic tears.

E.C.R.