Hungarian Dances No. 5 & No. 6, WoO 1

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            Who, indeed, can resist the spirited, soulful music of the “Hungarian” Gypsies?  Well, apparently, almost no one of the gifted, leading composers of nineteenth-century Europe, including such luminaries as Liszt, Schubert, and a host of others.  And, most notably, our Johannes Brahms—he of the most classical bent, the most serious mien, and the most redoubtable reputation as a composer.  The “gypsy” style appears frequently in compositions by important serious composers of the time, including several of Brahms’ important works: the violin concerto, the G minor piano quarter, and others.   In 1853, early in his career, Brahms accompanied the virtuoso Hungarian violinist, Ede Reményi on a concert tour, which included several works in the Hungarian Gypsy style. 

            That episode in his life was evidently formative, for several years later, in the late 1860s, Brahms published two sets (five dances in each) of “Hungarian Dances,” for piano duet, and later, in 1880, he published eleven more, also in two sets.   Altogether, they became some of his most popular works—not just for their intrinsic qualities, but also probably for their medium.  Before the advent of “canned” music, if you wanted to hear music, you had to play it yourself, and piano duet was one of the most popular social activities; undoubtedly, more music lovers first encountered all of the well-known symphonies in this medium.  He later re-arranged some of the dances for solo piano, but today, they live on most notably in orchestra arrangements.  Brahms made only three of the arrangements for orchestra; the rest were done by a variety of folks, including Dvořák.

            All that being said, it is interesting to note, that notwithstanding the common perception of these tunes—we now know that they are not by Brahms, not folk music, not authentically “gypsy,” and not even ethnic Hungarian!  Brahms, himself, wrote only three original compositions in the whole set of twenty-one; the others are best thought of as salon or coffeehouse tunes in the style of the gypsies of Hungary, written by professional musicians for their commercial use in those venues.  “Real” Hungarian folk music did not become well known until the ethnomusicological research around the turn of the twentieth century by Bartók and Kodály.

            Well, nevertheless, these dances surely are in gypsy style, and have a distinct central European folk style.  Numbers Five and Six were arranged for orchestra early on by a well-respected German military bandmaster and composer, Albert Parlow.  No. 5—clearly the most popular of all of the dances, and the one we all know and love--is a perfect example of the confusion that surrounded these pieces.   Brahms thought that it was a folksong, but in point of fact, it was a tune by Béla Kéler (“Remembrances of Bártfa”), who was a German-Hungarian bandmaster.  Bártfa (now Bardejov) is a town in present-day Slovakia, popular among tourists as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, distinguished by its Gothic architecture and importance in Jewish history—all of which admittedly puts an entirely different spin on our traditional imagery of “Hungarian Dance No. 5.”   Dance No. 6 perfectly evokes the improvisatory style of Gypsy violinists in its starts and stops, and variety of tempi.

            Today, Brahms may suffer a reputation as a “stuffy” classicist among those who don’t really know the man or his music.  But, of course, he was a complete artist, one who effortlessly crafted some of the most impressive masterpieces of European music, but one who also knew and enjoyed the more modest “bonbons” of art.  Remember the old anecdote of the student who deprecated a Strauss waltz to Brahms as simplistic, hoping to curry favor by his putative “sophistication.”  Brahms’ rejoinder?  “Unfortunately, it’s not by Brahms.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan