FL 2 3010

Brahms: Hungarian Dances for string orchestra

Release date August 17, 1995
Album code FL 2 3010
Periods Romantic

Album information

To this day, the Hungarian Dances have certainly been one of the works which have contributed the most to Brahms’ fame and appreciation by the general public. The freshness, the vitality and the exuberance of these works are a guaranty of success wherever this music is heard.

As early as 1867, Brahms submitted six dances to a publisher from Budapest, named Dunkl, who showed no interest in them and sent them back, unaware of how much he had just lost. It was only in 1869 that the first two sets of the Hungarian Dances (Nos. 1 to 10) were published by Simrock, in their version for piano four-hands. From the moment they were in circulation, the dances were very successful and, within a short time, all sorts of arrangements were created: some for orchestra (they are countless, though Brahms only orchestrated dances Nos. 1, 3 and 10); others for various chamber music groups; for piano two, four and six-hands; for two pianos and even a few “simplified” versions.

One of Simrock’s competitors, the publisher André, plagiarized the dances. In return, Simrock instituted legal proceedings against him. As for Brahms, he wrote a transcription for piano two-hands, published in 1872. In this present recording, l’Ensemble Amati has used arrangements by Québec composer, Léon Bernier. Most of the dances are based on melodies borrowed from well-known Hungarian composers. The majority are Csardas (dances for inns) such as: Emma Csardas from Windt (No. 2) and Makoc Csardas from Travnik. These pieces are either nuptial dances (Nos. 3 and 10), or picturesque dances (No. 6, The Rosebush Dance).

Witnessing the ever-growing success of the Hungarian Dances, Simrock convinced Brahms to compose more of the same. Thus, sets 3 and 4 were published in 1880, together with the Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79. This second series revealed a different orientation, one in which Brahms distances himself from traditional melodies (according to his own account, several of these new dances were entirely his own, though he never said which ones). While giving more freedom to his imagination, he still kept, however, the distinctive elements of Hungarian music, such as tremolos (evoking the cymbalum), syncopations, shifts of rhythmic accents and abrupt changes of tempo.

The whole mood is different: the 1869 series is fiery and impetuous, while the 1880 series is wrapped in a melancholic athmosphere. Infatuated with the Hungarian Dances, Dvorak orchestrated 15 dances, including the complete fourth set. In his Hungarian Dances, Brahms somewhat wandered from the traditional form found in the Tsigane’s Csardas. Rather than adopting the two-part form, where the slow movement (Lassan) is followed by a quick one (Friska), he chose instead to alternate several heterogeneous sections. What draws Brahms to popular music stems from what he experienced during his youth and is closely linked to his “serious” musical education.

Brahms’ family lived in Hamburg’s slum district, the Gengviertel. His father, a poor café musician, hardly made enough money to support a family of five. His mother earned some money by sewing at home. Johannes, who manifested precocious musical talents, soon had to work and contribute to the family budget. At the age of 13 he played the piano, long into the night, in the shabby saloons of St. Pauli’s district, near the waterfront. There, he would provide a constant musical background for dancing, in the midst of smoke and heady fumes of intoxication, loud sailors and prostitutes.

However, his reputation as a pianist increased and he started playing in more respectable inns, even entertaining the posh clientele of the Alsterpavillon. His repertoire mainly included waltz overtures, popular tunes and medleys. From the moment he was 12 years old, he started teaching piano for 1 mark a lesson. In 1848-1849, he played musical interludes at the Stadtheater. During that time, Brahms also wrote more than 150 transcriptions and arrangements of popular tunes for the publisher Cranz, under the pseudonym of “G.W. Marks.” The young Johannes definitely did not lead an idle life. Having already mastered his craft, he could offer an impressive repertoire of popular music.

A few years later, recalling with great feeling this period of his life, he said: “Very few people can boast about having gone through such hard times. I learned about life the hard way, and learned a lot. I believe it molded my personnality and strengthened it.” Meeting the Hungarian violinist, Eduard Reményi, was another decisive event in Brahms life. Reményi, whose real name was Hoffmann, was born in 1830. He was an incredibly talented violinist who enjoyed a roaring success wherever he went. In 1852, Reményi arrived in Hamburg to participate in several concerts. At one point, needing an accompanist, someone suggested Brahms. Despite their highly different personnalities, the two musicians hit it off right away and began touring together. Brahms was totally dazzled by this eccentric character who had travelled all over the world. He was fascinated by his fiery interpretations of Hungarian melodies, a repertoire he discovered with great delight.

As for Reményi, he was stunned by the ease with which Brahms quickly mastered these complex rhythms. In April 1853, they started touring all over Germany: in Winsen, Celle, Lüneburg, Hanover… Brahms, who wasn’t even 20 years old, had the exhilarating feeling of living the life of a wandering hero, similar to those depicted in the novels of Eichendorff, one of his favorite authors. The concerts were very successful, but the Hungarian dances, so brilliantly rendered by Reményi, were far more popular than the classical pieces. It was about mid-June when Liszt kindly greeted them in Weimar, but Brahms’ indifference towards Liszt’s music and towards the artistic views of the young Neo-German school deeply annoyed Reményi who eargerly wanted to find favour with Liszt. He therefore suddenly ended his relationship with Brahms.

The great success won by the two series of Hungarian Dances provoked a violent reaction from Reményi who was no doubt green with envy. He accused Brahms of both having taken over a part of the Hungarian heritage, and of having plagiarized some of his own compositions. These accusations were of course unfounded but they did not go unnoticed in the Hungarian milieu for, at that time, Hungary was indicating its intention of separating from Austria. In 1848, uprisings were repressed, forcing many Hungarian citizens to flee to Germany, Reményi among them. When these political struggles ended, Hungary gained real governmental control within a dualistic regime, symbolically designated under the name of Austria-Hungary.

It is easy to understand why some Hungarians felt offended that a non-Hungarian musician had published a repertoire they considered part of their heritage. Yet, Brahms had already clearly indicated he had no intention to take over something that wasn’t his: on one hand, he had not given this music any opus number, and, on the other, the original title, Hungarian Dances, arranged for piano by Johannes Brahms, showed that he did not consider them as his own original musical pieces. Reményi’s accusations were all the more unjustified since, for more than 10 years, both Brahms and Clara Schumann had been using dances to end their recitals. Furthermore, Brahms, who was living in Vienna since 1862, was in touch everyday with Hungarian music in the city’s cafés. Simrock felt he had to stand up for his friend.

He published, in 1897, a text entitled To the defense of J. Brahms and the Hungarian Dances. Brahms never took part in the controversy and let it fade away. Interestingly, despite what Brahms and his contemporaries believed, this music did not really belong to Hungarian folklore but in fact to the world of tziganes. For years, travelling tzigane orchestras had become a fashionable item at the court of Magyar Lords. Though the authenticity of their folklore had slowly faded away, it remained alive among the peasants living in more isolated areas. This rich repertoire was only to be rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century thanks to Bartók’s and Kodály’s ethnomusicological work.

© Mario Lord

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