The influences of gypsy and Romani music upon classical music

From an oral tradition to a written tradition, from improvisation to notation, classically-trained musicians have often drawn inspiration from the ancient musical tradition of gyspsy and Romani music.

The influences of gypsy and Romani music upon classical music
When classical music is influenced by gypsy and Romani music, © Getty / ullstein bild Dtl

A strong wind from the east blows over the classical canon. Numerous composers, such as Haydn, Brahms, Liszt and Ravel to name but a few, have been inspired and fascinated by the Romani repertoire and its legendary performers. A musical tradition characterised by its energy, movement, and its primarily oral transmission, with great importance given to improvisation. Be it discussed, fantasised, or studied, each composer has approached the genre in his own way...

Haydn, not so classical

Joseph Haydn, inspired by the Romani passion? Even the most "classical" of composers, master of structures and forms, succumbed to the charms of the gypsy rhythms and passion.

During a trip to London in 1795, Haydn finished writing his Piano trio no.39, nicknamed the "Gypsy" trio due to the indication by Haydn himself in the final movement: Rondo a l'Ongarese (Rondo in a Gypsy style).

Brahms, modest

Who hasn't heard of Johannes Brahms's Hungarian Dances? Whether on the television or in a prestigious concert hall, these Dances are everywhere, and have largely contributed to their composer's fame and popularity.

And yet, Brahms never claimed to be the author of these dancing works. As he composed them, between 1867 and 1880, he himself considered them to be mere transcriptions or, at best, simple arrangements for piano or orchestra of popular melodies already known to all.

Enesco, liberated

The Romanian composer George Enescu also transcribed for piano various dances and popular melodies from his native Romania. Passages from Enescu's Romanian Rhapsodies (1901) display striking gypsy influences and resemblances to the themes from popular gypsy tunes The Skylark (Ciocârlia) and Windmill Hora (Hora Morii).

Several years later, Enesco returned yet again to the Romani sounds and styles, though this time with more freedom and creativity. His Violin and piano sonata no.3 (1926) was no longer a simple arrangement of gypsy tunes: full of quarter tones and chromatic scales, the composer drew freely from the Romani style, carefully choosing his musical ingredients.

Liszt, avant-garde

The composer to instigate the fascination surrounding gypsy music by classical and "learned" composers was Franz Liszt. A composer of Hungarian origin, Liszt took great interest in the music of his native country's bohemians (gypsies) and even published in 1859 a book entitled The Gypsies and their music in Hungary.

In this publication, Liszt claimed that the popular Hungarian music (in which he includes the gypsy music) are not incompatible with the classical tradition. On the contrary, these musical traditions represent an inexhaustible source of inspiration, one from which he himself drew, as can be seen in his 19 Rhapsodies.

Sarasate, inspired by virtuosity

The composer Pablo de Sarasate was born in 1844 in Pamplona, Spain. Yet the most famous of his compositions is anything but Spanish in influence: the Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy airs in German), a work for violin and orchestra completed in 1878, is full of popular Romanian themes and rhythms typical of the Hungarian csárdás.

Like many of his contemporaries, Pablo de Sarasate was fascinated and greatly influenced by the virtuosity of the great performers arriving from the East. Zigeunerweisen for violin thus draws upon this virtuosic tradition with its exceptional difficulty, later transcribed for other instruments including the accordion...

Kodaly, ethnomusicologist

In the early 20th century, the two Hungarian composers Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodaly began a wide and detailed ethnomusicological search. Working in the heart of the Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian countryside, the two composers concluded that the gypsy did not belong to the regional or popular repertoire.

Bartók notably perceived a distinction between the csárdás,verbunkos, and other traditional Hungarian forms and the Romani gypsy music, a distinction which, in his mind, carried a pejorative connotation.

Kodaly also distinguished the gypsy music from other popular repertoires, though the composer was less exclusive. His twelve Galántai táncok (Dances of Galánta), for example, were composed in memory of his childhood village, Galánta, where he grew up listening to the violin and vocal melodies of the local gypsy musicians.

Ravel, between realism and fantasy

A composer inspired by the virtuosity of a performer, a musician intoxicated by a musical tradition that escaped the canon of the classical tradition: Maurice Ravel was both of these cases. He composed his Tzigane rhapsody in 1924 for the virtuoso violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, influenced by the "Hungary of his dreams".

Ravel borrowed from the music from the East just like he drew from jazz music and Spanish folkloric music, thus affording his music a true gypsy spirit by breaking free from the classical style and traditions, existing instead purely in the moment...


The unforgettable Csárdás by Vittorio Monti!