Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: February 20, 1943, Albert Coates conducting (No. 1); December 12, 1922, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting (Nos. 5 and 6)
Is there another folk-music school that has been as misunderstood as the one long known as “Hungarian”? I doubt it. Composers of “concert” music have been enamored of this tangy, seductive sound for hundreds of years, but it turns out that most of the exotica that fascinated Haydn, Schubert, Liszt, and Brahms was in fact Gypsy music that happened to originate in Hungary.
Authentic Hungarian folk music would lay essentially undiscovered until the ethnomusicological research of Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, which resulted in such concert works as Kodály’s Dances of Gálanta and Bartók’s Dance Suite.
Haydn and Liszt, it should be recalled, were also Hungarian-born. Haydn’s most famous piano trio is celebrated for its Gypsy Rondo finale. The “life-giving sentiment” in this exotic music led Liszt to create a series of 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano; six of those would later be recast in orchestral garb. Schubert, who was born in a Vienna suburb, was fascinated by themes and styles he encountered on visits to Hungary. His three-movement Divertissement à la hongroise is among his most extended and intoxicating works for piano four-hands.
Enthusiasm for this passionate and earthy music was widespread. Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate was one of the few to acknowledge that his inspiration came from the zigeuner (gypsies) in his famous virtuoso showpiece, Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs).
Brahms encountered Hungarian music early in life, during his 1853 tour as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi, who frequently performed Gypsy music in his recitals. Those tunes were so intoxicating that Brahms later made his own arrangements of them for piano four-hands, publishing the first set of ten in 1869 (he would eventually complete 21 of these Hungarian Dances). (The Dances are by no means the only examples of Gypsy music in the Brahms catalog, witness the electrifying finale of his Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, which took on a new life when Arnold Schoenberg prepared an orchestral version in 1938.)
Brahms himself prepared orchestral versions of Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 3, and 10; the others were orchestrated by various hands, including Antonín Dvořák. Albert Parlow’s versions of Dances 5 and 6 are among the most frequently played.
Despite the fact that the tunes are not original, not even Hungarian, the Hungarian Dances are among the best-loved items in the Brahms catalog. Perhaps less familiar than the famous Dance No. 5 (which even served as the soundtrack for Charlie Chaplin’s hilarious barbershop scene in The Great Dictator), Dance No. 1 — in its forthright and full-throated way — serves as an invigorating opener for the sequence Juanjo Mena has selected to conclude these concerts. In between those two comes Dance No. 6, another of the most beloved entries in the series.