While on tour in England in 1922, Ravel met the London-based Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi. She played the violin part in a private performance of his Sonata for Violin and Cello, and afterwards the composer asked her to play some gypsy tunes. She obliged, again and again until early the next morning. It took almost two years, but from this meeting came Tzigane, which Ravel completed only a few days before she premiered it in London on April 26, 1924, to great acclaim. (Henri Gil-Marchex played the piano for her on this all-Ravel program, thought the composer did accompany one of his songs.)
That is strong evidence of her virtuosity, because Tzigane bristles with technical challenges of the highest order. Jelly d’Arányi was indeed an illustrious musician, the chamber partner of cellist Pablo Casals and composer/pianist Béla Bartók, who dedicated both of his violin sonatas to her. Ralph Vaughan Williams dedicated his Concerto Accademico to her and Gustav Holst wrote his Double Concerto for Two Violins for Jelly and her sister Adila Fachri.
In the case of Tzigane, “gypsy” should be understood as a sort of popular generic exoticism rather than anything specifically ethnological. The piece does not quote any authentic Roma or folk melodies, though it does exploit traditional modes and rhythms. It is basically a “Hungarian rhapsody” in the Lisztian manner, though spikier in harmony and rhythm. Shifting speed impetuously and brilliantly colored with harmonics and plucked passages, it whirls to a perpetual-motion close.