Gypsy music - Mesmerised by Magyar melodies

Forget the stereotypical images of Gypsy culture – it's about time we acknowledged the lasting contribution that the Roma have made to classical music, says Jessica Duchen

As the latest hot-air balloon of a wedding dress spread out across the screen, I couldn't quite join in the nation's gasps. My goodness, don't we love the mystique of Gypsy life?

The Channel 4 series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding had everyone riveted, principally by the degree of flamboyance that it claimed to find within this most self-contained of communities. A flood of letters to newspapers and websites followed from the community itself, protesting that yet again they had been misunderstood and misrepresented. Beyond the small screen, the Roma and Travellers are still the victims of all manner of prejudice and discrimination. A moment in the original documentary, when a wedding venue refused to allow a family to book in because they were Travellers, did capture a hint of what they're up against.

But the area in which the Roma have made a great impact on Western culture is, of course, music. From Haydn's chamber works to today's Romanian superstar band Taraf de Haidouks, the sounds of Gypsy music have spread to an astonishing degree, whether lurking just beneath the genteel surface of a string quartet or metaphorically blasting out the ceiling with the manic, full-on energy of a true Gypsy band in full flood. In that music there seems to lie a magnetic sense of emotional release. The illusion of freedom, the perceived ability to shake off the shackles both without and within, is what magnetises us.

Not that classical composers' response to Gypsy culture is precisely free from prejudice. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding proved how a preoccupation with superficial perceptions can make us miss the deeper essence, and with it, its value. You can find this misrepresentation in music too. Where would opera be without Bizet's Carmen or the Gypsy scenes of Verdi's Il Trovatore? But while Carmen has a certain psychological acuity, Il Trovatore is a travesty, its lurid representations typical of the 19th-century's prejudiced fascination of horror.

Johannes Brahms's attitude to Gypsy culture was more positive, though not desperately enlightened: he lifted passages wholesale from café bands for his Hungarian Dances, failing to recognise that someone else might actually have composed the melodies, hence landing himself with accusations of plagiarism. Franz Liszt, this year's big bicentenary composer, set out in a new way to glorify the Gypsy music of his native Hungary. Thanks to his espousal, it was eventually Gypsy music that the world came to think of as typically Hungarian. It was partly a wish to distinguish the sounds of "real" Hungarian folk song that later inspired Bartók and Kodály to set off across the Transylvanian countryside to record its traditional music.

But all the way through, it's the big fat Gypsy fiddle that remains central to Hungarian Gypsy music and seems to hold the key to its heart. Liszt was famously inspired by hearing the violinist Niccolo Paganini in recital, but he also encountered a Gypsy violinist equally legendary in his field: János Bihari. The great Gypsy violin virtuosi have often been capable of playing classical soloists under the table, so to speak. Jascha Heifetz, perhaps the greatest violinist of the 20th century, is said to have claimed that the finest violinist he ever heard was Grigoras Dinicu, the Romanian Gypsy musician whose Hora Staccato and The Lark are still concert favourites today.

Yet Gypsy music is not all about virtuosity – nor even primarily about it. Improvisation is crucial, the ability to create spontaneous music, something that eludes many classical performers who often remain inhibited by their rigorous training. And just as important is the element of heart and soul that infuses the music and its performance. The sweetness of tone, the gentle swoops and sensual slides that we associate with the violinist Stéphane Grappelli's Gypsy jazz style, is vital; and there's a special flexibility in the rhythm, a particular sense of rubato (the give and take that balances out slowing down and speeding up). The razzle-dazzle of Gypsy virtuosity is in some ways the musical equivalent of those acres of white tulle in the wedding dresses shown so avidly on TV: the illusory tip of the iceberg.

Further into the 20th century, composers grew more eager to dig into the deeper essence of Gypsy style. George Enescu, the Romanian composer, violinist and pianist, created an entire sonata (his Violin Sonata No 3) based upon it. In Paris, Debussy was enchanted by a Gypsy band in a hotel restaurant and wrote a piece inspired by them: the elusive, slightly louche waltz, La Plus Que Lente, the challenges of which are not about brilliance, but lie in the subtlety of its rhythms. As for Ravel, an encounter with the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Arányi, who played him Gypsy music she remembered from her childhood in Budapest, inspired him to write his Tzigane, in which he not only conjured up a trance-like mystery and ecstasy, but also responded in detail to the rhythmic quirks, the characteristic bowing and the exceptional eloquence of the style.

Today, of course, with recordings and easy travel, we have the real thing. The phenomenal violinist Roby Lakatos – a descendent of Janos Bihari – is probably the most celebrated of today's Gypsy performers and has joined up traditional songs with elements of modern jazz and also with classical orchestras. Meanwhile, Taraf de Haidouks tour all over the world and has appeared in a number of films. These are just the most famous examples of a rich, vigorous and still-evolving tradition.

It was partly a fascination with the impact of Gypsy violin music on classical that inspired my novel Hungarian Dances. And since the violinist Philippe Graffin made a CD to match it, a concert version of the book has somehow refused to go away. With the violinist and leader of the Northern Sinfonia, Bradley Creswick, and the pianist Margaret Fingerhut, we follow the story with music ranging from wild Dinicu numbers like The Lark to the sophistication of Debussy and Ravel. But it's Ernö von Dohnányi's Andante Rubato alla Zingaresca that I think holds the essence of the real thing and our response to it: that shivering, flexible, mesmeric magic and the intangible longing for a heart deeper and wilder than our own. White tulle is nowhere to be seen.

Hungarian Dances, starring Bradley Creswick (violin) and Margaret Fingerhut (piano), with readings by Jessica Duchen: Potton Hall, Suffolk (01728 648265) 18 March; Old Swinford Hospital, Stourbridge (01384 817316) 22 March

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas