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
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
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.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own