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Pianos and Pianists - Consultant Editor Ates Orga

East of Vienna




Part 1



Budapest - Belgrade
Autumn 1902


In Budapest there is nothing but what the people and a natural brightness in the air make of it. Here things are what they seem; atmosphere is everything, and the atmosphere is almost one of illusion. Budapest lives, with a speed that thrusts itself, not unattractively, upon one at every moment. Think of your first impressions of the place and they will be all of one kind: the porter who snatches your luggage from you, runs at full speed, and dives under the horses' heads; the electric trams that dash through the streets, the swift two-hourse cabs; the bite of paprika in the food; the unusual glitter and pungency of the brass bands, and the gipsy fiddlers with their fiddles and bodies alive all over. The people with their sombre, fiery, and regular faces have the look of sleepy animals about to spring. Go into a café and, as you sit at your table, you will see every eye turned quietly, fixedly, upon you, with an insistence in which there is no insolence. Coming from Austria, you seem, since you have left Vienna, to have crossed more than a frontier. You are in another world, in which people live with a more vivid and a quite incalculable life: the East has begun...

People go to Budapest, and rightly, to hear the gipsy music, as it can be heard only in Hungary [the heyday of the Hungarian gipsy bands, coinciding with the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, spanned the period from the 1848-49 Revolution to the outbreak of the Great War] ... The Hungarian gipsies are the most naturally musical people in the world. Music is their instinctive means of expression; they do not learn it, it comes to them of itself. Go into a roadside tent in Hungary, and you will see a little boy of four stretched naked upon the ground, holding a violin in his arms and drawing his bow across it, trying to make it speak... The gipsies hold their violin in almost every position but the normal one: against the middle of the chest, on the shoulder near the ear, on the knee. Their fingering is elementary; they use the bow sometimes as a hammer, sometimes as a whip; they pluck at the strings with all their fingers at once, as if they would tear the heart out of the tormented fiddle. And, indeed, it is the heart that cries and sobs, and is happy and exults, in the joyful agonies of the csárdás. The time varies, the rhythm fantastically disguised by a prolonged vibration, as it were, of notes humming around a central tone. In its keen intensity and profuse ornamentation, an arabesque of living flame, it is like nothing else in music. And in this unique effect the national instrument, the czimbalom [sic], counts for much. The czimbalom consists of a framework of wires fixed on a sort of table. The wires are struck by flexible quills, padded at the end, which are held one in each hand. The little s soft hammers rise and fall, and flit to and fro with incredible swiftness, in a sort of effervescence of sound...

The leader [of the band], standing with his back to his men, and turning half round to them as he indicates a sudden change of time, plays away with his whole body; he rises to the tips of his toes, bends, crouches as if about to spring, sways as if in a great wind. This music, I think, is after all scarcely music; but rather nerves, a suspense, a wheeling of wings around a fixed point. In this mournfulness, this recoil and return, there is a kind of spring and clutch; a native wildness speaks in it, as it speaks in the eyes of these dark animals, with their look of wild beasts eying their keeps. It is a crushed revolt, and it cries out of a storm, and it abandons itself after the lament to an orgy of dancing. It is tigerish, at once wild and stealthy. And it draws everything into its own net. Listen to the Hungarian as he translates the music of other countries into his own half-oriental language. The slangy American tunes assume a new character, a certain lively brilliance, no longer vulgar. Even English tunes forget to be common in their sentimentality, and become full of languorous tenderness, into which a drop of fire has dripped. Hungarian gipsy music is a music full of suprises, always turning along unexpected ways; the music of a race whose roots are outside Europe. And in the playing of the Hungarian gipsies there is the same finish, the same finesse, as in their faces, so regular, and so full of fire under a semblance of immobility...

... the Servian gipsies are remarkable even among gipsies... I had seen one old woman, an animal worn to subtlety, with the cunning of her race in all her wrinkles, trudging through the [Belgrade] steets with a kind of hostile gravity. But here it was the children who fascinated me. There were three little girls, with exactly the skin of Hindus [the gypsies having reached the Balkans from northern India around the 11th century] and exactly the same delicately shaped face, and lustrous eyes, and long dark eyelashes; and they followed me through the market, begging in strange tongues, little cat-like creatures full of humour, vivacity, and bright instinctive intelligence. As we came to one end of the market, they ran up to a young girl of about fifteen, who stood leaning against a pump. She was slender, with a thin, perfectly shaped face, the nose rather arched, the eyes large, black, lustrous, under her black eyelids; thick masses of black hair ran across her forehead, under the scarlet kerchief. She leaned there, haughty, magnetic, indifferent; a swift animal, like a strung bow, bringing all the East with her, and a shy wildness which is the gipsy's only.

- Arthur Symons, Cities (London September 1903)


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