Budapest Summer 1929
Magyari Imre was away at the other end of the verandah playing to the face of a lady who was sitting alone. Each time that he began a fresh tune she would take a rose out of a bundle of flowers that lay beside her and throw it to him. The waiters were evidently in awe of her, for they hastened to her side every few minutes with liqueurs which she would toss off with an arrogant gesture. She was a decidedly pretty girl with auburn hair, pale waxen complexion and green eyes. Her face was virginal and innocent, but her violent red dress and her carmine lips gave her the appearance of a maiden turned vampire. Magyari Imre stood by her table and played to her for a long time. The girl then started to sing in a soft voice that echoed through the moonlit garden and held the people spellbound. Her singing […] had a desolate sadness, a sense of restless, unsatisfied seeking as she passed from one melody to another, always followed by Magyari Imre and his band. Her voice was like a dazzling bird of paradise winging its way in the clear air, and when weariness would descend and her wings would refuse to bear her up, then the violin and the cimbalon would revive her spirit and help her to soar again. All around them was ghostly silence and the sounds of the city faded away into the distance. The heavy scents of the trees mounted to us from the garden that stretched down to the Danube, and through the leaves the moon worked fantastic patterns. Such is the final memory that remains with me of my meeting with Magyari Imre, the Gypsy Violin King, under the trees on the moonlit night on Margaret's Island.
Walter Starkie, Raggle-Taggle (London: March 1933)
Itinerant gypsies, masters of pipe and tom-tom [...] a man and a boy, in the wide black trousers, the dark-red girdle, and the almost black fez [...] There are those [...] who find no music in the broken rhythms, the mounting minor, of a harmony which the Russian composers have only recently begun to make comprehensible to Western ears. For myself [...] I can listen, as long as musicians will perform, to those infinite repetitions, that insistent sounding of the minor key. It pleases me to hear in them a music come from far away - from unknown river gorges, from camp-fires glimmering on great plains. There are flashes, too, of light, of song, the playing of shepherds' pipes, the swoop of horsemen, and sudden outcries of savagery. But the note to which it all comes back is the monotone of a primitive life, like the day-long beat of camel bells. And more than all, it is the mood of Asia, elsewhere so rarely understood, which is neither lightness nor despair. Dancing is not uncommon in the coffee-houses of the people during Ramazan. Sometimes it is performed by the gypsy girls, dressed in vivid cotton prints and jingling with sequins, who alone of their sex are immodest enough to enter a coffee-house. Dancing boys are oftener the performers - gypsies, Greeks, or Turks - who perpetuate a custom older than the satyr dances of India or the Phrygian dancers of Cybele.
H G Dwight, Constantinople (London: 1915, revised 1927)
Franz Liszt couldn’t live without the Lords of the Earth. ‘This evening I shall be going to the German theatre […] Afterwards I shall hasten to the gypsies’. Their ‘sort of music is, for me, a kind of opium, of which I am sometimes in great need’. He was exalted by the matter of their art; bewitched by the manner of their playing. ‘The gypsies,’ he wrote in 1859, ‘do not recognise in music, any more than in ordinary life, the force of any principle, law, rule or discipline whatsoever. Everything is good, and everything permitted, provided that it pleases them – provided that their inner feeling coincides, or even goes beyond […] For the gypsy, art is not a science that one may learn […] it is a mystic song’. Few, I suppose, have not at one time or other come under the spell of the gypsies. They read a man’s soul like no one else. In Budapest some years ago*, climaxing a heady intoxication of Bartók, Liszt and Faust at the Academy of Music, Iván Fischer took us out for dinner. We meet with two gypsy fiddlers - the Lendvays, father and son. You can hear them (and others) on Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra recordings of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies [Philips 456 570-2] and (with Oszkár Ökrös, the cimbalon player) Brahms Hungarian Dances [Philips 462 589-2]. Enthralling, gripping certainly – yet somehow missing something. In the flesh, by smoky candle light, late into the small hours of the morning, is how you must get to known them. József the Elder, ‘Csócsi’, brought a black-garbed, facial-haired, sweat-glinted presence to the proceedings. A blubbery heavyweight, whose half-closed gaze penetrated the room, seeking out nuances, tensions, emotions, playing up-front to the eyes and faces of his listeners, his worn violin, as trusty as a horse of the plain, metamorphosed into an instrument of fantastical life and love, regret and nostalgia, song, dance, pain, joy. Master improviser, poet of stretched time, player of the moonlight hours, survivor. Discomforted, a French journalist in our party went on the defensive, sensing an invasion of her space. Next to me, heated by wine, Gabriella, the young piccolo/flautist of the BFO, let go, her desires needing no words, her eyes, profile, voice, languishing to the sounds caressing her, the delicacy and fragrance of her allure intensified, reflected, by each surprise of phrase and portamento.
In İstanbul, late spring 2001, the electricity of this tableau - a girl and her beauty on the runway of life, the swaying old primás close enough for their breaths to kindle - came back to me. Wandering the lamp-lit, fishier alleyways of Beyoğlu between Tünel and Taksim, it's not difficult to experience passion, style, in the raw, stripped of evening dress. You find people drunk on entwining rhythms and violet phrases. You find musicians and Romanies from the tenements and fortress walls playing human instincts, the moves and glances of lovers, like magicians casting spells of no escape. These men, the occasional raven-haired, ruby-satined enchantress, fly the high wires without a safety net. One night at the Babylon Club I came across a davul player, Ramadan Borozan. Tall, dark-skinned, muscular, black-dressed, black-belted. His eyes never smiled, his mouth sardonically curled, his manner warily hostile. He stood watchful for two hours, right of stage, angled slightly, spotlit, seducing a breathless audience, tightening his grasp, screwing up the tension. His right-hand kept time, pounding the pulses of ages past, his left traced a blur of improvised subdivisions. It took years to master, they said, he must have been a child when he started. The sonority, the brilliance of attack, the intensity, the naked power, hit one in the chest. Here was music of the flesh in whose presence you felt awe, fear, pride, the physicality of the moment. It possessed you. And you wanted to possess.
Like the Lendvays, Borozan doesn’t especially glow in a studio environment [Keşan’a giden yollar, Kalan CD 154]. To blaze a destiny, he needs an audience to feed off. Then he can play the women. Then can they play their men. Telepathic sorcerers of such brotherhood borrow us to exist, and without a crucible to call their own take the music of others to express. Holding a mirror to feeling and mood, what they give back is the inner self aurally photographed. ‘In gypsy music,’ wrote Antal Molnár in 1937, ‘the listener is the artist’, not the executant. When all is done, it is we, responding to the externalisation of our emotions and nerve-endings, who fine-tune how these Lords of Intuition bend time, inflect melody, and fire their theatre. Subliminally … involuntarily … through body language. Showing us to ourselves without comment or censure, reading the turmoil of the human condition through sound released of the word, freeing the ensnarer and seducer within man, they are the voice and portent of our spirit-lands.
* February 1998
Vienna – Pressburg 1897-99
To study rhythm, [our master] thought, one should go where rhythm was. What could be more instructive than going out to the gypsies in the Prater and listening to their wild, free rhythms! […] The Prater was the nearest place to go to hear [them] play in Vienna, but […] the wildest gypsies did not come near big places, and if people wanted to hear them play, they had to search for them. […] Leschetizky led us [...] down many streets to the outskirts of Pressburg [Bratislava], where we found a special type of gypsies. It might have been that they were the same ones whom knew years before and who remembered him. At any rate, they must have recognised in Leschetizky a man after their own hearts, for, as he walked down the path toward them, they fairly swarmed about him, dancing around him, and began to play close to his ear. ‘Don’t play too well,’ he said to one of them, ‘we shall be jealous. We have much to learn from you, even if we know a little bit ourselves.’ They asked him what he wanted to hear. ‘I want to hear you,’ he replied. ‘Don’t worry about what you play’. [...] ‘The gypsies have a dynamic quality and rhythm that very few people have [Look at them.] They have forgotten everything but the pleasure of playing. They are magnificent!’
Ethel Newcomb, Leschetizky As I Knew Him (New York: 1921)
Budapest – Belgrade Autumn 1902
The Hungarian gypsies 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 gypsies 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 cimbalom, counts for much. […] The leader [primás], 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 eyeing 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 gypsy music is a music full of surprises, always turning along unexpected ways; the music of a race whose roots are outside Europe. And in the playing of the Hungarian gypsies 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 [Serbian] gypsies are remarkable even among gypsies [...] 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] streets 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 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 gypsy's only.
Arthur Symons on the way to Constantinople, Cities (London: September 1903)
Turkish version Andante, İstanbul 2005
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