A tale of two tribes

The diverging fates of Central Europe’s Roma and Jewish musicians

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Regional Museum in Rimavská Sobota, Slovakia, has in its collection a fascinating anonymous painting of about 1770 (right). It shows a party held by Hungarian hussars and Austrian soldiers (and companions), the former dancing in the verbunk (“recruiting”) style, the latter in a more stately mode. Providing the entertainment on the left of the picture is a Roma band — cigány (“gypsies”), as their contemporaries called them — smoking their pipes or cigars, playing fiddles and a cello. At the right of the picture is a Jewish band, bearded and behatted, playing fiddles and a cimbalom. 

The Austro-Hungarian army at that time included no military musicians. But as there was a custom for Hungarian noblemen to recruit local gypsy bands for their own entertainment, army officers began to employ them too. We can deduce from this picture that the same circumstances would have applied for local Jewish musicians.

This was at a time when the factors separating Jews and Roma from each other were far less significant than those which kept them apart from the rest of central European society. Both Jews and Roma used their own languages amongst themselves; they each had their own social customs and taboos; they were endogamous, marrying only from their own tribes. They were discriminated against by the host communities, limited in their civic rights — including rights to work, to own property and to live in towns and cities. 

By the end of the eighteenth century, Hungarian verbunkos music had captured the popular imagination, making “gypsy” musicians fashionable. As the picture of the recruiting party implies, the music played by these bands was sufficiently popular to entertain a military knees-up. And this was generally the status of Jewish and Roma musicians in central Europe — as rural hired entertainers or bierfidler, playing, not their “own” music, but the dance or celebration music that their employers wanted to hear.

By the early nineteenth century, verbunkos music had come to form the basis of what was to be the all-conquering csárdás style. Much to the annoyance of Hungarian musicologists, including Béla Bartók, this style, originating with the middle-classes or aristocracy, and very different to folk music of the Roma or the Hungarians, came to be known indifferently as “gypsy style” or “Hungarian style” — style hongrois.

The opening of civil society in Europe following the Napoleonic Wars, the development of a modern Europe-wide music industry and the ethos of Romanticism — in which the Other, so far from being despised, became admirable or fascinating — helped Jews and Roma musicians establish themselves as standard bearers for Hungarian music. 

As an example, Márk Rózsavölgyi and his “gypsy band” did much to raise the profile of this style of music in the 1820s and to fuel Hungarian nationalism. Liszt was a great fan. He used Rózsavölgyi melodies in his Hungarian Rhapsodies. But Rózsavölgyi was born Mordecai Rosenthal to a poor Jewish family in Balassagyarmat. His band members had similar origins.

When Hungarian music became increasingly a symbol in the 1840s for Hungarian nationalism, one of its most notable exponents was the violinist Ede Reményi. In 1850 he paired up with the young Johannes Brahms for successful tours of Germany featuring czardas-style music, with Brahms frequently improvising accompaniments. This was Brahms’s introduction to a style which was to bring him fame and fortune. 

Admiring Reményi, Liszt wrote: 

A sort of gypsy amour-propre seems to activate him … for [after playing] Bach or Vieuxtemps … he comes back to his czardas: and the redoubled animation with which he does so seems to say to his audience, ‘See what we gypsies can do!’

But Reményi was not a gypsy. Born Eduard Hoffmann to a Jewish goldsmith family in the city of Miskolc, he had been a colleague of the Jewish classical violinist Joseph Joachim, and introduced Joachim to Brahms — the start of what was to be a lifelong if sometimes tempestuous friendship. 

Joachim’s “Hungarian” violin concerto of 1857, with its finale “alla zingara” was claimed by a contemporary to “bear the stamp of nationality in such a degree that even the connoisseur would hardly be able to distinguish between them and the ancient Hungarian gypsy melodies”.

At the time there was no perceived paradox in including men like Rózsavölgyi and Reményi amongst Hungarian patriots. Echt Hungarian artists and intellectuals were proud to laud anyone who identified themselves as Hungarians and could be seen as forging a Hungarian cultural identity. 

However no genuine Roma Hungarians had such acknowledgements from the nationalist intellectual establishment, even though at a lower intellectual level from the 1850s onwards the “gypsy violinist” became a staple of central European café society. Why was this?

Two principal processes were at work. One is the often-discussed emergence of Jews into western European society at this period. They were liberated — at least in principle — from ghetto life or exclusion from towns and cities and open to participate in what that society had to offer, including business and culture. 

…culture was in itself becoming a business

The second process was that culture was in itself becoming a business. Music, as it slipped away from being financed by the aristocracy and the church, became subject to a new pattern of demand from the urban bourgeois audience as consumer. 

Despite similarities between the Jews and the Roma, there was one important difference which perhaps significantly enabled Jews to benefit from the new conditions of post-Napoleonic Europe more effectively than the Roma. 

Unlike the Roma, the Jews were literate and had as a central feature of their own culture the importance of texts and the history of their people. It was therefore straightforward for them to understand the concepts of history and culture as maintained by their host countries and indeed to transfer allegiance to them if it seemed opportune and appropriate. The Roma had no such advantage. 

A consequence was that Jewish musicians in central Europe seeking to merge into and benefit from new tastes and trends in music began to follow a different path from their Roma contemporaries, one in which music could be an entry into bourgeois society. 

It’s interesting, for example, that in 1850 Rózsavölgyi’s son, Gyula, founded the music business in Budapest which is still the city’s leading music store. And a member of Reményi’s family, the luthier Mihály Reményi, was the founder in 1890 of a business whose present incarnation is the major music store in Toronto, which is still run by the family.

Of Roma and Jewish country musicians in the second half of the nineteenth century, we seem to know very little. From the 1880s onwards, Jewish musicians began to emigrate to the New World and founded klezmer kapelyes there. From these traditions klezmer music as we know it today would re-emerge in the later twentieth century. 

The “gypsy” of course became a cliché in music theatre. Always sentimentalised, gypsies have colourful costumes and play the violin soulfully; gypsy women are either beautiful or witches (or both), gypsy communities survive by thieving or petty crime. Where a gypsy is the hero or heroine of a piece, they frequently turn out at the end not to be Roma at all, but to have been switched or stolen at birth from a family of the nobility, or to be posing as gypsies (as in Strauss’s Der Zigeunerbaron). “Gypsy music” in these works is inevitably a form, often seriously debased, of the style hongrois. Strauss, Imre Kálmán and Franz Lehár are among the leading perpetrators of such travesties.

So, by the turn of the twentieth century, we find in central Europe Jews able to benefit from changes in society and establish themselves in all branches of the music industry. Roma, having started virtually from the same place, and with similar performance skills, have been stuck at a lower level. While “gypsies” performing in cafés may have been of real Roma stock, those who took the star roles as gypsies in operetta were not. 

And that situation, save for the subsequent extinction of the Jewish European klezmorim, effectively persists today, 250 years after the Verbunk party in Gemer. 

True, music played by Roma can be big business today, but the Roma themselves are very lucky if they can benefit from it — either financially or with the artistic credit. The Transylvanian Roma who are the stars of manele music, a sort of equivalent of gangsta rap beloved by Romanian communities throughout Europe, are effectively the slaves of the Romanian criminal classes, playing at their beck and call and turning over to them virtually all of their earnings, including the money they make on European tours where they are feted as Roma. 

One fascinating joint legacy remains to us. In the 1980s, the Hungarian folk band Muzsikás joined up with Roma musicians who had played with klezmer bands in Transylvania in the 1930s, and produced, in their 1992 album Szól a kakas már, an attempt at recreating the lost Jewish music of the region. This beautiful album is a testament to a long-standing but historically almost invisible link between two tribes.

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