The Kennedy Center

Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20

About the Work

Pablo de Sarasate Composer: Pablo de Sarasate
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascuez - economized to Pablo de Sarasate when he became a star - occupied, with Nicolò Paganini and Joseph Joachim, the pinnacle of 19th-century fiddledom. The son of a military bandmaster in Pamplona, Spain, he started violin lessons at five, gave his first public performance at eight, and rocketed past the pedagogical prowess of the best local teachers so quickly thereafter that he had to be sent to the Paris Conservatoire for further instruction with Delphin Alard at the age of twelve. So much promise for furthering the cause of Spanish culture did he show that Queen Isabella presented him with a Stradivarius violin (a handsome piece of booty acquired in a recent tiff with Naples), and personally authorized the subsidy of his expenses. Within a year, he won a premier prix in violin and solfège at the Conservatoire, acquired another prize, in harmony, in 1859, and then set off on the tours of Europe, Africa, North and South America and the Orient that made him one of the foremost musicians of his time. (His first tour of the United States was in 1870; his last in 1889.) Whereas Paganini was noted for his flamboyant technical wizardry and emotional exuberance, and Joachim for his high-minded intellectualism and deep musical insights, Sarasate was famed for his elegance, precision, apparent ease of execution and, in the words of Eduard Hanslick, the Vienna-based doyen of Europe's music critics, his "stream of beautiful sound." The handful of recordings Sarasate made shortly before his death in Biarritz in 1908, the first commercial discs made by a world-famous violinist, attest to his remarkable skill.

Sarasate had already established his reputation in France, Spain, England and North and South America as one of his era's greatest performers before he made his debut in the German-speaking lands with a concert in Vienna in 1876. His success in northern Europe for the next three decades nearly rivaled that of Joseph Joachim, Germany's acknowledged master of the violin. (Joachim died in 1907, just one year before Sarasate.) To appeal to the predilection for a certain Eastern exoticism in the German and Austrian musical appetites of the day, Sarasate devised a concert work for violin and piano in 1878 based on melodies of Hungarian extraction that he titled Zigeunerweisen - "Gypsy Airs." (Brahms also catered to the popular taste. His Hungarian Dances were a smash hit when they first appeared in 1869; his Violin Concerto, with its dashing Gypsy finale, dates from the same year as Zigeunerweisen.) Zigeunerweisen is disposed in two large paragraphs of contrasting nature. A bold orchestral summons based on a grave theme introduces the soloist, who continues the opening mood with an accompanied cadenza and a sad lament utilizing a gapped-scale melody of considerable pathos. Though the musical substance of this first section is simple and direct, the soloist embroiders it with a rich overlay of trills, grace notes, harmonics, glissandi, pizzicati and spiccati. After a grand pause, the tempo quickens and the mood brightens for the closing section, a blazing dance in the most brilliant Gypsy manner energized by an entire fusillade of violin pyrotechnics.

Pablo de Sarasate was born in Pamplona, Spain, on March 10, 1844, and died in Biarritz, France, on September 20, 1908. He composed his Zigeunerweisen in 1878.
In addition to the solo violin, this evening's orchestration calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, strings, and a percussion complement including orchestra bells, snare drum and triangle.

One of the most famous violinists of the 19th century, Pablo de Sarasate was also the author of many celebrated virtuoso works for his instrument, of which the best known are his Carmen fantasy and the perennially popular Zigeunerweisen. The Gypsy airs used in this work are not the flamenco melodies of Sarasate's native Spain, but rather those of the Hungarian Gypsies which he encountered on his extended concert tours. The work consists of a cadenza-like introduction followed by a pair of dance melodies (slow and fast) following the pattern familiar from Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies (Sarasate met Liszt in Budapest during the 1870s). Both melodies were well-known Hungarian popular tunes at the time; their treatment by the Spanish guest must have left the Magyar audiences spellbound.