The Kennedy Center

Selected Hungarian Dances

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Thomas May

Even if he didn't generate Lisztomaniacal levels of fandom at the keyboard, Brahms cultivated an impressive personality of his own as a solo performer. None other than his great early mentor, Robert Schumann-the husband of one of the leading celebrity pianists of the era, Clara Wieck-described his first impressions of young Johannes at the piano: "He is a player of genius who can make of the piano an orchestra of lamenting and loudly jubilant voices."


Brahms's identification with the cause of "absolute music"-without the "crutch" of fanciful stories or images to help explain his compositions-has enhanced posterity's perception of an unrelentingly serious musical thinker unwilling to countenance music-making for the sheer fun of it. Yet fun was very much a part of his performing persona, in moments with friends when he wanted to relax from the strains of a concert-and that's the origin of the Hungarian Dances, which started out as party pieces he would trot out when the mood struck.


The interest in "exotic" musical pieces reveling in the local ethnic color of far flung regions of the vast Habsburg Empire is a long-running subplot in European music history. Brahms became especially intrigued by the music associated with Hungary-Liszt's native land-during his lifetime. (Liszt himself had helped make this music popular with his Hungarian Rhapsodies.)


"Hungarian" turned out to be the music played by traveling "Gypsy" (Roma) bands. The terms remained more or less interchangeable until, in the early 20th century, Belá Bartók and Zoltán Kodály applied more rigorous methods of ethnomusicology to identify authentic Hungarian folk music. In any case, at a young age Brahms got to know the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi, a colorful character with whom he toured as piano partner. Reményi introduced him to "Hungarian" tunes and ways of playing (and later accused Brahms of plagiarizing some of his own melodies for the Hungarian Dances).


Brahms actually claimed only to have arranged pre-existing melodies when he finally came around to publishing them. Biographer Jan Swafford writes that the composer found recreation in this music, "a way to let go of his usual sobriety and escape into a music perfervid, exotically colored, elastic in rhythm, improvisational in style. Friends remembered his flashing eyes when Brahms played his dances, the rhythm darting and halting, his hands all over the keyboard at once." (On YouTube you can easily find a version of the famous Edison wax cylinder recording, made in 1889, of Brahms introducing himself and playing the Hungarian Dance No. 1.) Swafford suggests that Brahms held off writing these pieces down in part because he was uncertain how to convey "that protean freedom n the cold black-and-white of notation."


But it was a shrewd move when he did write them down, arranged for piano four-hands. After rejection by a publisher in Budapest, Brahms made his fortune-and that of the publisher, Simrock, who took him up-with his first set of Hungarian Dances, which appeared in 1869 and became a sensation. This commercial success helped Brahms achieve financial security without patronage so that he could pursue "the independent creative life few composers have ever enjoyed," as Swafford puts it. All told Brahms published a total of 21 Hungarian Dances, issued in four volumes (the first two in 1869, the third and fourth in 1880). He insisted on publishing them without opus number, with credit only as "arranger"-though Nos. 11, 14, and 16 were melodies of his own invention, initiating the style. Brahms also made some arrangements for solo piano.


The Hungarian Dances have been an appealing source for other composers to orchestrate-including Antonín Dvorák, who repeated Brahms's success story with the publisher Simrock with his own set of Slavonic Dances in 1878. Dvorák also orchestrated some of Brahms's Hungarian Dances. The three dances we hear (Nos. 3, 16, and 10) echo the major-minor alteration of tonality (between F major and minor) dramatized in the Third Symphony. Framing this set are two dances orchestrated by Brahms himself.