The issue started on April 5 when I wrote a column about Brahms the miniaturist, focusing particularly on a lovely and little known set of tiny waltzes I had come across and which had seized my attention and imagination.
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Earbiting began the following week: "How could you possibly talk about Brahms the miniaturist without mentioning the Hungarian Dances?" And it went on in that vein. And on.
As recently as last week, a colleague in the BBC, roaring with laughter at my predicament (earbashing wears you down a bit) pretty much asked straight out why I hadn't mentioned the Hungarian Dances anyway. Probably being stupid in my naive candour, I replied, lamely, "Er ... I ran out of space", which only provoked more laughter.
There was, however, another reason for setting aside the Hungarian Dances from that context. They are indeed miniatures, by and large, though they don't feel it in their fully orchestrated versions. Never mind their size, and never mind the giant master works around them, the great and enduring set of symphonies and concertos: the Hungarian Dances were probably Brahms's greatest popular and commercial success, at least for his publisher. Brahms got a fee for them; his publisher made a fortune.
There are 21 Hungarian Dances, lively dances on Hungarian themes, arranged into four books. Brahms completed them in 1869. He was a young man, in his mid-thirties. One of the dances, No 5, might just be the best-known piece of classical music ever written. And at this point, if you're looking blankly at the page, punch the title into the internet and you can hear it on YouTube. Five seconds of it will confirm my assertion. Every orchestra on the planet has Hungarian Dance No 5 under its belt, and it's packed into the case of every orchestra on tour as encore fodder.
It should be noted that Brahms didn't orchestrate all of them himself; he was a busy man. He orchestrated three of them, but a string of other composers, including Dvorak, orchestrated the rest.
Brahms had come across the Hungarian idiom, with its gypsy melodies and rhythms, through his meeting with an otherwise minor musical figure called Eduard Remenyi, a Hungarian fiddler with a gypsy folk style. Remenyi was one of thousands of political refugees who fled the Austro-Hungarian empire and headed towards Hamburg, where he and Brahms met. Brahms was immediately smitten with the flamboyance and colour of the gypsy melodies, and remained so for the rest of his life. Indeed, the Hungarian influence found its way into his large-scale classical compositions, including the finales of both his Violin and Double Concertos.
He and Remenyi teamed up for a while as a duo, but Remenyi, who had engaged Brahms as his accompanist, was something of a greedy opportunist, wanted the limelight for himself, and sought to sue Brahms at one point for plagiarism of his folk melodies. Brahms, on the other hand, possibly one of classical music's most honest labourers, never claimed the melodies were of his origin. He made a point of not giving the 21 Hungarian Dances an opus number, and said this: "I offer them as genuine gypsy children which I did not beget, but merely brought up with bread and milk."
Though Eduard Remenyi has long since been a nowhere man of music, effectively lost in history, scarcely worthy of a footnote, it is worth recording the observation of one of Brahms's most respected and authoritative biographers: "But he was the catalyst for dramatic changes that were to thrust the young Hamburg pianist [Brahms] onto the international stage."
I personally don't know anyone who would want to sit through all 21 Hungarian dances on the trot: better for dipping into. But they are cracking pieces, very personable, covering the spectrum of moods, and easy on the ear.