One of Brahms’s last sets of quartets with piano is the eleven Zigeunerlieder
Op 103, composed in 1887. These ‘gypsy songs’ skilfully and shrewdly combine the appeal of his two most popular and successfully marketed works, the Hungarian Dances
and the Liebeslieder-Walzer
. Like the latter, though on a slightly more elaborate scale, they form a sequence of dance-songs for vocal quartet; but now in the rhythms and exotic harmonic shading of the former. Brahms, who at this stage in his life had no pressing financial needs, seems to have written them for sheer enjoyment, and they are further testimony to the extraordinary fascination and fertilizing effect of gypsy music on his style. The texts are from a collection of twenty-five Hungarian folksongs, translated by his friend Hugo Conrat for an edition originally published in Budapest with piano accompaniments by Zoltán Nagy. Choosing freely from Conrat’s words, but only intermittently evoking the original tunes, Brahms produced a concentrated song-sequence that rings as resourceful a set of changes on the 2/4 csárdás rhythm as the Liebeslieder
had upon waltz-time. The ‘Hungarian’ idiom is otherwise rather diffuse, and some of the songs—notably the beautiful Nos 7 and 8—resemble strophic Lieder with Slavic colouring. The theme of the opening song, He, Zigeuner, greife
, returns in varied form as the theme of the last, Rote Abendwolken ziehn
, and in No 10 the piano part produces an uncanny imitation of the cimbalom.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2009