A brilliant exponent of an ever-living, virtuosic art, Spanish violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate was renowned among his contemporaries as the ‘Paganini of the turn of the century’. He has been called the “King of the Art of the Cadenza” and a “sunny, bright artist”, and even his famous rivals Joseph Joachim and Leopold Auer have bowed to his art, saying, “In his hands the violin sounds as it has never sounded in anyone else’s”.
A brilliant violinist, Sarasate illustrates his virtuosity most vividly in his own works. Among his best-known works stand out the Gypsy Air in C minor, Op. 20 , based on Hungarian melodies and motifs from Gypsy music. They were supposedly composed in the spring of 1877, during the composer’s visit to Budapest. The composition was published in a version for violin and piano in early 1878 by the Leipzig publishing house Bartgolf Senf, which also published an orchestral version of the work three years later. In both editions there is a dedication to Friedes Sarvady, secretary of the Hungarian embassy in Paris and husband of the famous pianist Wilhelmina Klaus-Sarvady.
In Budapest, Sarasate visited Franz Liszt, gave several concerts and heard, by his own account, folk songs and dances performed by so-called “Gypsy ensembles”. Like many of his contemporaries, Sarasate made no distinction between Hungarian and Gypsy music. This is usually explained by the fact that Hungarian folk music (in particular the czardas) was often performed by gypsy ensembles in Hungary itself and in its nearby countries and regions: Vojvodina, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Transylvania and Moravia. The four movements of Gypsy Songs are most likely based on genuine Hungarian folk melodies heard by the composer in a Gypsy ensemble setting.
The work consists of four movements which are performed without interruption:
– Un poco più lento
– Allegro molto vivace
There is a version according to which, a few years after the publication of The Gypsy Airs , the third movement of the work was suspected of plagiarism. The composer of the tune, the now little-known Hungarian composer Elemer Szentirmai (a pseudonym of János Nemeth), wrote to Sarasate, and although his letter has not survived, there is Sarasate’s reply, in which he explains that he used the tune without permission because he had heard it played by gypsies and had been told that it was a popular folk tune. In the new publication of the Gypsy Airs in 1884, a note was now added at the beginning of the third movement stating that this melody belonged to Elemer Szentirmai and was used with the composer’s kind permission.
There is a recording of Gypsy Airs made in 1904 by Sarasate himself, but on it the composer performs only the first, second and fourth movements. For unknown reasons, the third movement is being skipped.
The Gypsy Airs is still a favourite repertoire work of all violinists. Among the virtuosos who have recorded the work are Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, Joshua Bell and Anne-Sophie Mutter.