The term Zigeuner (‘Gypsy’), meant many things in nineteenth-century
Vienna. In music, it is best understood as denoting a professional
class, as much as an ethnic identity. ‘Gypsy’ bands commonly included
Jews, Greeks and Russians as well as Hungarian Roma. Mark Rozsavögli,
whose melodies were incorporated into Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’,
was actually Mordchele Rosenthal and his ‘Gypsy’ orchestra was
entirely Jewish; similarly the early recordings by ‘Belf’s Romanian
Orchestra’ preserve a predominantly Jewish repertory. Ironically,
Wagner was quite perceptive when he dismissed Brahms as a ‘jüdischen
Czardas Aufspieler’.

Instrumental bands like these played whatever music their audiences
wanted to hear rather than their own dedicated repertory, even
American popular hits towards the end of Brahms’s life. What they were
famous for was the energy of their performing style, or as Liszt put
it “the reveries, effusions and exaltations of this wild music”.
Elizabeth von Herzogenberg’s attitude towards it is typical when she
praises of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances as a “medley of twirls and
grace-notes, this jingling, whistling, gurgling clatter… you raise
it to its highest level, without diminishing its primitive wildness
and vigour”.

The dances here come from a variety of sources. Many have specific
regional associations and still form part of living traditons today.
‘Korund’ and ‘Kolomeyke’ are both fast circle dances, the first named
after a town in Russia, the second from Kolomyia in Ukraine. The name
‘Hora’ ultimately derives from the Greek ‘choros’ and having been
established all over Eastern Europe can now mean any number of dance
rhythms. ‘Der Gasn Nign’ means ‘the street tune’ and is one of many
pieces with the same title in the early klezmer repertory, while
‘Goldene Chasene’ means ‘Golden Wedding’ – in the sense of splendour,
rather than age.