Romani Reinvention: Gypsy-Inspired Modernism in the First Movement of Brahms’ Cello Sonata, Op. 99


  • Nicholas Kennedy


In an age which prized the exotic and fantastic, Romantic composers were naturally drawn to gypsies, their perceived characteristics of seductiveness and freedom, and most of all, their irresistible music. The so-called gypsy style or style hongrois, an established topos in Western art music, is a key element of such Romantic favourites as Bizet’s Carmen, and was particularly salient in the works of Johannes Brahms (1833–1897). This article examines the role of the style hongrois in the first movement of Brahms’ Cello Sonata in F major, Op. 99, hitherto unrecognised for its Hungarian-gypsy undertones in scholarship. Applying Shay Loya’s ideas about the modernizing verbunkos idiom in works of Liszt, I contend that Brahms not only makes extensive use of the style hongrois in this movement, but does so as a means of recasting standard features of Austro-German art music. I show that Brahms had numerous personal connections to real Romani music, and that many of the typical signifiers of the gypsy style can be seen in the Cello Sonata movement. I then explain how this reflects broader patterns of problematic cultural appropriation and the invocation of folk styles for purposes both musical and extra-musical; here I discuss commentaries by Auner, Loya and Gay. Finally, I propose a close relationship between the gypsy and learned styles in the movement: that Brahms invites us to reconsider canonical German elements as Hungarian-gypsy ones, and more broadly, that the two styles overlap, extend and reinforce each other, forming an integrated whole.