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Jews, Gypsies, Hungarians and Violins



In deliberately using the contentious word Gypsy (=Tzigan) in my title, I seek to place Joachim (and other Jewish violinists of his era) in the context of the cooperation of Jewish and Roma folk musicians in Central Europe of which evidence extends from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. This also touches on the debate as to whether ‘gypsy music’ as conceived in the 19th century was Roma or Hungarian. The Jewish community of Esterhazy Hungarian estates, where Joachim was born, was largely descended from Jews expelled from Vienna after 1670. His family moved to Pest when Joachim was two years old, where he began his studies, continuing them in Vienna and Leipzig. Joachim was born into an era when Jewish musical art-music virtuosi, formerly a virtually unknown phenomenon, were becoming a commonplace. A contemporary was Ede Reményi, born in Miskolc. Born a Jew (as Eduard Hoffman), Reményi presented himself as a ‘gypsy violinist’ and introduced his accompanist, the young Johannes Brahms, to the so-called ‘gypsy-style’. Reményi and Brahms visited Joachim in 1853 – the commencement of Brahms’s relationship with Joachim. Joachim also used the ‘gypsy-style’ in his compositions, notably in his 1857 Violin Concerto ‘in the Hungarian style’. The (self-)identification of Jewish violinists with ‘gypsy music’ is not limited to Reményi and Joachim; the leading ‘gypsy’ musician Márk Rózsavölgyi (1787-1848) was born Mordechai Rosenthal in Balassagyarmat. Many leading Roma violinists were among his pupils. Liszt eulogized (and borrowed) Rózsavölgyi’s music (and also praised Reményi as a ‘gypsy musician’). Joachim’s life, compositions and technique in this context provide a perspective on competing aspects of ‘nationalism’ in the music of his era, and on the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ in our own.


Dr. David Conway is an Honorary Research Associate at the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, University College London. His book Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. Recent publications include chapters in ‘Judaism in Opera’ (Conbrio, 2017) and The Oxford Handbook of Faust in Music (Oxford University Press, 2019), and articles in Wagner Journal, Jewish Renaissance, Hudobný Život (Slovakia), and elsewhere. Conway is chair of the London opera company HGO and director of the Slovak music festival ‘Levočské babie leto’. From October 2019 -March 2020 he will be a Polonsky visiting Fellow at the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Oxford University.

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