Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), Op. 20

by Max Derrickson

Pablo de Sarasate
(Born in Pamplona, Spain on March 10, 1844; died in Biarritz, France on September 20, 1908)

Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), Op. 20

Sarasate was a violin prodigy from Spain, and so tremendously gifted that he won the patronage of none other than his own Queen, Isabella II.  That royal backing eventually allowed him to study in Paris, which is where is career and fame truly began.  Sarasate began commissioning works from the great composers of his time, including: Eduard Lalo, Max Bruch, Henri Wieniawski, and Camille Saint-Saëns.  Saint-Saëns recalls the young Sarasate requesting his services as “a boy with such confidence and barely the outline of a mustache on his lip.”  But Sarasate also composed works for himself, such as Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), unabashedly to show off his virtuosic prowess – encores, if you will, and they are always dazzling.

The Romani people, otherwise known as Gypsies, are one of Europe’s largest minorities, as they were in Sarasate’s times.  Their culture greatly reveres music and their stunning prowess on the fiddle is legendary.  Their collective history of persecution, as well as their vigorous embrace of life, is told in their music – of tragedy alongside fiery and rollicking dances.  Such is tenor of Sarasate’s most famous composition, Zigeunerweisen, written in 1878 to show off his own legendary violin skills.

Gypsy music was prominent in Spain during Sarasate’s life – in fact, the music and dance of flamenco is essentially Gypsy music.  But for Zigeunerweisen, Sarasate was charmed by Western Europe’s current love affair with the Gypsy music from Hungary, thanks both to Brahms and Liszt.  But the underlying tunes are really simply vehicles for virtuosic splendor.  Sarasate unleashed a[…] fire spiccato (the bow bouncing on the strings), harmonics and artificial harmonics (where a string is pressed into the fret, then […] extremely high pitches), wild and fanciful […] and much more.  Zigeunerweisen is a power house of passion and technique, always an extremely challenging piece to play and a tremendous delight to hear.