Influence of Gypsies on 19th Century Music

Along with an evolution of the instrument itself, the guitar also underwent a notable evolution of style during the 19th century. Increased legitimacy of the guitar resulted in further support for careful study of the instrument. Thus, the 19th century saw a notable rise in conservatories focusing on guitar in London, Paris, Vienna, and other musical city centers in Europe (Martin). Out of these conservatories rose musicians who would forever change the style and perception of the guitar. It was at this time that established technique for more advanced playing was written about and taught. Previously, the lack of technical standardization made it difficult for aspiring guitarists to learn effective methods for performing more advanced repertoire. With this influx of competent and accomplished classical guitarists rose a foundation on which future musicians could study and build upon.

Conservatory influence was only partly responsible for the stylistic evolution of the 19th century. This era also saw an increased awareness of the gypsy people as they rose in population throughout certain regions of Europe (Pitrowska). Music associated with these people was highly improvisatory, elaborate, and lush. These traveling vagabonds were perceived as degenerates by most of Europe and were not a desired source of inspiration. However, pianist Franz Liszt is credited for turning the conversation about the gypsy people into a positive one that should be at least partially emulated (Pitrowska). Liszt, a Hungarian composer, was arguably the best pianist of his generation and wrote many compositions that integrated rhythm, chordal configuration, and form of Hungarian gypsy music into his classical compositions. These gargantuan pieces, specifically the Hungarian Rhapsodies, are wildly difficult, ostentatious, and exciting to hear. The taste of the classical audience thus shifted; virtuosity, bold integration of “lower-class” music, and exciting new musical styles were gradually becoming acceptable.

With the increased musical capacity of Torres’ instrument, it is understandable that this virtuosic form arose in guitar music shortly after (Martin). With the increased sonority and raised fretboard came performers such as Johann Kaspar Mertz and Francisco Tarrega who began performing complex music to impress the evolving European audience. With increased virtuosity came more respect for the instrument. Paired with adapted compositions of works by Bach and his contemporaries, the guitar quickly gained legitimacy and rose up the social ladder of musical instruments. Most importantly, this rise can be at least partially attributed to the integration of gypsy and folk influence on the instrument.

Image: A Gypsy Dancing in the Sorengo, Gustave Dore, mid-19th c. (Sothebys). The gypsies in this image are playing music and dancing, showing the fluid action of the music even through the stillness of a painting. Such music would influence composers such as Liszt and continue to direct future compositions for many years.

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