Pablo Sarasate

Pablo Sarasate –

Zigeunerweisen (Pablo Sarasate: 10 March 1844 – 20 September 1908)

Few pieces of music embody at once both the spirit of the 19th century virtuoso of almost supernatural ability, as well as the wild and free spirit of the roaming gypsy. A virtuoso violinist at the height of his powers, Spanish composer Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascuéscomposed this gypsy-inspired show-piece to show off his own incredible technique. Zigeunerweisen Op. 20, was originally composed for violin and orchestra in 1878 when the composer was 33 years old, and was premiered the same year in Leipzig, Germany. The Gypsies which Sarasate paints, are not those of his native Spain, but rather Hungarians which he encountered on his recent concert tours there. It is based on themes of the Roma people, and in the last section the rhythms of the Csárdás. The origin of the Csárdás can be traced back to the 18th century Hungarian verbunkos, used as a recruiting dance by the Hungarian army.

Czardas Dance Pattern

Czardas Dance Pattern

Zigeunerweisen is structured in two sections of contrasting nature. A dramatic orchestral fanfare introduces the soloist, who steps into the spotlight with quasi-improvisational embellished cadenzas, accompanied but rhythmically free. The violinist sings a sad lament, decorated with a rich embroidery of trills, grace notes, harmonics, glissandi, pizzicati and spiccati. After a dramatic pause, the fast sections launches forth like a tumbler let loose in a circus ring – a brightly-lit dance of the most virtuosic kind, with violin pyrotechnics sparking off the strings.

The work follows the pattern familiar from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies (Sarasate met Liszt in Budapest during the 1870s). The Csárdás is characterized by a variation in tempo: it starts out slowly (lassú) and ends in a very fast tempo (friss, literally “fresh”). There are other tempo variations, called ritka csárdás, sűrű csárdás and szökős csárdás. The music is in 2/4 or 4/4 time. The dancers are both male and female, with the women dressed in traditional wide skirts, usually coloured red, which form a distinctive shape when they whirl.


Czardas dancers in magnificent costume

Czardas dancers in magnificent costume

The young violinist left Spain to enter the Paris Conservatoire at the age of twelve. He was such a celebrity in his homeland that Queen Isabella presented him with a Stradivarius violin her forces had recently looted in the war against Naples – and she personally paid for his studies in Paris. Within a year, he won a premier prix in violin and solfège at the Conservatoire, won a prize in harmony, and at the age of 19 set off on the first of many world tours: Europe, Africa, North- and South America and the East all received him with open arms and he was one of the most famous and celebrated musicians of his time.

“Whereas Paganini was noted for his flamboyant technical wizardry and emotional exuberance, and Joachim for his high-minded intellectualism and deep musical insights, Sarasate was famed for his elegance, precision, apparent ease of execution and, in the words of Eduard Hanslick, the Vienna-based doyen of Europe’s music critics, his “stream of beautiful sound.” The handful of recordings Sarasate made shortly before his death in Biarritz in 1908, the first commercial discs made by a world-famous violinist, attest to his remarkable skill. [Dr. Richard E. Rodda]

Here is a RARE AUDIO CLIP of the great Pablo Sarasate performing his own composition Zigeunerweisen.

Keep in mind that this was recorded around 1904, so the quality isn’t perfect. Also, the slow movement was left out, probably due to time constraints.


Zigeunerweisen Analysis

Zigeunerweisen Op.20 is in one movement but can be divided into four sections, the first three in the key of C minor and the last in A minor, based on the tempi:

  1. Moderato – An imposing, virtuosic introduction with slow majestic energy by the orchestra, then a little softer by the violin itself.
  2. Lento – The violin plays in lugubrious lento 4/4. This section has an improvisational quality; the melody, which essentially consists of pairs of 4-bar phrases, is punctuated with difficult runs and other technically demanding figures, including flying spiccato and ricochet bowings.
  3. Un poco più lento – The muted soloist plays a melancholic melody with the so-called reverse-applied dotted note (1/16 + dotted 1/8 rhythm: sixteenth noteeighth note), akin to the “Mannheim sigh” of the classical era; in 2/4 time.
  4. Allegro molto vivace – At this point, the pace becomes extremely rapid. The challenging solo part consists mainly of long spiccato runs, along with double stops, artificial harmonics and left-hand pizzicato; in 2/4 time.

    Zigeunerweisen Op.20 (Violin & Orchestra) by Pablo Sarasate: Played by Joshua Bell, with Andrew Litton conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

    Zigeunerweisen Op. 20 (Violin & Piano) by Pablo Sarasate: Played by Gil Shaham, with an uncredited pianist.