Every superstar soloist from Paganini to Heifetz to Perlman has a signature piece designed to showcase heart, soul, and technical virtuosity. Zigeunerweisen was Pablo Sarasate’s. He wrote it based on music he heard while visiting Budapest, Hungary in the spring of 1877. During that trip he became acquainted with the alluring tunes of the Romani people, the Roma for short. The Roma, a much-persecuted minority without a country of their own, had developed over the years a distinctive music, and it has a magnetic effect on anybody who hears it.
Folk music has long been a source of inspiration for art music, and that tradition flourished during the last half of the 19th century when nationalism was in vogue among major composers. Before Sarasate, Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms composed major works based on the earthy, sensuous, and frequently hot-blooded Romani music. In Eastern Europe, the violin took center stage, in Spain the flamenco guitar.
Sarasate, a Spaniard from the Basque region, was one of the most internationally famous musicians during the 1880s and 1890s. He developed an unparalleled reputation both as a virtuoso violinist and a composer. The esteemed critic George Bernard Shaw remarked that many composers “write music for the violin, but Sarasate writes violin music”. His technique was so effortless that he made everything look easy, even the dazzling final two minutes of this classic. His tone was pure because his bow reportedly made no extraneous sound as he drew it across the strings. Bemused by the cascades of praise that came his way, he said, “A genius! For 37 years I have practiced for 14 hours a day, and now they call me ‘a genius’.” I guess practice does make perfect, if you have 37 years at your disposal.