Pablo de Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen

My grandfather came to the United States from Hungary in 1904. He hailed from somewhere near a city called Sárospatak, which means Muddy Branch. My father said grandpa had been a corporal in the Hungarian army, and though I’ve never been to Hungary, I have the feeling his was an agrarian background. He ended up working in a factory in South Bend, Indiana–my home town, which has a large number of immigrants from eastern Europe–and he always kept an immaculate garden.

Growing up, Hungary was associated in my mind with gypsies, and I thought it was kind of cool to be associated with them. Of course now, the group formerly called “gypsies” are actually called Roma and originally emigrated from India. Perhaps the association goes back to the local radio station in South Bend, which every Sunday afternoon devoted an hour to Hungarian music. Our Sunday ritual was church, followed by a big lunch, and then an hour of what the announcer always referred to as “haunting gypsy melodies.” These consisted of fiery Csárdás (dance) numbers with cymbaloms (hammered dulcimers) and tenors singing out heartrendingly poignant melodies. Today, this type of music still tugs at the corners of my heart.

The signature piece of the Hungarian Hour was Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, though, when I once called the station they said the piece was called “You’re the only girl in the world for me.” Typical. You know the piece–it’s so schmaltzy that they use it in every cartoon when a character acts hurt, and people still play a tiny violin with thumb and index finger while they hum this tune to someone who complains.

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