Suggested Listening: “Csárdás” by Vittorio Monti

Get excited.  This week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC is… *drumroll* …Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás, performed below by the Szalai Hungarian Gypsy Band.

About the Composer:

Vittorio Monti (1869-1922) isn’t super famous.  His lifetime roughly coincided with the late Romantic powerhouses such as Debussy, Scriabin, and Grieg — no wonder poor Monti was overshadowed!  A born and bred Neapolitan, Monti studied violin and composition at the Conservatorio di San Pietro in Naples, and in his thirties he was hired to conduct the Orchestre Lamoureux in Paris.  His output wasn’t too prolific: a few ballets, some operettas, works for piano, violin show pieces, and even a mandolin method book.  Monti composed in the tradition of the 19th-century Italian composers who came before him — guys like Ponchielli (you probably know his “Dance of the Hours”) and Mascagni (maybe you’ve heard his Cavalleria Rusticana?) — a very operatic, theatrical style of composing.  Italian music of this era was infused with pride and patriotism, Italy having just emerged as a unified kingdom after decades of war and insurrection.  In this context, Monti wrote his music — and though few people know of him today, the Csárdás is his claim to fame.  Vittorio Monti: the original one-hit wonder. 

About the Piece:

You’ve heard it before.  You’ve definitely heard it before.

Even if you don’t know it from Lady Gaga’s chart-topping single (but, seriously, how could you not know “Alejandro”?) — even then, you’ve still heard Csárdás before.  It’s one of the most famous violin pieces ever.  I don’t have any evidence to support this claim other than personal experience — but trust me.  You’ve heard it before.

The Csárdás is a show piece, meaning that the instrumentalist gets to show off his or her technique (basically, how fast they can move their fingers, and how high or low they can play).  The piece is super versatile: though originally composed for solo violin and orchestra, it can be played on pretty much any instrument as a showcase of the musician’s talent.  Monti was inspired by the eponymous Hungarian folk dance — in fact, Hungarian folk music was source material for a lot of 19th-century composers, including Liszt, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.  The dance is characterized by sudden changes in tempo, starting slowly and ending fast.  Monti’s version goes through seven tempo variations — can you find them all? — from its dramatic opening to its thrilling conclusion.  As a result, the whole piece is a bit bipolar — but that’s the fun of it!  It’s all over the place, which makes every tempo change a surprise and keeps the piece fresh for the listener.  Doesn’t it just make you want to get up and dance?

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