Last Monday evening, as I was exiting the Metro station after work, I passed an elderly man busking on the sidewalk. He had white hair and a white mustache, and—an oddity for street musicians in these parts—he happened to be playing the piccolo. The musicians who perform near Washington-area Metro stops tend not to be very good. This one seemed quite a bit better than most. I was tempted to stop and listen, but the evening was frigid, and I reluctantly continued on my way. The few lines I’d heard, however, kept repeating in my head. I knew that music, knew it well—I’d probably heard it a hundred times—but only after several exasperating minutes was I finally able to identify it as the “Hora Staccato,” composed by the Romanian violinist Grigoraș Dinicu.
The work was made famous by Jascha Heifetz, who transcribed it in 1929 and played it with astonishing frequency. Between the years 1929 and 1954 alone, he reportedly performed it in concert 358 times. In an earlier age, transcriptions of this kind were ubiquitous on the recital programs of violinists such as Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Nathan Milstein, and Mischa Elman, an art form every bit as legitimate as any large-scale sonata or concerto. So how did the “Hora Staccato” come to be among the most popular of these so-called miniatures? Adolf Schmid, an Austrian-born composer and orchestrator who taught at Juilliard and worked as the chief arranger for NBC from 1930 to 1945, gave one version of the story:
One evening, while in a café in Bucharest, Romania, Mr. Heifetz was suddenly aware of a strangely exciting melody played by a young gipsy violinist. He was intrigued by the unusual character and rhythm of the piece, and upon inquiring, learned that it was the player’s own composition. The performer’s name was Dinicu, who, astonished at the great virtuoso’s interest in his work, seized a napkin and quickly produced on the linen a rough sketch of his composition. This was presented to Mr. Heifetz, and out of this source was developed the transcription known as “Hora Staccato,” a virtuoso number of bewildering effects and surprises, demanding technical left-hand ability of the highest order and unusual skill in staccato bowing.
It’s a romantic tale, indeed—the world’s greatest virtuoso discovering an anonymous café fiddler whose name he would subsequently make famous—but it’s a tale rife with exaggeration.
For one thing, as Allan Kozinn writes in his book Mischa Elman and the Romantic Style, Heifetz was taken to this particular café specifically to hear Dinicu. Edgard Feder, a Bucharest attorney and musician whose job it was to take visiting artists to cafés, restaurants, nightclubs, and other places of entertainment, told Heifetz that he simply had to listen to a young Romanian virtuoso named Dinicu. The notoriously competitive Heifetz initially demurred, expressing little interest in hearing any potential rival, but eventually changed his mind. By some accounts, Heifetz declared Dinicu to be the greatest violinist he’d ever heard, and though such a statement cannot be substantiated, Heifetz must have been suitably impressed. Did the Romanian violinist actually sketch the notes out on a napkin that night, handing the linen over to Heifetz? Perhaps. We do know that a far more prosaic transaction later took place, with Heifetz paying for publication rights and signing a formal agreement stipulating that Dinicu be recognized as co-author.
Far more misleading is Adolf Schmid’s dismissal of Dinicu as some “young gipsy violinist.” In truth, Dinicu (1889–1949) was a formidable musician, born into a Romani family in Bucharest and growing up in a household saturated with Romani folk music. He received a rigorous classical training, studying with one of the most renowned violin pedagogues of the age, Carl Flesch. In 1906, he graduated from the Bucharest Conservatory, composing his “Hora Staccato” to fulfill curriculum requirements and performing the work at his graduation ceremony. He subsequently received a scholarship to study at the Vienna Conservatory, but prejudice against his Romani ethnicity prevented him from going. He nevertheless embarked on a successful career, touring as a soloist and recording for Columbia in the late 1920s. He was a nimble virtuoso in the Old World tradition whose playing featured a wide vibrato and plenty of expressive slides. And though he thrived on the concert stage, he seemed most at home in the informal venues of his native Bucharest—the cafés, hotels, and clubs where he was free to play the Romani music that was his birthright.
Contained in the title “Hora Staccato” are two seemingly disparate elements, the first referring to the folk dance common in Romania, Bulgaria, and other parts of the Balkans (and that made its way to Israel via diasporic Jews). It’s a classic circle dance, with the participants joining hands, moving collectively forward and backward as the circle turns, and with various instruments (typically the violin, accordion, or cimbalom) providing the musical accompaniment. The term staccato refers to a style of bowing involving a series of fast, crisply articulated notes played without changing the direction of the bow. Pressure is alternately applied and released as the bow is drawn across a string, requiring superb control of the forearm and a suppleness in the wrist so that the notes sound brittle and clear. In Heifetz’s transcription, both up-bow and down-bow staccato are required. Up-bow staccato, fairly common in virtuoso violin music, is hard enough; the much rarer down-bow staccato is more difficult to pull off cleanly. These weren’t obstacles for Heifetz, who possessed a superhuman bow arm, and the “Hora Staccato” allowed him ample opportunity to show off his considerable powers.
Brilliant as it is, Heifetz’s transcription belongs to the world of the salon or concert hall. Not that it doesn’t capture a certain Romani flair— note, for example, how the piano approximates the sound of the cimbalom, playing offbeat eighth notes in oompah fashion. But ultimately, Heifetz codified and notated the piece so that any trained classical musician could play it more or less the same way every time. By comparison, Dinicu’s original, just as intoxicating, seems more idiomatic, more rustic, this contrast most apparent in the piece’s second theme. For Heifetz, the work was all about the staccato. For Dinicu, it was first and foremost about the hora. Staccato is prominent in the original, but Dinicu employed other techniques, too, such as spiccato and sautillé, in which the bow is made to bounce off the string (in staccato, the bow maintains contact with the string at all times). The trills also function as important stylistic elements, as do the little flicked grace notes and the seductive slides between certain notes. Listen to Dinicu’s glowing, effervescent recording, and you’d swear it was being improvised on the spot. Is it as flawless as any of Heifetz’s versions? No, but it just might impel you to dance.
Watch Jascha Heifetz, accompanied by Emmanuel Bay, play the “Hora Staccato”:
Listen to Grigoraș Dinicu play the “Hora Staccato”:
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