Barbu Lautaru (The Fiddler)

Barbu Lautaru rustled up his physical and artistic resources, desirous to make an impression on Franz Liszt whom he met during the great Hungarian virtuoso's visit to Moldavia. Their encounter became famous thanks to an article carried by the French weekly La Vie Parisienne, issue 48 of November 28, 1874. The contemporary press took over this piece with various errors, exaggerations, omissions, and alterations and therefore we want to present it now as translated by Theodor Burda: They were Gypsies from Iasi and their head was Barbu Lautaru. They all wore long gowns, fitted over the chest, and girdled at the middle with waistbands, then sheepskin caps, and buskins. Their long, thick tails fell to their shoulders. Their chief, Barbu was old, with his two-pronged gray beard going down to his chest. Under the cap that reached to his forehead two eyes full of intelligence and merriment glittered. When they entered the residence, they put their hands on their chests and then bowed to the ground, in prayer. They were then served champagne. Alecsandri gave the signal and Barbu turned to his band, beckoned them with a finger, and suddenly a strange harmony enveloped that big, resounding hall. The band consisted of a violin, a panpipe and a kobza, which is an accompanying string instrument that resembles the mandolin. Barbu started to play a national march after which the boyars, enthusiastic, began to throw coins into his glass, enjoining him thus: "Drink, Barbu, drink!" And the old virtuoso would swallow wine and money at the same time, trying to hold the coins in his mouth. Then he took them out and kissed them respectfully. "Listen, Barbu," Neculai Sturdza intervened. "Play for us 'So you told me...'" Barbu bowed to the ground and the band started to intone "So you told me once," a smooth, melancholy and somewhat savage song, in an endless minor key which the Gypsy band played with a special accent, in their own particular execution. The two musicians responsible for the accompaniment played alone, plucking the strings of the kobza with a plectrum and singing those sweet words of the song, well-known in Romania, "So you told me once..." Then inspired by a truly artistic fire, Barbu attacked a Gypsy song, absolutely amazing. Liszt watched him speechless. Under the influence of the grandiose scene under his eyes, he listened religiously to those rambling artists who could not even read music but felt it so deeply. It is impossible to describe the sentiment and the zest with which they worked their bows; the sharp notes of the panpipe filled the grave air and the ample song, throwing into relief its hoarse, strident lament. That music engulfed cries of despondency, and the maddening, melancholy calls of the wilderness. The tune was enhanced by the monotonous accompaniment of the kobza, and from time to time beautified by a sung phrase, just one that stopped abruptly only to be repeated after a certain interval. Liszt continued to listen, propped against an oak chair. He seemed practically to devour the musicians with his eyes, and his nerves felt jolted, which could be detected in his prolonged face. When the last note died out he clutched his hands and his oppressed chest heaved a sight of relief. "Oh, how beautiful it is!" he said. All the boyars clapped their hands. Liszt took a fistful of coins from his pocket and dropped them in the performer's glass saying: "Let's drink, kobza player!" They clicked their glasses. Liszt was so excited that he trembled when he emptied his. At the back of the hall, the boyars, used to such curious tunes, were conversing. Still, they did not forget to toss a few coins in the glass of the wonderful musician when he finished a piece. After a few moments Liszt stood up and went to the instrumentalist and told him: "Barbu, you acquainted me with your music. Now I'll present you mine!" In reply the old musician put his hands on his chest and bowed to the ground. Liszt sat at the clavier and silence fell all of a sudden. The Gypsy with the instrument in his hand listened carefully, keeping a constant eye on the mysterious musician. Liszt began with a prelude and then under the spur of his extraordinary inspiration and of his tensed-up nerves, he improvised on a Hungarian march the long and melodious phrase of which prevailed among the arpeggios and the trills and the stupendous complexities that adorned his song. Enlivened, as if inebriated with the tune, his face characteristically sallow, his eyes half closed, he went from one end to the other of the clavier and his hands teased out of the keys a torrent of pearls slowly coming to mingle with the first motif; his fingers, ran on the keyboard with incredible swiftness, letting out metallic notes and then returning constantly to the same tune of the beginning, grandiose, majestic and sad, like an organ song. It was indeed too beautiful. Liszt had never risen to such heights; the boyars listened without understanding anything but the instrumentalist did; he devoured the player with his eyes, not losing a single note and his countenance seemed strangely moved throughout the brilliant improvisation. Liszt rose amidst the boisterous applause of the assembly. Barbu Lautaru went straight to him and giving him a flute of champagne in his turn, told him in Romanian: "It is my turn, master, to ask you to drink." They clicked glasses again. "Barbu, you kobzaman," Liszt asked him, "what you do you think of this tune?" "It's so beautiful, master," the old instrumentalist replied, "that, I'd like to try myself to play it, if you allow me." Liszt smiled at him dubiously, nodding that he accepted.The musician turned to his band and after attaching his kobza to his neck, he started to play the Hungarian march. Nothing was left out. Not the tills, not the arpeggios, not the variations and repeated notes, not those adorable and so familiar switches from semitone to semitone, and the return to the first motif. Barbu Lautaru played in detail on his kobza the entire improvisation of the artist who was listening terrified to the work he had played a moment before on the clavier for the first time and had perhaps forgotten by now.The band followed their leader with precision, keeping the nuances and sticking to Barbu who pushed the tune forward, melting Liszt's heart.When the song ended, Liszt jumped up at once and walking straight to old Barbu kissed him warmly. With customary ease he took a glass of champagne, and offered it to him: "Drink, Barbu kobzaman, my master, for God made you an artist greater than I am!" Excerpted from Portraits of Fiddlers, Bucharest, Publishing House for Music, 1970

by Viorel Cosma (b. 1927)