Brahms showed an early interest in Hungarian gypsy music, to which he had been introduced by his early acquaintance with Remenyi and his continuing friendship with Joseph Joachim, whose background was similar. In the 1850 she played gypsy melodies on the piano, some of which were never written down. The group of ten Hungarian Dances for solo piano was published in 1872, after earlier rejection of a smaller group of dances by a less acute publisher than Simrock, who issued the first set of dances in a piano duet version in 1869. It is thought that the original version was for solo piano, a form in which they had clearly long been known to those in Brahms’s circle of friends. To the composer these dances were arrangements of what was then thought to be Hungarian folk music, although later research, in particular by Bela Bartók and Zoltan Kodaly was to establish this kind of music as simply part of popular Hungarian art music. Whatever the derivation of their rhythmic and melodic material, some of it remembered from the playing of Remenyi or heard in casual cafe performance, the Hungarian Dances are unmistakably stamped with the musical personality of Brahms.
The set of ten Hungarian dances opens with the famous G minor dance, followed by a D minor dance, with a central D major episode, and a third in D minor, with a lively D major middle section. The fourth dance, in F sharp minor, is of a more expressive cast, leading to a more passionate companion in the same key. The sixth of the set, in D flat major, frames a slower C sharp minor section in livelier outer sections, leading to the rhythmic seventh dance and an eighth in A minor in the rhythm of the first. A dance in E minor is succeeded by the final rapid E major that rounds of the work.
The sixteen Waltzes that form Opus 39 were written in Vienna in 1864 and published two years later with a dedication to the critic Eduard Hanslick, who welcomed such an unexpected gift from a serious, North German composer, who might have been supposed incapable of such Viennese abandon. If the great symphonies of Brahms continue the tradition of Schubert, they may be imagined as a tribute to the city where the compose was now to make his home.
The original version seems to be that for piano duet, a form that had an immediate popular commercial attraction and would have provided Hanslick with music to share with young ladies of his acquaintance, with whom he was accustomed to play duets. The Waltzes are in a simpler and shorter form than the slightly more complex Hungarian Dances.