Thursday, May 15, 2014

Bartók - Two Romanian Dances For Piano, Opus 8a

Along with his friend and fellow Hungarian  Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók explored and collected folk music of Hungary and the surrounding areas. He did this from 1908 until the First World War curtailed his ability to travel safely.  The two young composers were among a handful of musicians that laid the groundwork for the field of study that came to be called ethnomusicology.

The two young composers discovered that the so-called Hungarian music Liszt quoted in his Hungarian Rhapsodies were different than the Magyar music he heard in the small peasant villages. Bartók found that much of the old folk music he heard was based on the pentatonic scale, the scale used in Asian folk music, while the music liszt considerd Hungarian was popular tunes written by Romani (Gypsy) musicians that used different scales and structure.  For a time  Bartók was highly critical of Liszt's brand of Hungarian music, but later he came to appreciate the older composer's contributions to music.

Zoltán Kodály
 Bartók was influenced early on by the composers Strauss, Brahms and Debussy. Liszt was also an influence as well as Stravinsky. To this eclectic mix  Bartók  incorporated what he had learned from his study of authentic folk music into his compositions, and not just the folk music of his native Hungary as he writes:
I have collected Hungarian, as well as Slovak and Romanian folk music, and used it as models. And, before the world war, I even made a journey to North Africa in order to collect and study the Arab peasant music of the Sahara Desert.
The Two Romanian Dances were written in 1910 when  he was studying and collecting folk music.

Bartok recording folk songs early in the 20th century
Number 1, Allegro vivace -  The first dance begins with the pianist playing both theme and accompaniment deep within the bass registry . This theme is heard throughout the piece and is hinted at in a middle section marked lento.  The theme returns and makes its way to the end, which is a final utterance of a fragment of the theme.  Bartók manages to keep interest in the piece by frequent changes in time signature, dynamics and tempo.

Number 2, Poco allegretto - An odd mix of themes and moods that veer from humorous to violent. Bartók makes it difficult to know where the music is going, but there's no doubt it is going there with a vengence.

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