What constitutes the territory of today’s Hungary is but a small part not only of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, but also of the “Hungarian” component of the Empire itself. The Empire had become a colossal melting pot of cultures, languages, traditions, idioms and histories. It included populations from a variety of linguistic backgrounds: the Germanic, the Latin (with a part of today’s Italy and Romania), the Slavic, and the Finno-Ugric, with Hungary itself. Moreover, these countries were inhabited by many linguistic and religious minorities, including, most notably, populations of Jewish and of Gypsy descent.
Virtually all of these populations (which could at times find cohabitation rather problematic) were however united by the love of music. In particular, some of the numerical minorities could become pre-eminent in terms of musical culture – and the above-mentioned Jewish and Gypsy traditions were second to none. In spite of occasional (and sometimes harsh) oppositions, however, the various populations lived together remarkably well. Their belonging in the same Empire fostered the mutual fertilization and hybridization of the various cultures. Certainly, the extreme linguistic difference between some of the languages (e.g. Hungarian and Italian, to name but two) rendered unlikely a direct verbal communication; German was frequently used as an international idiom. However, music needed no such translation, and it could travel from a culture to another in a very permeable fashion. This happened both at the level of orally-transmitted musical culture and at that of “classical”, written compositions. Paradoxically, the unwritten repertoire was both more stable in time, and more permeable to outside influences. Oral traditions were transmitted for many generations (while “classical” music used to be conceived in rather ephemeral terms), and influences from “foreign” cultures (whereby “foreign” may even mean the neighbouring village!) could find their way in a traditional repertoire.
The “classical” repertoire had frequently employed suggestions from such “folkloric” traditions, both local and foreign: one has only to think, for example, of the numerous “Hungarian” elements found in the works by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, to name but few. Such elements, however, were assumed by the composer in a rather exoticist fashion. The most typical elements of traditional peasant music were in fact rather alien to the contemporaneous “classical” tradition, and had therefore to undergo a process of “taming” before being adopted by the classical composers. For example, rhythmic inequality could actually find its way in the “classical” repertoire, but even there it would maintain its unwritten quality: for instance, the Viennese Waltz is not to be played as three equal beats lasting each one quarter, but its notation does not reveal its inherent irregularity, which is taught orally even nowadays. The scales employed in folk music frequently include unequal semitones; the effect of these unconventional tunings could be mimicked through the adoption of acciaccaturas and other embellishments. And one could continue for long.
Classically trained interpreters and composers did actually lack the notational symbols for transmitting the peculiarities of traditional music; moreover, judgments of value which presupposed the higher quality of “cultivated” vs. “popular” music encouraged musicians to consider the peculiarities of the traditional language as oddities, whose “correction” was commendable.
The figure of Béla Bartók therefore had an enormous importance in the process of changing the underlying paradigm. He was one of the first who attempted to record, study, analyze and preserve the “folkloric” repertoire in its original form, without reducing it to the rhythms, pitches and scales of the classical tradition. Living at a time when numerous composers were contemplating the exhaustion of the tonal system and considering alternative options (which could come from the modal sphere, or involve the dissolution of tonality, or be grounded on hitherto secondary intervals), Bartók found his true inspiration in the variety of cultures whose different traditions crossed each other, sometimes within a comparatively small geographical extension.
He had begun his musical activity as a concert pianist and pedagogue at the Academy of Budapest: there, the pupils had nicknamed him “The Wooden Prince” (with a pun on his famous composition), by virtue of his aristocratic manners and of his stiffy figure. But if his early piano output is clearly influenced by the Romantic virtuoso tradition (in particular by Liszt), his works soon began to take inspiration from the folk heritage, which he relentlessly studied with his colleague and friend Zoltán Kodály. The works recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album bear witness to this artistic quest, as well as to Bartók’s unceasing interest both in piano virtuosity and in pedagogy.
The Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, in fact, constitute the last organic series of pieces found in Bartók’s multi-volume work by the title of Mikrokosmos. This series is by no means the only pedagogical work by Bartók, but is certainly the most groundbreaking. It is composed of six volumes, written between 1932 and 1939, and including more than 150 pieces along with 33 exercises. With this masterpiece, Bartók revolutionized piano teaching: while the progressively increasing difficulty of the pieces is perfectly suited to pedagogical needs, the primary focus is on the musical education of children. In pronounced contrast with the prevalence of C-major and reassuringly tonal pieces in the exercises written by Czerny, to name but one, here the pupils encounter modality, polytonality and complex rhythms from the very beginning of their piano studies. Obviously, such challenges increase with time, and reach the level of true concert pieces in the last two volumes. While considering the publication of the series, in 1937 Bartók realized that more examples of the “concert” repertoire were needed, and so he crafted two “suites” of five pieces each; one of them constituted the earlier version of the Six Dances recorded here. The “Bulgarian” rhythm cited in the title indicates the various rhythmical structures adopted in the “suite”. The pieces have in common a very quick beat, corresponding to the semiquaver which is adopted as the basic rhythmical unit, and an irregular pattern, deriving from a process of “addition” of shorter units rather than from the division of longer beats. The combinations of these extremely quick beats, however, vary from one Dance to another; moreover, if the rhythm can be defined “Bulgarian” (loosely speaking), the melodic material seems to be influenced more closely by the Hungarian tradition. Lyrical moments are not very frequent, but nonetheless very significant. These Dances are dedicated to the British pianist Harriet Cohen: Bartók’s dedication, chronologically situated at the height of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, represents a clear political statement. In fact, his research on the traditional heritages of the various ethnical components of the Balkans was ideologically opposed to a xenophobic or nationalistic attitude: Bartók’s study and appreciation of the local traditions was an unequivocable affirmation of the inherent worth of all musical traditions (including those of the quantitative minorities). A truly welcoming society had to be able to foster the mutual appreciation of the various cultures in their specificity, rather than forcing uniformity on them all.
The 14 Bagatelles represent an earlier and almost pioneering instance of Bartók’s unique musical idiom, generated by the encounter of traditional music with the classical forms and styles. Their title is an explicit reference to Beethoven, whose Bagatellen had opened the way for a novel conception of the small-scale piano miniature. Not all of the fourteen pieces are built on folkloric materials, however; these are found in a particularly evident fashion in nos. 5 and 6, where traditional songs are adapted and adopted. Polytonality is abundantly present, and creates a feeling of distance which conveys the paradox of Bartók’s approach: the traditional heritage he seeks is not that of exotic places (as was, for example, the case with Debussy and his fascination for East Asia), it is the heritage of the country surrounding the great cities of the Empire. However, the differences in culture and social habits could render this music even more “distant” from its “cultivated” hearers than that of Debussy’s gamelan.
This album is crowned by another masterpiece of Bartók’s pianistic output, the iconic Piano Sonata dating from the wonder-year of his keyboard compositions. In the same year 1926, in fact, he also wrote the fascinating Suite Szabadban SZ 81 and the First Piano Concerto. In this Sonata, another of the characteristic features of Bartók’s writing is found, i.e. his view of the piano as a “percussion” instrument. This does not perforce mean harshness, and certainly not rude violence; rather, the “Wooden Prince” was capable of finding new sounds in the palette of this instrument, opening the way for many other musicians in the later years of the twentieth century. Dedicated to his wife, Ditta Pásztory, who was a great pianist in her own right, the Sonata skillfully reinterprets the structures of the Classical Sonata form, yet reinvents them in order to make them sustain the innovative language Bartók was daringly proposing.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2021
Béla Bartok: (b Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary [now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania], 25 March 1881; d New York, 26 Sept 1945). Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist and pianist. Although he earned his living mainly from teaching and playing the piano and was a relentless collector and analyst of folk music, Bartók is recognized today principally as a composer. His mature works were, however, highly influenced by his ethnomusicological studies, particularly those of Hungarian, Romanian and Slovak peasant musics. Throughout his life he was also receptive to a wide variety of Western musical influences, both contemporary (notably Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg) and historic; he acknowledged a change from a more Beethovenian to a more Bachian aesthetic stance in his works from 1926 onwards. He is now considered, along with Liszt, to be his country’s greatest composer, and, with Kodály and Dohnányi, a founding figure of 20th-century Hungarian musical culture.