ClassicsOnline Home » BARTÓK, B.: 3 Hungarian Folksongs from the Csik District / 4 Dirges / Mikrokosmos, Vol. 6 (L. Kértesz)
Béla Bartók’s Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csík District are the product of his early collaboration with Zoltán Kodály, collecting and transcribing folk-tunes throughout Eastern Europe. The solemn Four Dirges express an acceptance of mortality through affirmation and serene restraint. The climax of a remarkable collection, volume 6 of Mikrokosmos includes technically demanding concert pieces of considerable complexity. Part of the tradition from which Bartók himself emerged, award-winning Hungarian pianist Lajos Kertész includes Kodály amongst his teachers. This is the first of four volumes of his recordings of Bartók’s piano music.
Béla Bartók (1881–1945)
Piano Music • 1
The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was born in 1881 in a region that now forms part of Romania. His father, director of an agricultural college, was a keen amateur musician, while it was from his mother that he received his early piano lessons. The death of his father in 1889 led to a less settled existence, as his mother returned to work as a teacher, eventually making her home in Pozsony, the modern Bratislava, where Bartók passed his early adolescence, counting among his school-fellows the composer Ernö Dohnányi. Offered the chance of musical training in Vienna, like Dohnányi he chose instead Budapest, where he won a considerable reputation as a pianist, being appointed to the teaching staff of the Academy of Music in 1907. At the same time he developed a deep interest, shared with his compatriot Zoltán Kodály, in the folk-music of his own and adjacent countries, later extended as far as Anatolia, where he collaborated with the Turkish composer Adnan Saygun.
As a composer Bartók found acceptance much more difficult, particularly in his own country, which was, in any case, beset by political troubles, when the brief post-war left-wing government of Béla Kun was replaced by the reactionary régime of Admiral Horthy. Meanwhile his reputation abroad grew, particularly among those with an interest in contemporary music, and his success both as a pianist and as a composer, coupled with dissatisfaction at the growing association between the Horthy government and National Socialist Germany, led him in 1940 to emigrate to the United States of America.
In his last years, after briefly holding teaching positions at Columbia and Harvard, Bartók suffered from increasing ill-health and from poverty which the conditions of exile in war-time could do nothing to alleviate. He died in straitened circumstances in 1945, leaving a new Viola Concerto incomplete and a Third Piano Concerto more nearly finished.
Bartók’s Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csík District date from 1907 and reflect the results of his early collaboration with Kodály. He had heard these folk-tunes played on a shepherd pipe in the village of Tekeröpatak and transcribed them for recorder and piano in From Gyergyó and then for piano solo. They keep the flute melody in the upper part, with a largely chordal accompaniment below, arpeggiated in the third of the set. Earlier publications of the pieces include the titles The Peacock, At the Jánoshida Fairgound and White Lily respectively.
Bartók wrote his Four Dirges in 1909–1910, later revising them. Parts of the set were first performed in Budapest in 1917 by Dohnányi. The first gently sustains resonances centred on the chord of B major. The second opens in unison, with added harmony notes held and then arpeggiated, as the music moves to a climax and then fades once more. The third has solemn fifths doubled in the lower register, an octave melody above. The same mood of serene acceptance also permeates the fourth piece.
Mikrokosmos is a remarkable collection of pieces, forming a coherent introduction to the kind of piano technique necessary for performance of contemporary music, starting from the simplest beginning and leading to the concert pieces of the sixth and final volume. The first two books, written in 1926, were dedicated to Bartók’s second son, Péter. By 1939 the collection included 153 pieces, some of which Bartók was including in his own recitals, as he did in the last concert he gave in Hungary in October 1940 and the first he gave in the United States after his emigration.
The sixth volume of Mikrokosmos contains only fourteen pieces, starting with the Free Variations of No 140, involving considerable complexity of rhythm. Subject and Reflection, moving from Allegro to Vivacissimo, allows the left hand to shadow the right with a simultaneous inversion of the subject. From the Diary of a Fly explores closely adjacent intervals and includes a passage marked molto agitato e lamentoso, as the fly bumps into a cobweb, surmounting the obstacle con gioia. Divided Arpeggios, marked Andante, is followed by a study in the most discordant intervals, Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths, with the direction Molto adagio, mesto. The two Chromatic Inventions can be played separately or as a piano duet, the second proposing an inversion of the original subject. Ostinato, marked Vivacissimo, starts with a repeated bass pattern. It is followed by March, with its hand-crossing and use of ostinato accompaniment patterns.
Mikrokosmos ends with pieces dedicated to the pianist Harriet Cohen, Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm. The rhythm in question is characterized by the use of beats of different length. The first dance, for example, has a time signature of 4 + 2 + 3, four quavers, followed by two and then by three. The second dance has a rhythm, in quavers, of 2 + 2 + 3, and the third dance is in 5/8, that is 2 + 3. The fourth dance presents a rhythm of 3 + 2 + 3, and the fifth, which includes the tempo direction Allegro molto, has 2 + 2 + 2 + 3. The final dance has a rhythm of 3 + 3 + 2. These six concert pieces end a remarkable compendium, a small world in itself, or, as Bartók alternatively suggested, a world for the small, for children, a path to musical maturity.
Recording Venue: The Hungaroton Studio in Törökbálint