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Romanian Folk Dances, by Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók was a massive presence of 20th century music, and is widely considered the greatest composer from Hungary. Beginning to compose at the age of nine, Bartók gave his first performance only two years later with one of his original compositions featured on the program. Following the death of his father, Bartók and his mother moved to Bratislava where he began to study piano with Laszlo Erkel, son of composer Ferenc Erkel. Later, Bartók enrolled in Budapest’s Royal Hungarian Academy of Music where he furthered his studies in composition with Janos Koessler, and piano with Istvan Thoman. Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner were well known to Bartók when he first became serious about his musical studies, but it wasn’t until he heard the compositions of Richard Strauss that he was inspired to become a serious and devoted composer. Bartók’s early style is often described as Brahmsian, but the tone poem Kossuth (1903) about Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the 1849 Hungarian revolution, returned him to his roots. Bartók’s Violin Concerto (1908) was more traditional in regard to form, but the sound at its root was Hungarian, hinting at Bartók’s future compositional style. In 1907, Bartók’s friend and colleague Zoltán Kodály returned to Hungary from his studies in Paris, and introduced Bartók to Debussy, which would later influence (along with Strauss and Hungarian folk idiom/speech patterns) Bartók’s only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle (1911). 

Between 1906 and the end of World War 1, Bartók and Kodály began a lifelong project of studying, collecting, and classifying thousands of folk tunes using an “Edison” phonograph. These folk tunes provided tunes, rhythms, harmonies, and ideas for their compositions as well as scholarly monographs and a gigantic set of twelve columns containing their research from Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Northern Africa. The intent behind this project was to provide examples of, foundation for, and a renaissance of authentic Hungarian music. Bartók and Kodály put together a huge catalog that was published in 1951. Bartók’s friend and Hollywood composer, Miklos Rozsa, branded their work as the foundation for a new and authentic Hungarian nationalist style. 

Bartók’s work with folk music came more into play in his personal compositions following the completion of his project with Kodaly. His Romanian Folk Dances from Hungary (1915), later entitled Romanian Folk Dances, is a suite of seven dances for piano that remain astoundingly faithful to the originals he heard performed by the fiddlers and flautists in 1910 and 1912. Later, he transcribed them for chamber orchestra with modern harmonization that doesn’t detract from the original writing. Additionally, his publishers issued a version for violin and piano by violinist Zoltan Szekely that Bartók often played with Szekely and Josef Szigeti. The suite is a short one, performed without pause. The fast dances are exciting and rhythmic; the slower ones dreamy and seductive. Harmonies are often quartal with a touch of Eastern coloring.

  1. Joc cu bata: Stick Dance

  2. Braul: Sash Dance

  3. Topogpo/Pe loc: “In One Spot” is more serious and probably originally played by flutes.

  4. Bucsumí tanc: “Dance from Bucsum.” The original is faster than Bartok’s tempo.

  5. Poarga Romaneasca: “Romanian Polka.”

  6. Aprozo/Marun el: Two fast dances: one from Beiu and the other from Neagra. 

**They are often listed as one because the first is so short.​

In many ways, Romanian Folk Dances are a prime example of Bartók’s  researched folk materials incorporated into his own personal compositional style. The melodies were found in the Transylvanian region of Romania, and originally performed on flute or violin. The Stick Dance was said to have been heard being played by two Gypsies, according to Bartok. The Dance from Bucsum, was a dance from a district in Romania that was originally called the Bucium, and the popular Romanian Polka follows. All of the melodies in these dances use the scales of the traditional modes which are the same scales that are used in Gregorian chant, and incorporated, the listener can also expect to hear influences of the Middle East. These dances, made up of infectious rhythms, exotic scales, and traditional folk dances, are delightful and fundamental, but also elegant, and a testimony to the unique orientation of this giant of twentieth-century music. 

In this early work, the melodies he’d learned from his folk research retained their pitches and rhythmic content. This changed in his later compositions, when the folk idiom was so ingrained in his style that Bartok was able to invent his own melodic and rhythmic content.  Bartók’s composed counterpoint and harmony written to accompany these melodies was also clearly influenced by the folk music he recorded, and characteristic of his own idiosyncratic and recognizable harmonic language. The Romanian Folk Dances, in both their solo piano and orchestral version, remains one of Bartok’s most popular and accessible compositions. The directness and immediacy of the folk dances allos the listener to clearly hear how his ethnomusicological interests permeated his later and more complex pieces. 

In 1943, Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky visited Bartok’s hospital bed at the urging of Reiner and Szigeti to commission a work in memory of the conductor’s deceased wife. Bartok did not think he would live to finish it, but the project rejuvenated him enough to complete what turned out to be the Concerto for Orchestra (1943) plus the Sonata for Solo Violin (1944). Piano Concerto No. 3 and the Viola Concerto followed, but he finished neither before his death. The Piano Concerto was nearly done, but the Viola Concerto was left in scraps. Both were completed by Hungarian composer, Tibor Serly. Bartok lived long enough to appreciate the success of Concerto for Orchestra and the beginning of his acceptance in the U.S. before dying on September 26, 1945.

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