Bartok’s music is some of the most unique and most polarizing in classical music, even when considered amongst his 20th century peers who were breaking down the tonality structures that had served music for hundreds of years. Like them, he embraced the breaking away from the major and minor tonality structure but unlike others it was not to be different, but because of his unique background.
In 1904, when Bartok was in his early 20s, he heard a peasant woman singing indigenous folk songs. Upon further investigation, he began to understand that the rural villages of Hungary constituted a vast repository of folk music generally unknown to the outside world, even to the residents of Budapest.
Bartók was fascinated with this music. Although much of it was centuries old, it sounded startlingly fresh to his ears. Moreover, it seemed to Bartók the musical embodiment of his nation’s soul. As such, it resonated with the spirit of Hungarian nationalism that had already taken hold of him.
He became obsessed with tracking down original folk tunes from tiny villages in Hungary and Romania. Together with fellow composer Zoltan Kodaly, Bartok recorded, notated and collected thousands of original tunes, ultimately preserving an entire culture. Bartok’s discovery of these folk songs would be the defining factor in the development of his unique style and voice.
Bartók, upon studying the Hungarian folklore, felt freed from the restraints of traditional major/minor tonality. The peasant tunes, based on old modes and pentatonic scales, were very liberating for him. His characteristic melodies seemed to circle around a given note and move within a narrow range. He was fond of repeating fragments on different beats of the measure, producing primitive effects like a melody turning in on itself. The influence of folk songs was also manifest in his use of the intervals of seconds, fourths, and sevenths.
He loosened the old modes through chromatic ornamentation. He also experimented with polymodality. His fondness for the simultaneous use of major and minor sonorities was a result of his experimentation. Characteristic is his technique of superimposing independent streams of chords, as well as quartal harmony, cluster chords, and parallel seconds, sevenths and ninths.
From the folk dances of southeastern Europe, he incorporated numerous asymmetrical formations.
He had a fondness for repeated notes and passages based on alternating patterns. He, along with Stravinsky, played a major role in the revitalization of western rhythm. He developed new rhythmic patterns modeled on those of Balkan and North African folk music, and he explored unusual instrumental colors and textures. His orchestration exemplifies the contemporary tendency to use color for the projection of ideas rather than an end in itself.
However, he also had a deep knowledge of and regard for musical tradition, and certain traditional ideas and procedures remained part of his work as a composer. He favored sonata form, the venerable pattern of thematic exposition, development and reprise so characteristic of the classical masters, which he used in his Concerto for Orchestra and other compositions. He also valued traditional counterpoint and often developed his melodic ideas through fugal imitation.
Beginning in the late 1930’s Bartók shed the most acerbic elements of his style and moved toward an accessible modernism that placed a premium on expressive and even pleasing melodies. In place of pungent dissonance he offered an original use of conventional chords and traditionally consonant intervals, and the formal clarity of his compositions grew even more pronounced. You will see this in the work we are listening to tonight.
First tonight, a bonus piece. Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro is a short piano piece written in 1919 that is one of the first pieces to treat the piano as a percussion instrument rather than a string instrument (which technically kit can be considered both). This recording is of Bartok himself playing.
Now on to the main piece tonight, the Piano Concerto #3.
Bartók knew he would never play his third concerto; its solo part is written not in the explosive and
incisive style that suited his own hands—the style of his first two concertos, which he often did play—but in a serene and more lyrical vein meant for his wife Ditta (it was intended as a birthday gift). He never made it to the intended birthday; he (for the most part) finished this on his deathbed, four days before he died. His student Serly had to orchestrate the last seventeen bars; the composer’s shorthand instructions were all he needed to complete, without any
doubt, what is Bartók’s last fully envisioned work.
At the opening of the Allegretto, the piano etches a strong, simple melody – some think it a Hungarian folk melody —o ne note in each hand, two octaves apart, against a murmur in the strings. Although the music rises to moments of enormous energy and bristling excitement, the texture remains remarkably uncomplicated and transparent. It’s as if Bartók meant for us to hear every note. The left hand of the piano solo often mirrors the right hand or plays the same music in contrary motion. The scoring is light—the trombones play in only two measures—and there’s much doubling of instrumental lines; rarely does Bartók weave a dense fabric of many individual voices
The second movement is based on Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” (Holy song of thanksgiving), the sublime third movement of the String Quartet, op. 132, written after Beethoven recovered from a serious illness. (Bartók uses the marking Adagio religioso for the only time in his music; Serly later adopted it for the unfinished Viola Concerto.) Like the corresponding movement from Beethoven’s quartet, it has an uncommon serenity and a complete command of a few perfectly suited materials. The strings begin like Beethoven’s, slowly unfolding and refolding a tiny idea. The piano pronounces a benediction of eloquent chords, essentially a simple, beautiful chorale.
The fragile middle section of the second movement is Bartók’s last evocation of night music. (Bartok would often use music to evoke the sounds of nature in his slowl movements, now called ‘night music’). Over string tremolos, the piano, oboe, clarinet, and flute trade bird calls—some drawn from Bartók’s own notations made while he recuperated the previous year in Asheville, North Carolina. The orchestra is used sparingly, to wondrous effect. The piano awakens to the full power of the night, in ripples of sound and cascading chords, but the winds restore calm and quiet. The piano plays a lovely two-part invention, rises to a great climax, and then yields to the infectious pulse of the final Allegro vivace. Please listen for the winds playing the same chorale that the piano opened with, while the piano plays an achingly beautiful counter theme.
The finale’s main theme, with its identifying rhythm (short-long, long-short), recurs again and again,
separated by aggressively fugal passages. The movement is lucid and relaxed, even in the most complex counterpoint. Bartók is in complete command throughout. This is the exuberant Bartok, but in his final, mature style.