For this third installment of Piano Essentials, we are going deep into the forests of Eastern Europe. Béla Viktor János Bartók was a Hungarian composer whose life spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is one of my very favorite composers. He certainly deserves his own slot on Composer of the Week, but in the mean time, this post will delve into a little gem from one of his lesser known works.
Listening to Bartók can be challenging at first. His musical style is purposefully unique, synthesizing multiple influences. The piece we are looking at today belongs to a fairly early phase in his life. It comes from a work entitled Ten Easy Pieces for the Piano, which he wrote for the training of intermediate pianists. This is number 5, translated either as “Evening in Transylvania” or “Evening in the Village”. This little album of piano pieces reveals the composer’s growing fascination with the folk music of the peoples of the Carpathian Basin. This would characterize most of his work for the rest of his life. It also points to the influence of Claude Debussy, whose harmonic genius Bartók greatly admired.
Eclecticism: the Music(s) of Nationalism
Music in the late Romantic period became increasingly national. We’ve discussed the phenomenon of Romanticism before. Large empires were beginning to disintegrate as smaller nations and ethnic groups asserted their identities and independence. At the same time, there was a near obsession with innovation and “progress” in musical form. This odd pairing of nostalgic national myth-making with the onrush of modernity yields some bizarre results, one of which is the music of Bartók.
A prolific composer in multiple genres, Bartók draws widely on the influences of his time, such as Strauss and Debussy. What makes his work so memorable is the infusion of the folk music of Hungary and Romania. His flare for imaginative harmony (bordering on atonality) and his incorporation of folk melody and rhythm make for a unique experience. His music manages to be both ethnic, in its particulars, and European in its form and magnitude.
Transylvania itself, the setting for today’s piece, is similarly weird. The Latin name that we use in English means “beyond the forest”, a meaning that finds echoes in many of the languages spoken in the region. Today, it is part of the modern state of Romania, but with sizable Hungarian and Gypsy minorities. Bartók himself had Hungarian, Slavic and German ancestry, which may have contributed to his interest in a synthesis of East and West (a feeling with which I sometimes empathize). The piece we are considering captures, I think, the contrasts and diversity of this place. The piece opens with a hauntingly simple little 9-bar melody draped over descending chords, ending in a beautiful e minor 7th chord (E, G, B, D).
The second section is a 9-bar flurry of activity, this time non rubato, unlike the opening section, which allowed rubato. Rubato is a stretching of tempo for expressive effect. If a composer indicates rubato, this means that he wants you to bend, quicken or slow down the tempo, but always with a view to returning to a discernible pulse. This quick section requires staccato articulation in both hands, a rapid and repetitive fluttering melody over left hand chords. Again, we end up with e minor 7th, but then quickly shift to an unexpected c sharp minor as we decelerate and prepare for the next move.
The third part of the piece is an echo of the opening, but this time we have a different chord progression in the left hand. We begin at C Major and wind down towards a familiar cadence. This section is warm, but unsure of itself, a reprieve from one little outburst and preparation for another. This outburst comes quickly, mirroring the second section but even more athletic. The melody moves up an octave and this time we have some fiery triplets. The piece winds down to once more echo the opening passage. This is the third time we hear this melody, but it remains fresh because the chord progression is again re-imagined. It ends somber, numinous, back where we began.
This piece is delicate and robust, fast and slow, all at once. You have to work hard to make the transitions between the contrasting sections sound convincing. Pay special attention to the syncopation in section two. This will hang together if you practice the left hand chords well. Note each chord: e minor, G Major, etc. Practice the jumps between these chords independently, and don’t underestimate them. You must articulate them all staccato, but they must also be soft enough to allow the melody to ring out.