One of my favourite boxed sets of CDs is a collection of Bela Bartok's piano music, performed by his friend and fellow Hungarian, Gyorgy Sandor. It includes most of his works for the instrument (the main omission being the late, pedagogical Makrokosmos), thus providing a wide overview of his output. I have tendency towards the music-lover's equivalent of binge-drinking and one of the happiest months of my life was spent getting to know all the works in the collection.
Bartok is for me the most musically satisfying of the great pioneers of the Twentieth Century - more satisfying than Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Hindemith or Webern - and the long journey he took towards his later, more classical style (finding his voice), which was most definitely reached by 1926 and the Piano Sonata, is a particularly fascinating one to follow, with all manner of unexpected by-ways and life-enhancing masterpieces.
In this post, I want to stick with some of the earlier pieces and explore the period when the adventure first really took off.
Sandor's selection begin in 1907 (thus ignoring a few early Romantic works), following Bartok's famous folksong-collecting excursions with Zoltan Kodaly (of whose music I'm also very fond), and from that year came the Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csik District (an arrangement of a delectable piece for recorder and piano called From Gyergyo), where the beautiful, improvisatory-sounding folk melodies are set to unobtrusive accompaniments. The first, 'The Peacock', is particularly haunting.
His first masterpiece for piano, the fourteen Bagatelles of 1908, was the very next work he wrote for the instrument and marks a major step into new territory. It's a revealing biographical detail that Bartok held Beethoven in particularly high esteem throughout these formative years. Beethoven used his bagatelles to boldly experiment whilst, simultaneously, giving delight - which is what Bartok does too. What was aiming at with the Bagatelles? Unquestionably, like his hero, he was trying to to be original. He was also seeking to apply the lessons of his close study of folk song. Most obviously, he wanted to bring the modal harmonies of folk music into 'art music'. Why? Partly because the old tonic-dominant harmonies of the Classical and Romantic eras didn't fit with the tunes he'd been collecting (and which he now wanted to write for himself) but also because he got a great deal of personal pleasure from those unfamiliar harmonies and, given his character, surely wanted to share this enthusiasm with the whole world. I think it's safe to say that he was also bored with the (over)familiar harmonies of Romantic Music. He was assuredly very consciously reacting against Romanticism and all its many 'unnecessary' embellishments, trying to strip music down to its essentials. Out went virtuosity for virtuosity's sake, for instance. He was also exploring what Schoenberg would later call 'the emancipation of the dissonance', as a means to add further fresh colours to the world of harmony. His ear would almost unerringly find the right 'wrong' notes - which is more than can be said for Schoenberg and many of his dissonances, especially through repetition, come to sound consonant. Bartok, according to biographies, knew nothing of Schoenberg's contemporary radical experiments at the time, so any fleeting resemblances between their music at this stage in their respective careers is a case of sheer coincidence, or of convergent evolution. Bartok's increasing use of radical chromaticism was his own work. There were also some matters of the heart to contend with.
Bagatelle No.1 (the link leads to the first of three YouTube videos, each with a group of bagatelles) is generally described as being a study in bitonality (playing music in two keys at the same time) though it's heard as a wistful, modal tune with marked Hungarian characteristics - all those fourths - set against an accompaniment of melancholy falling figures with 'wrong notes'. It's pure poetry and a particular favourite of mine. The second Bagatelle may feature a lot of repeated major seconds in its accompaniment (usually considered dissonant, but not sounding it here) and have all manner of wayward melodic leaps, but the effect makes me think of slapstick comedy, where the comics, pretending to be tipsy, stagger, slip and slide all over the place. The third Bagatelle sets a gloomy melody under unchanging, fast-moving chromatic figures, like a worried man walking in heavy rain. Such mental images are very personal, of course, and you may find them fanciful, but this is such suggestive music that I find it hard to avoid them. The tune is formed from just five notes, confined within a tritone, and the ostinato accompaniment is also made from just five notes. After this introspective re-imagining of chromatic harmony comes a Bagatelle (No.4) that sets an authentic Hungarian folksong in rich, majestic chords (both are also favourites of mine). It's a glorious tune with some subtle shifts of mood and striking (delightful) dissonances. The other Bagatelle that sets an actual Slovak folksong is the one that follows (No.5) and is a complete contrast in mood, with a light, chattering accompaniment to the cheerful tune. There's are such charming changes of mode too. The sixth Bagatelle is deeply ambiguous harmonically and it's in numbers like this where early Bartok travels down a path that strays close to early Schoenberg, though Bartok is much more concerned than Schoenberg ever was with getting you to focus your attention on his lead melody. The piece feels deeply elegiac (and is another of my favourites). Bagatelle No.7 is the precursor of many a 'grotesque' movement by Bartok. If Grieg's trolls had distant Hungarian cousins, maybe this would be what they'd sound like after getting drunk! Many of Bartok's romps sound (to me) like people getting drunk!! The eighth Bagatelle (yet another favourite) begins by using that old expressive device, the appogiatura (when a note dissonant to the harmony resolves onto a consonance), but displaces it over an octave, so as to make it even more expressive - and strange. Chromatic colouring plays against modal writing in a very interesting way throughout this piece.
Bagatelle No.9 is even stranger - though it's meant to be a scherzo. It's played in unison by both hands and makes mysterious use of the interval of the tritone (the augmented fourth, 'the devil in music') in a way that suggests that Bartok, despite fighting against his countryman Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, felt the highly experimental spirit of late Liszt in his bones. This called easily have been called a 'Mephisto Bagatelle'. Gird your loins for the tenth Bagatelle! Bartok-lovers know this sort of piece well - the soon-to-come Allegro barbaro ('Barbarous Allegro') of 1911 (one of the most famous/notorious of the composer's piano pieces) is but one of many descendants of this piece. The fiercer kind of folk-dance stands in spirit behind it, and the fierceness is certainly a quality the composer loves to bring out. It's exciting, isn't it? There are lulls in the ferocity, and in these lulls we venture again into stranger, more chromatic valleys. (This is another favourite). Bagatelle No.11 is marked by falling phrases and it has a contrasting central section that sounds a little like someone improvising on a guitar, strumming the broken chords of his accompaniment moodily. The main theme makes engaging use of rests.
Bagatelle No.12 (a favourite, wouldn't ya know it!) is that one that sounds most like Schoenberg - specifically, the experimental Schoenberg of the Op.11 Piano Pieces. (Pure coincidence, remember!). It begins with another glorious, gloomy melody (a sort of refrain) into which all manner of fast-repeating notes, odd gnarls of figuration and chromatic harmonies steal. Expressive melody meets somewhat menacing caprice. High, chiming figures (evoking church bells) hint at the still-some-way-off (in time) colour chords of Messiaen, and are another intriguing feature of this mysterious number. (Messiaen greatly admired Bartok.) This touch of impressionism perhaps reflect Bartok's recent discovery of Debussy - an influence that was to become much more obvious in some of the pieces that immediately followed the Bagatelles. The gloom deepens yet further in the thirteenth Bagatelle. This is an out-and-out dirge and was written to commemorate (if that's the right word!) the day the composer was dumped by his fiancée, Stefi (pictured above). The melody wanders, depressingly, over obsessive repeating chords. An an expression of feeling, it's a powerful number beautifully crafted. The closing Bagatelle sends in an insouciant melody to cheer Bartok (and us) up, but the good humour has a very heavy hint of irony about it - especially as the melody (like the one in the preceding movement) is one Bartok associated with Stefi. This giddy waltz (and what could be less 'Bartok' than a waltz?!) is so giddy as to suggest hysteria!
As Bartok finished his Bagatelles he began composing the third of the breakthrough piano works, the Ten Easy Pieces. As the title suggests, these are simpler pieces - though they aren't that easy to play and there are actually eleven of them (for contractual reasons)! They work, however, towards many of the same goals as the Bagatelles. Bartok wanted young pianists to get a feel for his kind of modern music but they aren't just teaching pieces - they are pieces for listening to and for enjoying. Some of the pieces set authentic folksongs, the others are melodies (often in folk style) from the pen of the composer.
The opening 'Dedication' of the Ten Easy Pieces is as poetic as any of the Bagatelles and an absolute gem. A sad, bare melody, accompanied by gently dissonant chords (more of those appogiaturas), is answered by mysterious chords whose whole-tone harmonies and texture really do suggest that Debussy's benign influence has arrived in Bartok's music. Peasant Song, in contrast, sets a folk tune in plain octaves. Frustration is close in character to the third Bagatelle, setting a melody that seems lost in thought over a chromatic ostinato. Slovakian Boy's Dance sets another folk tune, its first phrase as a single line, its second in octaves, before adding harmonies of variously dissonant and consonant characters. As a simple example of how Bartok sought to refresh the harmonic landscape by constantly surprising us with usual or unusual harmonies in unexpected contexts, this lively little piece is a textbook case. So would be Sostenuto, the following piece, which is like a wistful, almost anxious daydream, full of strange and beautiful harmonies. The fifth Easy Piece, Evening in Transylvania, is another absolute gem. (It must have been a favourite of Bartok's too as, many years later, he was orchestrated it for his 'Hungarian Sketches'). It has two themes - one a beautiful, nostalgic one, the other lively and jolly (both Bartok's own inventions) - which take turns to sing and dance. I'd recommend this number to any listener as a particularly good place to start with Bartok. The following Hungarian Dance is another folksong setting - short, simple and irresistibly charming. Next comes Dawn, which sets a series of chords drifting, like the sound of chiming bells gently clashing against each other, climaxing and dying away. The play of consonance and dissonance is wonderfully mysterious. Typically, Bartok infuses it all with melody. It's a wonderful piece, taking the sort of thing Grieg (the magical 'Bell-Ringing') and Debussy ('Cloches à travers les feuilles') had done with impressionistic plays of bell-sounds and making it very much his own. The eighth Easy Piece, Folk Song, sets another genuine folk melody, playing the tune straight but accompanying it with highly original harmonies. Each phrase is commented upon by a classic dominant-tonic cadence, which sounds like a series of 'amens' (blessing his modal experiments)! Easy Piece No.9, Four-Finger Exercise is particularly like Debussy, setting figures taken from the whole-tone scale swirling around a melody of Bartok's own invention. The delightful closing Bear Dance is the other piece Bartok was to clothe in orchestral colours in his Hungarian Sketches (see link above) and is another of those bitingly rumbustious dances (like the tenth Bagatelle) that were to become a Bartok speciality. The tune is Bartok's own and his both highly individual and catchy, like a folk song. The fast, repeating notes, punchy rhythms and incisive accents give the piece its drive. It's another gem from this wonderful little collection of pieces.
I mentioned "unexpected by-ways" near the beginning of the post. The next piano work - the Two Elegies - came as a great surprise to me when I first heard them, having just got to know the three pieces I've written about here. These pieces seem to take a large step backwards - or sideways. Far from stripping away all the embellishments of Romantic music, they seem to revel in virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity and have an overwhelming flavour of Liszt at his stormiest and most heroic. They come across to me as barely-alloyed ultra-Romantic rhetoric. Though there are a few signs of 'the new Bartok' (hence 'barely-alloyed' rather than 'unalloyed'!), these 'lessons learned' are overlain, buried even, by the bravura of 'the old style'. Bartok was probably trying to marry the two kinds of music and make something new again. I don't think he succeeded as the Elegies don't sound half so original as the pieces that preceded them and Bartok was only once (and then very briefly) to journey down this flamboyant by-way in his piano music again. Please give them a try though as, taken on their own terms (which is always the best way to take music), they are well worth a hearing. No.1 is linked to here and No.2 here.
Whilst working on the Elegies, Bartok was also working on a very different project - composing two cycles of piano pieces for children called...er...For Children. This is said by scholars (such as Paul Griffiths) to be the true breakthrough work for Bartok, where the need to be simple helped perfect his way of setting folk tunes. All the pieces in For Children (85 in the original version, 79 in the late revision) are settings of Hungarian and Slovak folksongs and Bartok's aim was to let them speak as plainly and powerfully as possible. He described the art arranging a folksong as "the mounting of a jewel" and there are many jewels in the collection. As life-enhancing as these pieces are, however, I would recommend hearing them no more than a volume at a time - not all in one go! I'm unable to link to the whole collection but the superb fourth volume (revised version) is available complete, here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).
One number from Volume Two to listen out for is the wonderful Swineherd's Dance, which Bartok later orchestrated as the festive closing section of his Hungarian Sketches. YouTube, remarkably, has an original field recording (by the composer) of the tune and sets it next to Zoltan Kocsis's recording of the For Children arrangement which, if also listened to alongside the later colourful orchestration, will show you exactly how Bartok mounted one particular jewel. Bartok presents the tune as if it is coming towards us and then going away from us. The effect is magical. (Incidentally, this doesn't sound like a piece many children could get their fingers round!)