Back to Bartok! No solo piano works emerged for six years following the Improvisations of 1920; indeed, from 1923-26, he largely fell silent as a composer. In 1926 he bounced back with a bang and this post will mainly be about the three masterpieces from that year, Bartok's so-called 'Year of the Piano', though I'm going to begin by exercising the blogger's prerogative to put the world to rights - or at least that very, very small part of the world that writes things about Bartok and his music. So brace yourselves!
There's long been something of a tradition among Bartok writers that makes a big fuss about 1926, marking it out as the year when Bartok finally reached his full maturity and finally found his true voice. He did so, according to this widespread view, with the Piano Sonata. I'll try to explain why I think this point of view is somewhat wide of the mark in a moment, but I've also read expressions of a much rarer, contrarian point-of-view that says that Bartok's most interesting work came before 1926, including many of the works I've written about in earlier posts. Given how extraordinarily rich in musical imagination so many of these earlier works are, I can understand why the contrarians feel the urge (like me) to campaign so strongly for the pre-1926 stuff. Any account that underplays these earlier pieces is surely a misguided one. The Miraculous Mandarin is a miraculous masterpiece from before 1926, and two of my very favourite Bartok works - the opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1911) and the Second String Quartet (1915-17) - are some of the greatest and most pleasure-giving works of the last century. Where I fall out with the contrarians, however, is that I can't understand why they aren't in love with the post-1926 stuff too. It's different, but it's not that different. And that's the point I really want to make here.
Following his divorce from Marta (1923) and marriage to Ditta (pictured above), Bartok came back in 1926 with works that brought a few new features to his music and changed its character to some degree, but much of what you find in the Piano Sonata (and its companions) is not new in Bartok's music and sounds to me more like another evolutionary step (in a long line of evolutionary developments) rather than a revolution in the composer's style. Yes, it's a significant landmark in Bartok's output, but it's not the only significant landmark. What about the Bagatelles, or the Allegro barbaro, or the Suite, or the Etudes, or the Improvisations? All were milestones in their way, all brought something new into the composer's music. This composer's wonderful journey as a writer of music saw his style changing all the time and if you know the Third Piano Concerto, the Concerto for Orchestra and the Sixth String Quartet (all pieces from after 1939) and compare those relaxed, approachable late pieces with the anything-but-relaxed First Piano Concerto (1926) and the tightly-constructed Third String Quartet (1927), not to mention the Piano Sonata itself, you'll know that his style underwent a lot more change in the years after 1926. He never stopped changing as a composer, which is part of his fascination for me. There are landmarks and milestones all over his output. His voice didn't break in 1926, it just sounded a bit different, again.
So much generalising, Craig! Why do I think the glorious Piano Sonata is just an evolutionary leap rather than a revolutionary double back somersault with two twists? OK, the sonata does have a Classical structure unusual since his earliest pieces, which shows that he had partly adopted aspects of the newly-dominant neo-Classicism, pioneered so recently by Stravinsky. This is certainly new, though the Sonata isn't really the work that shows this change at its clearest. (For that you need to listen to its two companions, which I'll get to after I've finished ranting! In the Nine Little Piano Pieces and Out of Doors, Bartok's renewed interest in counterpoint, which had fleetingly appeared in earlier works - usually as canons - becomes unmissable.) The first movement, for example, is in classical sonata form (yes, Mr Rosen, I know, I know!) with an exposition containing distinct themes, a development section and a recapitulation. Moreover, it sort-of follows a classical tonal plan centred around E major. The second movement is slow and in traditional ternary (three-part) form centred around C major/minor and the finale returns to E major and is in the form of a rondo. It does sound harmonically 'cleaner' that many of its predecessors, but only a bit because Bartok doesn't stop using all his favourite scales - the modes, the pentatonic scale, the whole tone scales alongside major and minor - and keeps using his other old tricks for flavouring or obscuring harmonies, such as all those dissonances and appogiaturas which he'd been putting to good use for donkeys' years. I've read accounts that either imply or even boldly state that Bartok began using some of these very things for the first time in this sonata. Not so, as you'll know as well as I do if you've been clicking on a few of my earlier links. There are some new things, such as glissandos and clusters, but these are only further tools for the composer's well-stocked kit. Ah, and he's using bitonality and polytonality, is he? Well, he'd been ploughing those furrows (on and off) for twenty years.
I've also seen reputable writers plainly stating that Bartok took the plunge into writing in a new, percussive way for the piano. As you'll also know, he'd been at that game at least since the Allegro barbaro and the lean, pared-down piano style some say this Sonata pioneered had long been an occasionally-realised ambition of his (as in his Suite, Op.14). The first movement of the Sonata certainly applies itself to pounding out motor rhythms, though they don't sound particularly machine-like me, more like an even-more barbaric allegro still strongly suffused with folk energy. It's such a thrilling movement, cocky and fierce, and for all its use of neo-Classical forms couldn't sound less like neo-Classical Stravinsky. It sounds to me like the Bartok I know and love from quite a few of the earlier works.
Is it vastly more dissonant? It's clearly highly dissonant, but then again so had been the Etudes and the some of the Improvisations, to cite just two examples. Is it more 'direct' then? Well, it does speak plainly but many movements from pre-1926 spoke plainly too. There's certainly more of a use of short motifs but alongside them you'll also hear folk-like, modal melody in all three movements. Quite a few things are said about this sonata which either assume or assert newness in Bartok's art. Doesn't the magnificent rondo finale sound to you, as it sounds to me, like only the latest wonderful take on the art of writing in the spirit of those vigorous Romanian folk dances, albeit with lots more of the spirit of the Allegro barbaro thrown in for good measure? And what of the great slow movement, with its bell-like chords (not new), its harmonic ambiguity (not that new), its expressive depth (certainly not new)? The composer of the deeply harmonically-daring Bagatelles was the composer of this movement too, not just as a matter of fact but as a fact of sensibility. Or so I hear this music.
Enough already! Please give this deeply enjoyable milestone a try!
The arrival of neo-Classicism (roll over Beethoven, heeerrrre's Bach!) is shown more clearly in the delightful Nine Little Piano Pieces. There's no complete performance available on YouTube, just a few scattered movements (played by amateurs).
The first four pieces are called 'Dialogues' and take the form of two-part inventions. No.1 will give you a flavour of how fruitfully Bach (counterpoint) meets Bartok (harmony and melody). Beguiling, isn't it? It's a favourite of mine. (Here's No.2, with its magical move into a high register near the end, and No.3, which seems to bring the first Bagatelle of 1908 into the world of neo-Classical Bartok). There's also a highly unusual take on the Classical Minuet (No.5) and a vibrant Rameau-meets-Romanian-peasants movement called 'Tambourine' (No.8), which both show how the aspects of the Baroque and Classical eras are given thoroughly (familiar) Bartokian twists. There's a lovable 'Air' (No.6), which is in the tuneful, folk-song spirit of the pieces from 1914-1920, and a stomping March (No.7), full of ostinatos and folk-like rhythms.The set closes with a substantial Prelude, 'in Hungarian style'. I love the Nine Little Piano Pieces to bits. They're such satisfying pieces on so many levels and I wish I could bring them all to you. They further prove that the Bartok of 1926 was merely bringing in something fresh to add to his pre-existing arsenal (or tool-shed might be a more appropriate metaphor), just as he had done many times before.
Of the other masterpiece from 1926 and a likeable piece from poor old 1927, well, they'll do for another post. Enough is enough!