Romanian Folk Dances, Sz. 68, BB 76

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            Every great composer may be said to be unique, but Béla Bartók’s artistic position in the world of twentieth-century music stands apart.  He was a Hungarian pianist and ethno-musicologist who also happened to compose, and as his career evolved, he contributed some of the most esteemed and respected works to the standard repertoire.  His was a musical style that was founded upon an intimate knowledge of the great styles and techniques of the past; a seminal appreciation of the possibilities of integrating the materials of Central European folk music into art music; and an uncommon elegance, restraint, and sophistication.  His innovations in textures, harmonies, colors, and structure laid the foundations for myriad others who followed.

            Reared and educated in Budapest, he early on embarked as a typical conservatory pianist, performing the standard repertory with which we are all so familiar. He performed for much of his life, but his rather dour personality and lack of “soloist” image restricted his success.   What changed his life was his “discovery” of the folk music of his native Hungary.   Around 1905 Bartók began his association with Zoltán Kodály, pursuing a joint interest in folksongs, as well as composition.  Soon they were collecting and publishing Hungarian songs, adding Slovakian material by 1906.  Romanian folksongs entered the fold by the next year, and Serbian, Bulgarian, and Ruthenian were later included in their collecting. Of course, at that time, before the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, those areas were all part of the empire. They toured extensively in the backcountry with an Edison cylinder machine, making recordings of thousands of folksongs.  Their transcriptions and scholarly publications were literally pioneering efforts in the field.  Both of them, but especially Bartók, sought to find ways of taking the scales, harmonies, and rhythms of this material and using them as a foundation for new ways of composing art music for a universal audience.  And in this he was spectacularly successful.   The litany of masterpieces that emerged in the ensuing years is an imposing one.  Among them, to just name a few, are the six string quartets, Mikrokosmos (a series of graded piano compositions for youth), three piano concertos, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and the Concerto for Orchestra.  All of which, together with others, constitute a body of compositions not exceeded in significance and integrity—not to mention popularity—by that of any other composer of the twentieth century. 

            The Romanian Folk Dances, in many ways, are exhibit “A” in Bartók’s integration of these ethnic materials into his personal musical style.  Composed in 1915 as a suite of six brief movements for solo piano, he went on to transcribe them for small orchestra in 1917.  The melodies are from the Transylvanian region of Romania, and were originally performed on flute or violin.  The first dance, “Stick Dance,” Bartók related that he had heard played by two Gypsies.  The second dance, “Sash Dance,” was danced with just that, and the third dance, “Pe loc,” in Romanian, means “in one spot.”  A dance from a district in Romania originally called Bucium constitutes the fourth movement, with the fifth movement being a kind of Romanian polka.  Finally two tunes played in quick succession make up the last movement.  All of the melodies use the scales of the traditional modes—which are the same scales used in Gregorian chant, and are the oldest elements of Western music.  But, one can also hear traditional melodic intervals from the Middle East, as well.  The infectious rhythms and exotic scales of these folk dances are simply delightful, and are fundamental, but elegant, testimony to the unique orientation of this giant of twentieth-century music.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan