The music of Béla Bartók is a huge influence on my musical identity. It began in college, but strangely enough, my first exposure to Bartók was not in music school. I can remember clearly the first time I heard the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. There was still a classical music station on FM radio in Detroit, and I was driving and listening to a rebroadcast of a live orchestra concert. A Concerto is a piece for a solo instrument and orchestra. I was puzzled by what a “Concerto” for a whole orchestra was going to sound like.
I was mesmerized by the opening of the work, introducing some of the musical material that was going to build the piece. By about the two minutes and forty-five second mark, when the violin sections come screaming in, I was hooked. I pulled into a parking space and listened to the rest of the broadcast. I had a new musical hero. Mind you, I had a pretty good looking girl waiting for me as I sat in my car and listened to the music. I was eventually quite late in knocking on her door. She did break up with me, but that was several years later. I don’t think the Bartók had anything to do with it.
I could go on for pages and pages about Bartók, his life, all of my favorite pieces of music. I could write all night about just the Concerto for Orchestra, which is still one of the great masterpieces of the orchestral repertoire to this day. For now, I simply want to make one point about the music of my favorite Hungarian. To illustrate that point, it will take just a few minutes of piano music.
Let me start with a couple of pieces from the generation of composers before Bartók. The “Romantic” period of music history gave a wealth of material for pianists to play. A great variety of character pieces, dances, sonatas, and other works exploring many of the possibilities of the modern grand piano as we know it. Most of these were very lyrical, and melodic in nature. To illustrate the concept of lyrical music at the piano, let me start with a “Song Without Words” from Felix Mendelssohn
Another example of a melodic, lyrical character piece would be this Chopin Nocturne. It is played brilliantly by the great Vladimir Horowitz, after he is done wiping his nose with his handkerchief.
So we have two pieces of virtuoso piano music, both melodic and inventive, using the major/minor tonal system of harmony. I offer these to compare and contrast a piece of piano music from Béla Bartók. One of his most often performed piano works is the Allegro Barbaro (Sz.49). Piano students and professionals alike have all frequently played this piece. It was composed in 1911, and the standard version was published in 1918. It is a piece of the twentieth century, of the era of the Great War, railroads, the first assembly lines, and further industrialization of the modern world. Music was breaking away from the “Romantic” era, and becoming shattered in the process.
There are many things I could talk about in the Allegro Barbaro. The scales used to create the music are not your normal major or minor scales. There are chromatic scales, pentatonic scales, and a good deal of the Phrygian mode. Bartók didn’t happen upon these by accident, rather, he was borrowing sounds from Hungarian peasant music and Romanian music. He works with little harmonic cells, and with great craft, centering the music around a central note. The harmonic analysis is fascinating, and could go on for a long time.
The major point I wish to make about this piece is the reimagining of the piano as a percussive, rather than lyrical, instrument. When one presses down on a piano key, a little hammer strikes a string or set of strings inside the mechanism of the instrument. The harder one strikes the key, the louder the note sounds. It is this percussive, striking action that Bartók exploits in this piece, and so much of his piano music. Instead of smooth, lyrical melody, Bartók gives us accented rhythm, pounding tone clusters and explosive dynamics. Take a listen.
This is similar to some of the primitivism of The Rite of Spring, but for solo piano. It is driving, pulsing, rocking music with an element of violence to the phrasing. It is not gentle, but it is very dramatic stuff. I think for my next 25 composition lessons, I marked every piece I wrote “pesante”. I was trying to recreate the energy and driving, heavy rhythm of a Bartók piano piece. I have only slightly mellowed with age, and still find the music of Béla Bartók a major influence.
This will not be the last time Béla Bartók joins us on Good Music Speaks.