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8.555998 - BARTOK, B.: Piano Music, Vol. 4 (Jando) - For Children
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Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Piano Music, Volume 4

The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was born in 1881 in a region that now forms part of Romania. His father, director of an agricultural college, was a keen amateur musician, while it was from his mother that Bartók received his early piano lessons. The death of his father in 1888 led to a less settled existence, as his mother resumed work as a teacher, eventually settling in the present capital of Slovakia, Bratislava (the Hungarian Poszony), where Bartók passed his early adolescence, counting among his school-fellows the composer Ernö Dohnányi. Offered the chance of musical training in Vienna, like Dohnányi he chose instead Budapest, where he won a considerable reputation as a pianist, being appointed to the teaching staff of the Academy of Music in 1907. At the same time he developed a deep interest, shared with his compatriot Zoltán Kodály, in the folk-music of his own and adjacent countries, later extended as far as Anatolia, where he collaborated in research with the Turkish composer Adnan Saygun.

As a composer Bartók found acceptance much more difficult, particularly in his own country, which was, in any case, beset by political troubles when the brief post-war left-wing government of Béla Kun was replaced by the reactionary régime of Admiral Horthy. Meanwhile his reputation abroad grew, in particular among those with an interest in contemporary music, and his success both as a pianist and as a composer, coupled with dissatisfaction at the growing association between the Horthy government and National Socialist Germany, led him in 1940 to emigrate to the United States of America.

In his last years, after briefly held teaching appointments at Columbia and Harvard, Bartók suffered from increasing ill-health, and from a poverty that the conditions of exile in war-time could do nothing to alleviate. He died in straitened circumstances in 1945, leaving sketches for a new Viola Concerto and a more nearly completed Third Piano Concerto. The years in America, whatever difficulties they brought, also gave rise to important compositions, including the Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, and a Sonata for Solo Violin for Yehudi Menuhin.

As a pianist Bartók had had a number of teachers in the years before his mother settled in Bratislava. There he became a pupil of László Erkel, son of the wellknown Hungarian opera-composer Ferenc Erkel, and after his teacher’s death in 1896, of Anton Hyrtl, acquiring from both a knowledge of piano repertoire and of traditional compositional techniques. In Budapest his piano teacher was István Thomán, a pupil of Liszt, and his composition teacher, the traditionalist Hans Koessler. From the early 1890s, at least, Bartók had written music for the piano, a series of works that remain unpublished, a fate that he might have preferred for his Four Pieces, published in 1904. He continued to write for the piano until he left for America in 1940, including among these compositions works for concert performance and pieces designed for students, in the comprehensive collection Mikrokosmos covering a level of competence from that of the beginner to that of the mature performer.

Bartók’s For Children, written in 1908 and 1909 and originally including 85 pieces based on Hungarian and Slovakian folk-tunes, was first published in four volumes. Some of the pieces were revised by the composer in the 1930s and he made a final revision of the whole work in 1943, writing thirteen new pieces and reducing the total number to 79, to be published posthumously in two volumes in 1947, although Bartók had been able to correct the proposed new edition in 1944. The pieces are described as little pieces for beginners, without stretches of an octave. They are a direct reflection of Bartók’s interest in the folk-music of Hungary, and here also of Slovakia. The melodies, in various modes, are never forced into the traditional strait-jacket of academic harmony, but set off by simple accompaniments that preserve their original character. For children, as with Mikrokosmos and his Forty-Four Violin Duets, they offer a much wider view of music than was once and perhaps is still usual in teaching material confined entirely to the major and minor scales and harmonies of common practice.

In collecting folk-music Bartók had soon found that traditional songs and dances very often had a particular social function. These are partly reflected in some of the titles of the pieces included in For Children. The first volume, based on Hungarian folk-tunes, while not strictly progressive, does nevertheless include increasing complications of key signature and rhythm. As in Mikrokosmos metronome markings and indications of duration are included, following Bartók’s later practice, although it has been found that some of these do not exactly correspond. Some of the pieces are joined by the concluding direction attacca (ad lib.), as, for example Nos. 13, 14 and 15 (track 5), giving the possibility of performance as a connected group. Where necessary some flexibility is allowed the tunes by the use of changing time signatures, as in No. 20 with its use of 3/8 and 2/8, and there are frequent enough uses of the characteristic Hungarian falling interval and syncopation in phrase endings. The first volume ends with a Swineherd’s Dance, with a largely ostinato accompaniment and final bars that dwindle away into the distance.

The second volume of the revised edition, based on Slovakian folk-tunes, includes a set of three variations on a theme (No. 5) and a Canon (No. 29). Rhapsody (Nos. 36-37), with its two contrasting elements, moves briefly into a few bars with five sharps. Other key signatures are less demanding, although the first volume has two pieces with four flats. Another additional demand on a young player is made in the Rhapsody when chords involving the stretch of an octave are included, but arpeggiated, before being shared by both hands, while No. 33 includes arpeggiated chords of a tenth. Otherwise there are the expected syncopated rhythms, varied modes and moods, and accompaniments and arrangements that bring out the interest of a melody, without denying its true character. The volume ends with a Dirge and a final Mourning Song, fading, like the first volume, to the softest conclusion.

Keith Anderson


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