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8.572376 - BARTOK, B.: Piano Music, Vol. 6 (Jando) - The First Term at the Piano / 4 Piano Pieces / Petits morceaux / 2 Elegies

Béla Bartók (1881–1945): Piano Music • 6


‘I said a nice farewell to Professor Thomán yesterday by playing Dohnányi’s Passacaglia. He was very pleased with me. Then I asked if I might dedicate the piece for the left hand to him.’ These words, written in June 1903 by the 22-year-old Béla Bartók to his widowed mother, are about as effusive as this notoriously reserved composer ever gets on paper, so one can assume that he was really very excited. The two men in question, Ernő Dohnányi (1877–1960) and István Thomán (1862–1940), both had an enormous influence on the young Bartók. Dohnányi had always been a mentor to his younger friend, ever since their schooldays together in Pozsony (now Bratislava in Slovakia). As likely as not, Bartók was following Dohnányi’s example when he chose to study in Budapest rather than Vienna. When Dohnányi was still only in his early twenties he was already universally acknowledged as the greatest Hungarian pianist and composer after Liszt. Thomán, who taught both Dohnányi and Bartók at the National Hungarian Royal Academy of Music (Ferenc Liszt Academy since 1925), was himself a pupil of Liszt. After leaving his teaching post at the Academy, he was succeeded by Bartók in 1907.

The Study for the Left Hand, originally called Sonata for the Left Hand, is dedicated to Thomán and was the first of the Four Piano Pieces, BB 27, that Bartók composed in 1903. Lengthy and very ambitious, this fearfully difficult piece has never found much acceptance, despite the fact that Bartók touted the piece in his solo recitals. The second piece, Fantasy I, owes much to the harmonic and tonal colouring of Liszt. It is dedicated to Emma Gruber, the wife of a wealthy businessman. She was a very talented pianist in her own right, and took a short course of counterpoint lessons from Bartók, before divorcing her husband and marrying Zoltán Kodály, Bartók’s kindred musical spirit, in 1910.

Throughout his youth Bartók formed intensely passionate attachments that did not always live up to expectations. Perhaps he enjoyed the attendant emotions of falling in and out of love because they stimulated his creativity as much as they roused his sensuality. Be that as it may, there is no denying that a succession of ‘flames’ played a significant rôle in shaping Bartók’s music during the first decade of the twentieth century. The violinist Stefi Geyer was one of the more important of these muses—though Bartók’s passion for her remained unrequited—but there were other girls whose attention also prompted him to compose. These included Irma and Emsy Jurkovics, daughters of a judge in Bartók’s birthplace of Nagyszentmiklós (now Sînnicolau Mare in Romania). They had idolised Bartók since his first professional concert there in 1903. He dedicated Fantasy II to the two sisters, with whom he kept in contact for several years. Scherzo, the last of the Four Pieces (which together with the Four Songs, BB 24, were Bartók’s first published works), is dedicated to Dohnányi.

At the turn of the century, Hungarian dominance in central Europe seemed (wrongly, as it happened) to be both permanent and unassailable. The young Bartók, unlike the well-travelled Dohnányi, was by no means immune to the spirit of narrow-minded parochialism and insular nationalism that prevailed among many of his fellow countrymen. Indeed, he was an ardent patriot, whose early music consciously reflected his nationalist views. His magnum opus from the opening years of the century was his large-scale symphonic poem Kossuth, which he mainly composed during the spring and summer of 1903. It is a single-movement structure in ten linked parts that follow on from each other without breaks. It was inspired by the historical events of the Hungarian insurrection of the late 1840s, in which Lajos Kossuth, the revolutionaries’ hero, was unsuccessfully declared Governor of Hungary in defiance of the Habsburg throne. The vanquished Kossuth fled into permanent exile, but he did live to see his country become an equal partner with its old foe when the new Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was established in 1867.

The opening of Bartók’s symphonic poem is called Kossuth, and the subsequent sections have fervent titles such as The Fatherland is in danger!, Up and fight them! and ‘Come, come! You splendid lads, you valiant Hungarian warriors! Bartók made his own piano transcription of the last two sections of the work (All is over! and Everything is quiet, very quiet…), and published it in 1905 as Marche funèbre, BB 31. Writing to his mother in October 1903, Bartók regales her with the details of a private musical soirée at the Berlin home of the Polish concert pianist Leopold Godowsky: ‘The violinist Fritz Kreisler and his wife were there. (He played with the Philharmonic on Monday.) I played Kossuth, Dohnányi’s Passacaglia, my Scherzo and the piece for the left hand, to general appreciation. (Everyone is very much impressed by the forthcoming Manchester performance).’ This bracketed observation is a reference to the English première of Kossuth with Hans Richter and the Hallé Orchestra in the Free Trade Hall on 18 February 1904, just two months after its Budapest première.

In 1905 Bartók made free piano arrangements of two of his recent song transcriptions, but they remained unpublished until 1965, when they were issued in Budapest as Petits morceaux pour piano, BB 38. The first song is from a planned series of Hungarian Folksongs, and is called Add reám csókodat, el kell már búcsúznom (Kiss me, for I have to say farewell). The piano arrangement of this song is artistically freestanding and does not require a voice. The second morceau is a reworking of one of his Four Songs, BB 24, composed in 1902. In its vocal form it was a setting of a text by the minor Hungarian poet Lajos Pósa (1850–1914). It is called Ő szi szellő (Autumn Breeze). After making these piano transcriptions, Bartók seldom, if ever, mentioned them again, and the autograph manuscripts remained undisturbed until 1958.

In 1908 Bartók’s piano writing took a new direction in his set of Fourteen Bagatelles, BB 50, which point towards the terse and startlingly experimental music of the not-too-distant future. When the eminent composer Ferruccio Busoni saw these pieces he exclaimed: ‘At last! Something really new’. Bartók’s newly acquired economy of means found its greatest expression at this time in the First String Quartet, but it is also apparent in the Two Elegies for piano, BB 49, albeit mixed with a certain Lisztian bravura. The Elegies were not actually performed for another decade, by which time they must have sounded outdated to audiences who were familiar with Bluebeard’s Castle, Bartók’s only opera, which was described by Kodály as a ‘musical volcano erupting for sixty minutes of tragic intensity’. It is interesting to consider that some audience members at the opera’s première in 1918 could well have taught their children the piano using Kezdők zongoramuzsikája (First term at the piano). The eighteen charming little pieces from this collection—serene as Bluebeard is unsettling—were produced in 1913 in collaboration with the pianist Sándor Reschovsky (1887–1972).

Anthony Short

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