BARTOK: For Children, Sz. 42
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Bela Bartok (1881-1945)
Piano Music, Volume 4
The Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was born in 1881in a region that now forms part of Romania. His father,director of an agricultural college, was a keen amateurmusician, while it was from his mother that Bartokreceived his early piano lessons. The death of his fatherin 1888 led to a less settled existence, as his motherresumed work as a teacher, eventually settling in thepresent capital of Slovakia, Bratislava (the HungarianPoszony), where Bartok passed his early adolescence,counting among his school-fellows the composer ErnoDohnanyi. Offered the chance of musical training inVienna, like Dohnanyi he chose instead Budapest,where he won a considerable reputation as a pianist,being appointed to the teaching staff of the Academy ofMusic in 1907. At the same time he developed a deepinterest, shared with his compatriot Zoltan Kodaly, inthe folk-music of his own and adjacent countries, laterextended as far as Anatolia, where he collaborated inresearch with the Turkish composer Adnan Saygun.
As a composer Bartok found acceptance muchmore difficult, particularly in his own country, whichwas, in any case, beset by political troubles when thebrief post-war left-wing government of Bela Kun wasreplaced by the reactionary regime of Admiral Horthy.
Meanwhile his reputation abroad grew, in particularamong those with an interest in contemporary music,and his success both as a pianist and as a composer,coupled with dissatisfaction at the growing associationbetween the Horthy government and National SocialistGermany, led him in 1940 to emigrate to the UnitedStates of America.
In his last years, after briefly held teachingappointments at Columbia and Harvard, Bartoksuffered from increasing ill-health, and from a povertythat the conditions of exile in war-time could donothing to alleviate. He died in straitened circumstancesin 1945, leaving sketches for a new Viola Concerto anda more nearly completed Third Piano Concerto. Theyears in America, whatever difficulties they brought,also gave rise to important compositions, including theConcerto for Orchestra, commissioned by theKoussevitzky Foundation, and a Sonata for Solo Violinfor Yehudi Menuhin.
As a pianist Bartok had had a number of teachers inthe years before his mother settled in Bratislava. Therehe became a pupil of Laszlo Erkel, son of the wellknownHungarian opera-composer Ferenc Erkel, andafter his teacher's death in 1896, of Anton Hyrtl,acquiring from both a knowledge of piano repertoireand of traditional compositional techniques. InBudapest his piano teacher was Istvan Thoman, a pupilof Liszt, and his composition teacher, the traditionalistHans Koessler. From the early 1890s, at least, Bartokhad written music for the piano, a series of works thatremain unpublished, a fate that he might have preferredfor his Four Pieces, published in 1904. He continued towrite for the piano until he left for America in 1940,including among these compositions works for concertperformance and pieces designed for students, in thecomprehensive collection Mikrokosmos covering alevel of competence from that of the beginner to that ofthe mature performer.
Bartok's For Children, written in 1908 and 1909and originally including 85 pieces based on Hungarianand Slovakian folk-tunes, was first published in fourvolumes. Some of the pieces were revised by thecomposer in the 1930s and he made a final revision ofthe whole work in 1943, writing thirteen new piecesand reducing the total number to 79, to be publishedposthumously in two volumes in 1947, although Bartokhad been able to correct the proposed new edition in1944. The pieces are described as little pieces forbeginners, without stretches of an octave. They are adirect reflection of Bartok's interest in the folk-music ofHungary, and here also of Slovakia. The melodies, invarious modes, are never forced into the traditionalstrait-jacket of academic harmony, but set off by simpleaccompaniments that preserve their original character.
For children, as with Mikrokosmos and his Forty-FourViolin Duets, they offer a much wider view of musicthan was once and perhaps is still usual in teachingmaterial confined entirely to the major and minor scalesand harmonies of common practice.
In collecting folk-music Bartok had soon found thattraditional songs and dances very often had a particularsocial function. These are partly reflected in some ofthe titles of the pieces included in For Children. Thefirst volume, based on Hungarian folk-tunes, while notstrictly progressive, does nevertheless includeincreasing complications of key signature and rhythm.
As in Mikrokosmos metronome markings andindications of duration are included, following Bartok'slater practice, although it has been found that some ofthese do not exactly correspond. Some of the pieces arejoined by the concluding direction attacca (ad lib.), as,for example Nos. 13, 14 and 15 (track 5), giving thepossibility of performance as a connected group. Wherenecessary some flexibility is allowed the tunes by theuse of changing time signatures, as in No. 20 with itsuse of 3/8 and 2/8, and there are frequent enough usesof the characteristic Hungarian falling interval andsyncopation in phrase endings. The first volume endswith a Swineherd's Dance, with a largely ostinatoaccompaniment and final bars that dwindle away intothe distance.
The second volume of the revised edition, based onSlovakian folk-tunes, includes a set of three variationson a theme (No. 5) and a Canon (No. 29). Rhapsody(Nos. 36-37), with its two contrasting elements, movesbriefly into a few bars with five sharps. Other keysignatures are less demanding, although the firstvolume has two pieces with four flats. Anotheradditional demand on a young player is made in theRhapsody when chords involving the stretch of anoctave are included, but arpeggiated, before beingshared by both hands, while No. 33 includesarpeggiated chords of a tenth. Otherwise there are theexpected syncopated rhythms, varied modes andmoods, and accompaniments and arrangements thatbring out the interest of a melody, without denying itstrue character. The volume ends with a Dirge and afinal Mourning Song, fading, like the first volume, tothe softest conclusion.Keith Anderson