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ON THE INTERPRETATION OF BELA BARTÓK
Some Personal Views
By June de Toth

Interpreters of Bartok’s piano music could and should find a newer, fresher approach to this truly enigmatic master of twentieth century music.

By all standards, if you play the notes correctly, the effect should be complete. But in Bartok’s music, this is not the case. Bartok’s playing of his own music, excellent as it was, still veils many of his own innermost feelings about love, death, human passions, and terrifying fears. There is much more here that what first assails the listener’s ears.

Unfortunately, the causes for the present-day cool, mechanical, brittle and unappealing interpretations of Bartok’s keyboard music are found in the twentieth century innovators (Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinski, Shostakovich, et al), whose aversion to overripe, romantic music is well known. Their chief aim is to divorce music from high-blown emotionalism. Their influence on Bartok was inevitable; he was born in the midst of a great artistic revolution and could not escape its effects.

Although a prolific experimenter (he tried his hand at the new twelve-tone style) he eventually returned to his original source of inspiration—the modal scales and exotic, endless rhythmic variations of eastern European folk music. The thousands of folk melodies he copied so painstakingly in the early twentieth century during his travels to many parts of Hungary, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria and Turkey, became embedded in his subconscious and were subtly integrated into every composition from then on.

Therefore, it is impossible to mistake Bartok’s unusual musical signature. Indeed, he became so imbued with this style of folk music that he created his own original folk melodies, imitating styles from ever region of Eastern Europe.

To me, folk music is the warmest, most passionate kind--created from the sources of the everyday cares, sorrows and joys of eastern European peasants. For example, the laments for the dead, called “nenies,” are eloquently transformed in Bartok’s Four Dirges into eerie, atmospheric masterworks for the piano. Here the pianist must summon as many orchestral colors in the touch as possible.

In contrast to the often cold and detached interpretations of Bartok’s music, I was bemused one day as I counted the number of “expressivos” in the Fourteen Bagatelles. There were fifteen sprinkled throughout these pieces, along with many directions calling for “dolce.” Is it heresy to add “rubato” to those parts of Bartok’s music where he calls for “expressivo” and “dolce?”

Of course, in interpreting these folk melodies in Bartok’s music, whether it be in a collection of tunes or in a sonata, one must be careful to listen for balance. Usually, if you listen carefully, the melody itself will tell you how far to stretch it out or speed it up.

I have often heard my father and grandfather sing songs from their villages in Hungary. Their rhythmic freedom and extemporaneous outpouring of emotion caused me to weep. Who would want to sterilize this music under the heading of twentieth century “purism?”

There is a Bartok “style,” if you will search for it, just as there is a Mozart “style” or a Beethoven “style.” It is not just music of the twentieth century, dissonant, with agreeable melodies interspersed between violent outbursts. The whole fascinating effect of Bartok’s music, to me, is found in the juxtaposition of the ancient barbaric rhythms and modern day sounds of machines, factories, traffic noises, and even warfare. Somewhere in the middle of all this we hear enchanting sounds echoing rural life in eastern Europe with a poignant simplicity that startles the listener and softens the high drama of the music.

How to study and understand these elements for the pianist is a task indeed! However, Bartok’s sense of compositional structure helps a great deal, because the music’s architectural solidity is so very evident. Within the seeming chaos is a sublime order that holds every element in balance, no matter how wild the sounds or rhythms.

The images that Bartok’s music evokes are endless and his canvasses are both immense and miniature. Let us explore some of these effects in the piano masterpiece “Out of Doors” written in 1926.

No. 1: “With Drums and Pipes” creates a dark excitement with a sharp beat deep in the piano bass that is unrelenting—evoking perhaps a pagan dance of the early Magyar tribes around an open fire. A lonely melody interrupts the fierce beat which returns again as it accelerates.

No. 2: “Barcarolle.” The scene changes. It is night and there is an encampment by a river bank. The piano is very soft, atmospheric. A voice sings above a never-ending bass line with intermittent buzzing sounds of some insect. It is a lullaby that rises and falls gently, then excitedly, as with some impending danger. The effect is truly eerie.

No. 3: “Musettes” are small bagpipes, and here, Bartok imitates their sound with an astounding bite, using frightening chords with double trills. Again, are the Magyar tribes preparing to defend themselves from the marauding enemies? The piano sound is immensely forceful and ominous.

No. 4: “Musiques Nocturnes” (Night Music) can only be described as pure genius. The scene is by a river, very late at night. The piano immediately begins by imitating insects, frogs, and night birds, in such an original way that the listener is drawn into this strange world and held there, mesmerized. Soon, a plaintive voice enters high in the piano’s treble, followed by more insect sounds. Next a lively flute plays softly from afar in counterpoint to the haunting melody heard before. The movement ends with an evocative duet of insects and flute.

No. 5: “The Chase” is truly one of the most terrifying pieces of music for piano ever written, both as a technical tour de force and an emotional experience. It expresses exactly as the title says: “The Chase.” We can imagine it as hunters chasing an animal or as a group of Tartars chasing their human prey. It does not matter, because it is a chase to the death, unrelenting to the grisly end. As the piece heats up, with its incessant left hand pattern and the right hand hammering out fierce repeated notes, your heart begins to pound! Explosions of chords high in the treble add to the manic feeling; reminding one of screams of the hunted. It is going to finish badly. The frenzied ending leaves us frozen in fear.

It is over!


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