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Peter Laki, visiting professor at Bard College, New York, and editor of Bartók and his World looks at Bartók as a pianist.Download as PDF

Bartók at the Keyboard by Peter Laki

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For forty years Bartók was an active concert pianist; as a composer, he found a natural way of self-expression in the large body of piano music he produced. It has become a commonplace to say that he tended to treat the piano in a ‘percussive' manner. Bartók himself acknowledged this quality of his piano writing yet the stylistic range of his piano music is much wider than this simplistic view allows. His piano works encompass many moods and many characters, from ‘barbarian' accents to mysterious night noises and from declamatory utterances to tempestuous outbursts. As his musical idiom changed over time, so did his writing for the piano: from the Lisztian influences in the early Rhapsody (Op. 1, 1904) to the alternately ‘percussive' and lyrical works of his ‘piano year' 1926 and, finally, to the Mozartian clarity of Piano Concerto No. 3, written in the year of his death. Before this last work Bartók wrote all his piano music (except for the pedagogical works) for him to perform himself; the Concerto No. 3, on the other hand, was a gift to his second wife Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, with the intention of providing her with a vehicle and a source of income after he was gone.

Bartók was a professor of piano at the Budapest Academy of Music for twenty-seven years, 1907-1934, during which time he worked with many of the most prominent Hungarian pianists of the younger generation. A man of few words, he taught by example more than by explanation: his students have recalled how he demonstrated everything they had to play at the piano, always ready with an impeccably polished performance of whatever his students were working on. His concert repertory (as a recitalist, chamber musician and orchestral soloist) ranged from the Baroque to his own time, including pieces by Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Kodály alongside his own. His former student Lajos Hernádi, himself an eminent artist and teacher, reminisced about a particular detail from the performance of a Beethoven violin sonata with Joseph Szigeti: "What he did was beyond all thoughts of interpretation: he took his audience into the very workshop of the creative process." Fortunately, a fairly large body of recordings exists, all of them readily available on compact disc.

All three of Bartók's piano concertos feature in the Infernal Dance concert series. These concertos were, however, preceded by two early works for piano and orchestra: the Rhapsody, Op. 1 (1904), which Bartók performed frequently, even as late as 1939, and the Scherzo, Op. 2 (1904-05), which he never played in public (nor did anyone else until 1961). During the mid-1920s, with Bartók's international career on the rise, the composer evidently felt the need for a new representative composition for piano and orchestra. Thus in 1926, the year he broke an almost complete three-year creative silence, he composed his Piano Concerto No. 1. The work came hot on the heels of the Piano Sonata, the suite Out of Doors and the Nine Little Piano Pieces, all written in the summer and early autumn of 1926. The concerto bears a completion date of 12 November 1926.

Despite all his harmonic and rhythmic innovations Bartók always remained committed to classical formal principles. He continued to use sonata form, yet he did not mechanically adopt the old pattern but rather recreated it in an original way. The thematic repeats demanded by classical form are often disguised by changes in the harmonies and/or the orchestration. Other repeats or correspondences, not prescribed by the rules, are employed to strengthen the works' motivic unity.

There is no doubt that percussive rhythms form a defining element in the Concerto No. 1. Right at the beginning we hear a figure consisting of a single repeated note, first heard on the solo piano and the timpani. This particular combination, which had, famously, been used before – at the end of Beethoven's ‘Emperor' Concerto (No. 5) – receives an entirely new meaning in Bartók's work. It becomes one of the main ideas of the piece; it is further elaborated in the second movement, which starts out as a dialogue between the piano and the entire percussion section. In fact, according to Bartók's original instructions, the percussionists must be seated directly behind the soloist, in order to facilitate their musical interactions. This direct juxtaposition of piano and percussion foreshadows one of Bartók's most celebrated later works, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937).

The main theme of the first movement grows out of the aforementioned rhythmic figure, developed with great energy in a constantly changing asymmetrical metre. The second theme is more melodic: in fact, its pentatonic line seems distilled from the thousands of Hungarian folksongs that Bartók had collected and analysed over the years. The more percussive first idea then returns, only to give way to a mysterious slower section. Gradually the music recovers its initial momentum, and the earlier materials become even denser and more exciting through the increased use of imitative counterpoint.

The second movement is one of Bartók's haunting ‘night musics'. Bartók gave very detailed instructions to the percussion players, asking them to use different kinds of sticks on different parts of the drums (the center or the rim), in order to maximise the diversity of the sound effects. The strings are silent throughout this movement and the winds only enter about one third into it, with an espressivo melody that gradually grows to a climax and then decreases in volume. Finally, the piano and the percussion remain alone, as they were at the beginning, completing the arch-shaped design which was one of Bartók's favourite musical constructions.

The Finale, connected to the slow movement by a short bridge passage, is in many ways reminiscent of the first movement. Once more, single repeated pitches alternate with themes of a more melodic nature – only this time, Bartók unleashes some full-blooded tutti sonorities he has been saving up so far. The percussive quality is coupled with great harmonic richness and a variety of moods and characters right up to the striking, quintessentially Bartókian conclusion.

"I wrote my first concerto for piano and orchestra in 1926," Bartók recollected in 1939. "I consider it a successful work although its writing is a bit difficult -- one might even say very difficult! -- as much for the orchestra as for the audience. That is why some years later (1930-31), while writing my Second Concerto, I wanted to produce a piece which would contrast with the first: a work which would be less bristling with difficulties for the orchestra and whose thematic material would be more pleasing. This intention explains the rather light and popular character of most of the themes of my latest concerto: a lightness that sometimes almost reminds me of one of my youthful works, the First Suite for Orchestra (Op. 3)."

The reference to the Suite No. 1, a composition very rarely performed today, may seem puzzling to modern-day listeners. That fifty-minute composition of 1905 combined a strong dose of Richard Strauss with the Hungarian popular style that Bartók would soon turn away from, having discovered the authentic peasant music of the countryside. It is interesting that Bartók should even bring up this once-successful work in 1939, three years after a rather uncomfortable incident in relation to it. In 1936 a Hungarian literary and cultural society presented Bartók with a medal, specifically for the Suite No. 1. Deeply offended by the blatant way his entire mature oeuvre was ignored by the society, Bartók refused to accept the honour, and wrote a sharply-worded open letter to make his point.

To be sure, Bartók did say in that letter: "I do very much like this work of mine [Suite No. 1]; it is really an outstanding achievement for a young man 24 years of age." But, even if the fifty-year-old Bartók sought to recapture the "lightness" of his Suite No. 1, he did so by entirely different stylistic means from those that had been at his disposal twenty-five years earlier. Hence, Bartók's offence at this anachronistic award.

Some of those new means of his Piano Concerto No. 2 had come from neo-classicism, a trend in twentieth-century music represented most prominently by Igor Stravinsky's music from the 1920s. Bartók had a great deal of respect for Stravinsky, partly because he considered his Russian contemporary an ally in the use of folk music. Yet his admiration did not diminish even after Stravinsky's so-called ‘Russian' period had ended. Stravinsky's neo-classical Concerto for Piano and Winds (1924) made a deep impression on Bartók. The influence may be clearly felt already in the Concerto No. 1, but his second concerto contains even more explicit allusions to Stravinsky's work. First of all, the opening movement is scored for piano and winds only. The Baroque-like ostinato rhythms may also have come to Bartók via the author of The Rite of Spring, even though Bartók was intensely involved in the study of Italian keyboard music of the Baroque at this point in his life.

The most conspicuous Stravinsky reference, however, occurs at the very beginning of Concerto No. 2: the first six notes of the opening trumpet theme are identical to the famous Russian theme from The Firebird (although the rhythm is different). In Bartók's hands, however, all of these elements turn into something only he could have written. More interested in variation technique and large-scale structural symmetries than was Stravinsky, Bartók wove the Firebird theme into the fabric of the whole piece by deriving numerous other motifs from it in his first and third movements, which are structurally and motivically related. His elaborate contrapuntal techniques included inverse and retrograde motion, as he himself took pains to point out in an introduction to the score he wrote at his publisher's request.

The work's heartpiece is the Adagio, which incorporates a scherzo in presto tempo as its middle section. The Adagio is, once again, a‘night music' of sorts, although very different from its counterpart in the Concerto No. 1. It begins with a mysterious chorale in six-part harmony made up of layers of perfect fifths superimposed on one another, and played by the muted strings. The piano enters with a gentle theme, presented both in its original form and in inversion and framed by recurrences of the chorale. Then the piano theme is abruptly cut off by the whirlwind presto, a true perpetuum mobile bristling with powerful ostinatos and chromatic runs that, in the words of Hungarian musicologist János Kárpáti, translate "horrifying nightmares, wild chases and portraits of a savage Nature into music". After this presto movement within a movement, the opening Adagio returns in a varied form. The string chorale takes on an eerie character as the instruments use tremolo, sul ponticello (fast note repeats played close to the bridge), and the piano theme becomes even more insistent than before.

The Finale adds one significant new theme to the ones taken over from the first movement: a motif consisting of a persistently repeated ascending minor third (an interval that figures prominently in many Bartók works). In addition to this theme, shared by the solo piano and the timpani, the six notes from The Firebird return in many new guises, among them a dreamy romantic version complete with poetic arpeggios in the solo piano part. The ending, however, is firm and decisive. The brass conclude their last phrase with the typical descending-fourth cadence known from so many Hungarian folksongs. The piano and the rest of the orchestra respond with a few modal chords that are closer to Kodály than to Stravinsky in inspiration, and create the "light" ending that Bartók had envisioned.

We may say, however, that Bartók did not achieve real "lightness" in a piano concerto until he composed his Piano Concerto No. 3 during the last months of his life, in Saranac Lake, New York. Bartók's new stylistic orientation surprised some critics who interpreted it as a concession made to conservative American audiences; the truth, however, is that Bartók's evolution toward a warmer and more melodic style had begun almost a decade earlier with such pre-emigration works as the Violin Concerto No. 2 and the Divertimento for strings.

At sixty-four and dying from leukaemia, Bartók was obviously not the same composer who had written Allegro Barbaro or The Miraculous Mandarin in younger years. Still, the stylistic continuity between the earlier and the later Bartók is unbroken. Melodic and rhythmic elements derived from folk music are present in Concerto No. 3 as much as they are in Bartók's earlier works. And the famous ‘nocturnal noises' in this concerto's second movement belong to a group of ‘night musics' that the composer had been writing since 1926, when he composed ‘Music of the Night' as the fourth movement of his piano suite Out of Doors. As we have seen, the slow movements of both his earlier piano concertos also contain ‘nocturnal' elements.

Piano Concerto No. 3 opens with a peaceful theme played by the pianist with both hands in unison against a rocking accompaniment in the strings. A scherzando second theme, an emotional (though relatively short) development and a regular recapitulation constitute the movement's principal building blocks.

The second-movement Adagio religioso is Bartók's personal response to the slow movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, titled the ‘Holy Song of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Deity in the Lydian Mode'. A quiet chorale melody, played by the piano, is surrounded by solemn interludes in the strings. Then, suddenly, the tempo becomes faster and eerie noises begin to appear. The music seems to imitate insects buzzing and birds chirping; the noises rise from a mysterious pianissimo to a full forte with the strong voices of the trumpet and xylophone joining with the more and more elaborate arpeggios of the piano. This intermezzo ends as suddenly as it began; the chorale returns in the woodwinds, interwoven with a new piano part that sounds almost like a two-part invention by JS Bach, with a few brief cadenzas interspersed.

The cheerful main theme of the finale uses a rhythmic pattern derived from a certain type of Hungarian folksong that Bartók had discussed at length in his ethnomusicological writings. The movement is cast in rondo form, with fugal episodes that again pay homage to Bach. At the time of Bartók's death, on 26 September 1945, the last seventeen measures of this movement had been left unorchestrated – a task that was eventually completed by Bartók's friend, the composer Tibor Serly. In allegro vivace tempo with ninety-two bars to the minute, this accounts for little more than ten seconds of music. Bartók felt so close to completing the piece that he drew the final double bar followed by the word vége (‘The End') – a word that, sadly, took on a symbolic meaning shortly after it was written down.

After her husband's death his second wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, was in no condition to perform the première of the concerto that had been written for her. The honour went to another Bartók student from Hungary, György Sándor (1912-2005). Bartók's wife, who returned to Hungary in 1946, did not play the concerto until many years later.

© Peter Laki 2010
Peter Laki is a visiting professor at Bard College, New York, and editor of Bartók and his World (Princeton UP, 1995). For many years he was programme annotator of the Cleveland Orchestra.

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Bluebeard's Castle At the Crossroads Bartok at the Piano Bartok in NYC Salonen & Bronfman meet Muzsikas Muzsikas Bartok on Stage Bartok's Orbit Folk Inspiration Folk Music Concerto for Orchestra Introduction to Bartok


Infernal Bartok Bartok and Folklore Bartok at the Keyboard Bartok on the Stage

Programme Notes

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