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Bartok: A Piano Student’s Guide

Bartok: A Piano Student’s Guide

By Isabella Andries, Exploring Music Intern and student at Lawrence Conservatory

This lesson plan will provide an approach to the study of Bartok’s works from the early twentieth century. It includes background on these pieces’ historical context and reception in the music industry. It also describes Bartok’s intention and inspiration for these works. I will explain suggested approaches to learning the pieces and my approach to practicing and performing them as a piano student.

Late nineteenth-century Hungary was a time when class divisions were prominent. While the upper classes were enamored by works of composers to the west, from Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, those in the middle and working classes were exposed to the music of local gypsy bands and “popular art songs.” These were the tunes that Bartok grew up enjoying. Before he could speak, he could recognize the folk songs he heard in his hometown, and often requested that his mother play them on the piano. By the time he was four years of age, he could play forty of them from memory with one finger on the piano. This early love for the native music of Hungary set the stage for a voyage he would take in his twenties that shaped his career as a composer.

In the early twentieth century, many of the traditional folksongs were in danger of cultural extinction. “Pseudofolksongs” made popular by traveling theatre groups and gypsy bands cross-pollinated, so to speak, with those that had been passed down through generations, those that Bartok intended to preserve. He and fellow composer Zoltan Kodaly appealed to the public and the government for support of their plans to travel and collect the traditional songs. They did not receive this support. However, undeterred, they set out on their mission. They traveled through Transylvania, Romania, and later to Africa. They asked locals to sing or play into a phonograph and then transcribed these tunes in their notebooks. Bartok is quoted as having said, “I shall pursue one objective all my life, in every sphere and in every way: the good of Hungary and the Hungarian nation” (Erdely 27).

In 1911 Bartok wrote an original piano work that, while adopting certain elements characteristic of these folksongs, was also inspired by the structures of classical music. Here, I’ll be examining the first of the Two Rumanian Dances, Op. 8a, and explain how a piano student could approach these pieces, with special regard for Bartok’s intentions.

The structure of the first of the Two Rumanian Dances can best be compared to the Magyar ballroom dance, in a sequence along with the Allemandes, Francaises, Polonaises, and Anglaises
of the early 1800s. The Magyar is “a slow dance with a gradual increase of tempo without ever changing its serious, stately nature, thus fitting the dignity of the noble men who danced it” (Erdely 24). The beginning section of the first Rumanian Dance, while not explicitly slow, has a dark and serious tone. Over the course of the piece, the crescendos build until it reaches a booming climax and reflects its tempo markings of “allegro vivace,” or “quick and lively.” There is no evident key signature, implying that the focus of the work lies in other musical elements. Bartok himself said that the piano’s percussive nature should be recognized in musical expression. Emo Balogh, one of his former piano students, recalled that “he was most meticulous about rhythmical proportion, accent and the variety of touch”. (Fischer 93).

Below is a chart included in Bartok’s 1916 edition of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, with notes on articulation markings:

In observing the score for Rumanian Dance Op. 8a No. 1, one can find that Bartok notates weaker accentuations for softer sections of the piece and stronger ones for more bombastic ones. The shifts of energy in this piece, whether sharp or subtle, can be expressed by careful thought, but it is far easier to come up with imagery or narrative to illuminate the character of the work.

The story that I envisioned for Op. 8a No. 1 is that of a mythical witch burning in the colonial town of Salem, Massachusetts. Contrary to popular belief, stoning and drowning were the more common practices of the time, so this scenario has little historical basis. The foreboding nature of the first thirty-four measures paints the landscape of Salem, a town of serious character and muted hues. A gradual crescendo suggests a rise in tension-- something is amiss in the village. It could also portray something approaching from over a hill, coming closer to the listener. Measures 35-44 are swift and light, the pianist’s fingers leaping nimbly across the keys, marked as “leggiero”. It sounds like morning bustle, children playing around a well, tiny feet weaving around the white feathers of squawking chickens, the clickety-clack of wagon wheels against cobblestone roads. In these sections, the performer should keep her fingers loose, rotating the wrist in the direction of the three-note slurs. In early practice, one should be allowed to take breaths between each three-note slur to ensure accuracy. Measures 45-50 fall in a downward motion, perhaps a child’s pigskin ball falling from the top of a hill down to a muddy bank. It hits the murky water, and briefly, the mood shifts-- Bartok writes “poco pesante” at measure 51, or “a little heavier.” A sequential repetition of measures 45-50 follow, and this same downward motion could be attributed to a single black feather of a crow falling from a windowsill. At the repeated “pesante” section, the soft feather falls into the despotic hands of the magistrate. His icy blue eye shoots daggers into the window-glass. He recognizes it as the chamber of the village witch.

A downpour suddenly drenches the thatched roofs in salty rainwater, the drops like tiny bullets falling through the air. The melody at measures 64-67 is the howl of the wind, the rumble of thunder, various voices shouting to be heard through the sonic storm. One can imagine the whir of left-hand notes as the sound the rain makes when it strikes the piano. The performer should feel it hit her skin, shower her forehead, soak her clothes, and bask in its glory. Gradually, the storm weakens and the sun peeks through the clouds, creating a rainbow at measures 67-71. This is the first sprinkle of color anyone in the Puritan town has seen in years. All faces lift toward the heavens.

Then comes the calm after the storm, measures 71-75. The warm air wraps around your arms like a blanket, the green moss dense on the trees, the sun a hazy glow across the dewy grass. The sparse melody and the thick, blocked chords create a peaceful atmosphere.

The staccato theme returns at measure 76, and the magistrate is ready to secure the witch’s fate. Various flourishes in the next section illustrate the villagers as they prepare for the burning-- the tenuto notes at measures 80-83 ring like church bells and the town criers call out in grace notes at measures 87 and 88. A grand crescendo leads to the climax of the piece at measures 97-109: the witch burning. In a lively folk chant characterized by repeated motifs, common among many of the songs Bartok collected, the townspeople shout insults and bang against metal pots and pans, dancing violently around the poor “demonic” maiden.

The sheer number of sudden leaps in this work makes it necessary to devise an efficient practice method. One method is to group phrases in rhythmic chunks, grouping certain notes together and then stringing measures together. The phrases below are marked by vertical lines.

This technique can be applied to almost anywhere between measures 85 and and 109, the section requiring the most stamina. Another way to think about this technique is to imagine taking breaths between phrases. Starting with longer phrases and gradually shortening them will reduce arm strain. At measures 97-109, the summit of the piece, where the melody is played in octaves,“fingers separate” practice is useful. For those with smaller hands, the thumb and pinkie should be practiced separately in order to ensure these octaves sound clean and the melody is brought forth.

Bartok is an idiosyncratic personality in the classical music world. He was unafraid to blend the melodies of common people and those from other cultures into his concert works. He revolutionized the use of the piano, harnessing its strengths as a percussive instrument. Beyond that, his pieces have a raw yet meticulously expressed intensity that draws me in as contemporary listener. For instrumentalists, seeking out works by composers whose music speaks to them is vital in study. Not only does this spur the student’s creative interpretation, it allows her to build her artistic voice, by finding what appeals to her. As an aspiring composer, I find deep value in examining works I enjoy to understand why I enjoy them, and hope to apply some of their principles in my own compositions. Studying Bartok is one step in my journey, and I hope that my perspective sheds light on some of his piano pieces for other students as well.


The Exploring Music Bela Bartok program will be free for the next several weeks.


Works Cited

Bartók, Béla. Piano music of Bela Bartok: series I. Dover Pub., 1981.

Bónis, Ferenc. Béla Bartók, his life in pictures and documents. Corvina Kiadó, 1982.

Chalmers, Kenneth. Béla Bartók. Phaidon, 2008.

Erdely, Stephen, and Victoria Fischer. The Cambridge Companion to Bartok. Edited by Amanda

Bayley, Cambridge University Press, 2001.


Bartok performing Two Rumanian Dances Op. 8a No. 1


Performance by Janos Palojtay 1:03:59 to 1:07:54


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