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Rated: E · Non-fiction · Music · #2274983
Cutting edge Hungarian composer
One of the unexpected benefits of college piano class was the exposure to classical music. Having seen the boring music books my sister had used for weekly practices, I was convinced that all beginner manuals were the same: full of insipid and boring fare like "Turkey in the Straw," "Paddy Works on the Railroad," and "Go Tell Aunt Rhodie." It didn't help that my short experience trying to learn the coronet had further soured me on rudimentary music lessons. At least with drumming, I only had to learn about rhythms, time signatures and dynamics. So when the teacher began assigning us lessons from the Beginning Piano for Adults, I was pleasantly surprised to see a piece by Bach or Telemann or Burgmuller coming my way. They may have been simplified arrangements of the more difficult original compositions, but they were still fascinating to listen to, as the melody started coming through, as I mastered one piece after another.

One day a student played "Evening in the Country," by a Hungarian composer named Bela Bartok. It was quiet and slow, but the sound was ethereal, mystical and mysterious- three of my favorite moods. It fascinated me, the melodies similar to that open sound of Aaron Copland, even reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack music from the few Hitchcock films I'd seen. I learned that the composer had written this in 1908, as part of a set of "easy pieces." And while they sounded difficult to me, I was determined to get my hands on some Bartok piano music.

Aside from curiosity, I needed to find a short piano piece to memorize and perform in front of the class by term's end. Unable to find recordings at the library, I visited the local sheet music store and impulsively ordered the six thin volumes of Bartok's Microcosmos.
And then the search began. I could tell, even with my limited exposure to the piano, that most of the pieces in Volume One were grade school stuff. I needed more of a challenge, and I found it Volume Two. It was "Accompaniment for Broken Triads," whatever the hell those are.
As I tried playing through the piece once, I ran into problems- for though the top line only involved one note (played with the right index finger), that situation soon changed; after a few measures I had to switch the one-note playing to the left hand. So on and on I practiced, and after a week or so, I felt confident enough to play it all the way through. It was frustrating, trying to get left and right hands to play nicely with each other- something I thought would be easier after having mastered the skill of playing the drum set (where hands and feet were all doing something different at the same time).

It was drudgery, playing the same thing so many times that I became sick of the sound of it. But I was determined, and that was what it took to learn the piece. But, now came the hard part- memorizing it. So it was back to the keyboard. Play the first measure from memory, then add the second and play it again. But after a while, my mind had the 39 measures mapped out, and after more hours of practicing, I had it down. When it came time for the in-class test, I aced it. And though I never memorized another piano piece, I could still play this one from memory, thirty years later.

And so began my journey into Bartok territory:

"Mikrokosmos," a 153-piece collection of songs for piano, was written between 1926-1939. Published in six slim volumes, the pieces are numbered consecutively; the initial songs are aimed at the beginning student and read more like exercises than anything else. All too soon, though, the pieces become more difficult, but also begin sounding like miniature works that hold one's interest long after playing them. By Volume Four, advanced students find the music much more difficult and complex. And Volume Six will challenge all but the most accomplished pianists. That being said, there are many wonderful songs scattered throughout the Mikrokosmos, and the listener will be richly rewarded for diving into the entire collection.
Bartok had previously composed another treasure trove of piano music, the 79-song collection called "For Children." Written between 1908-1909, much of the music is lively and playful, though sometimes dramatic, exotic, and at times, mysterious. But in Bartok's mind, one was never too young to begin developing an application bordering on sophistication, for rich and complex piano music. And even more so than with "Mikrokosmos," this music is a joy to listen to.

The "Dance Suite" is composed of six movements, all accessible to the newcomer, but even more so for one familiar with other, more well-known Bartok works. Each dance has its moments of serene beauty, interspersed with syncopated, pounding percussion and dissonant horns, folk songs at the core of every song. During the fourth movement, "Molto Tranquillo," the pace slows as a mysterious mood takes over, a perfect example of the composer's "night music." Subdued woodwinds, muted horns and harps transport the listener to a place where dreams rule. The impression one gets is of a foggy field or dream-filled forest- not sinister so much as contemplative. The final two movements pick up the pace, resulting in sixteen and a half minutes well-spent.

"Two Pictures" is an 18-minute excursion into the same territory as the "Dance Suite," in that the music moves back and forth between elegiac passages and dissonance. Permeated with folk song styles, the music has an exotic feel to it that rewards repeated listens.

The five "Hungarian Sketches" are a wonderful way to introduce someone to Bela Bartok's music. The work begins with "An Evening with Szekely," a beautiful evocation of countryside in its twilight moments. The lively, slightly barbaric, but delightful "Bear Dance" follows. "Melody" follows with a deceptively quiet and tranquil beginning, then builds to an unresolved climax, as if we were watching a flock of birds unable to decide where to settle, but a beautiful sight, nonetheless. "Slightly Tipsy" is as unbalanced and giddy as the title suggests, and another gem at just over two minutes. "Swineherd's Dance" rounds out the ten-minute collection with a piece that varies between wind dancing rhythms and quiet resolve.

The three-movement "Divertimento" is another 25 minutes of finely crafted orchestral work built around folk songs, the middle movement another good example of that "night music" that can set the imagination soaring, when it's not soothing one's spirit.
Much of what Bartok composed for quartets and orchestra is tough for a "casual" listener (afflicted with the untrained ear) to listen to or appreciate. Take the six String Quartets, written between 1908 -1940. Or "The Miraculous Mandarin." Or the opera "Bluebeard's Castle," it's subject matter so dark that any rendering of the piece carries with it a sense of foreboding and tragedy that makes it tough to warm up to.
But all is not lost. "The Concerto for Orchestra," composed in 1943, was to become Bartok's most accessible and popular work. At 37 minutes, the concerto takes the listener on a wild ride through music both playful and exotic, mysterious and barbaric, yet never losing sight of its overall goal- to provide a richly rewarding, joyous experience that one can return to again and again.

"Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta," a work from 1936, is a more "serious-sounding" work than the "Concerto for Orchestra." Its melodies feel more constrained. The focus leans toward percussion instruments like the celesta, even the strings more driven rhythmically than normal. It is only in the fourth and final movement that the sound brightens in tone, though not throughout the entire six and a half minutes. And while this concerto is required listening for Bartok investigators, the 1943 Concerto will probably be a better entry point.


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