Bela Bartok:

Romanian Folk Dances for Violin and Piano

Bartók’s activity as a folk music collector during the first two decades of the 20th century is generally known. Partly in collaboration with compatriot Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók (1881- 1945) went about the Hungarian countryside recording and transcribing the peasant music of his native country. After 1911, Bartók became increasingly interested in the music of cultures peripheral to Hungary, notably Slovakia and Romania. As was his habit, he arranged for the piano a considerable amount of the raw music he collected. These adaptations would usually feature a generous helping of Bartók’s personal, pungent harmonies and dissonant treatments. Such was the case with the Romanian Folk Dances, all based on Romanian fiddle tunes. The collection was completed in 1915. Two years later, the composer transcribed the piano pieces for small orchestra, and subsequently Zoltán Székely made an adaptation for violin and piano.

The set opens with a Stick Dance, a spirited game from Transylvania. The brief, quick Sash Dance originated in a district of Yugoslavia. In One Spot is the third, slower dance with a bagpipe-like accompaniment. The Hornpipe Dance from Transylvania has a delicate, minuet-like tempo and phrase pattern. In contrast, the bright Romanian Polka has an almost ceaseless melody cast in an asymmetrical beat pattern of 3 + 3 + 2. The set concludes with two brisk movements, each marked simply “Fast Dance.” This particular dance type comes from a district on the border of Hungary and Transylvania.

Zoltan Kodaly:

Duo for Violin and Cello

The years just before World War I were difficult ones for Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967).  Although his folk song collecting projects with Béla Bartók had been successful, the two composers found it difficult to obtain proper performances of their music in Hungary.  It was 1910 before Kodály received his first public performance.  Slightly encouraged, Kodály joined forces with Bartók and others the following year to form the New Hungarian Music Society.  The idea was to foster more and better performances of contemporary Hungarian music.  Between that time and 1920, Kodály produced some significant chamber works for the Society, including the Duo (1914) and the Sonata for Solo Cello (1915).

The predominant feature in the Duo is an improvisational impulse derived from the parlando rubato style found in certain Hungarian folk music.  Kodály quotes some actual folk themes in the work, but even more interesting are the ways in which he rhapsodically “improvises” on them.  The first movement is clearly in sonata form with a rhapsodic first theme and a stricter second theme.  In the tripartite Adagio movement, the first and second sections each introduce a theme and then develop them in an improvisational manner.  The third section is a surprise double fugue on the two strongly contrasting themes.  The slow introduction to the finale is like an extension of the Adagio, and it even quotes one of the themes.  In the Presto main section, Kodály quotes a children’s song over the driving rhythms of an ostinato. However, as with other folksong source music, the composer has absorbed the music and synthesized it into something uniquely his own.

Johannes Brahms:

Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) often explored new compositional territory with a pair of works rather than just one. The first two symphonies, string quartets, and string sextets came into the world that way. Although Brahms had worked on movements for one piano quartet as early as the 1850s (eventually becoming Op. 60), his first completed essays in this medium stemmed from 1861-62 in the form of the G Minor and A Major Piano Quartets. These run somewhat parallel to the first two symphonies with a stormy, minor-key first work giving way to a sunny optimism in the major-key second work.

Johannes Brahms

Clara Schumann

The premiere of the G Minor Quartet was given in Hamburg in November 1861 with none other than Clara Schumann at the piano. The next year, when Brahms visited Vienna for the first time, the quartet served to introduce him to influential musical circles when he performed it at the home of Julian Epstein. Acceptance was immediate, and the violinist in that performance was heard to exclaim, “He is Beethoven’s heir!”

The G Minor Quartet is full of unusual turns. In the otherwise dark first movement, the development section is entirely in the key of D major, as is part of the recapitulated first theme group. In Beethoven-fashion, Brahms inserts a post-development section following the formal recapitulation.

The passion and tragedy of the first movement are utterly swept away by the perpetual motion of the Intermezzo. Brahms’s gossamer muted string sound carries with it more than an echo of Mendelssohn. The Animato trio is even more mercurial, and a brief reprise of it comes in the coda following the return of the main section.

In the latter half of the quartet, Brahms’s sense of the unique wakes up completely. The initial section of the Andante is an intense song that leads to one of the most original-sounding passages in all his chamber music. Marked rhythms gradually introduce a march — and this is the middle section of a slow movement! When the song-like section returns it is quieter and more pensive than before, but the full-bodied coda brings back the bold spirit of the march.

In complete contrast and counterbalance to the classically tragic first movement, the Gypsy Rondo finale is full of verve and abandon. The micro-structure of the movement is notably unconventional with its phrases of three bars. The first two episodes go the extremes of virtuosity in the piano and in the strings. A third episode, unexpectedly contrapuntal, appears just before the final coda-like proclamation of the main theme.

Epilogue . . .

Before the field researches of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály around the turn of the 20th century, people’s impression of what was “Hungarian” folk music was actually the Gipsy music they were hearing in the taverns of Hungary’s towns and cities.  Notably, Franz Liszt was party to this misconception in a big way: He actually wrote an entire book on the subject. On the other hand, Bartók and Kodály went into the villages and homes of Hungarian peasants, notating and disc-recording their songs, thereby correcting a huge misconception.

Kodály and Bartók employed actual folk tunes in some of their music in addition to original melodies heavily influenced by folk-music snippets and gestures. Kodaly’s Duo is an example of the latter. As mentioned above, “The predominant feature in the Duo is an improvisational impulse derived from the parlando rubato style found in certain Hungarian folk music.”

Bartók’s musical horizons were broader and included the folk music of other nations in Central Europe as well as occasional forays into Arabic cultures. His Romanian [Rumanian] Folk Dances quote literally from Rumanian music he had collected, and was simply arranged as new pieces.

Brahms had a more precise (and more analytical) mind than Liszt, his older contemporary. Please notice that the title of his Piano Quartet’s finale is Gypsy Rondo — not Hungarian Rondo. This distinction between Hungarian and Gypsy is crucial to our understanding of the “traditional” music of this Central-European region.

Program notes by Dr. Michael Fink