Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances (1915-17)

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The history, compositional background and analysis of Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances, orchestral arrangement 1917.

The greatest composer of his country, Béla Bartók developed his early interest in Hungarian folk music into a serious study of folk melodies and their origins. His compositions reconcile revolutionary musical ideas with a deep appreciation for his homeland and its peasant culture. Prior to Bartók's contribution, popular, "folk-like" songs had provided material for Hungarian nationalist composers.

In his autobiography, Bartók reveals that he realized early on that these songs were inauthentic -- and also musically insufficient to hold the seeds of inspiration for "serious" composition. While vacationing in central Hungary in 1904, young Bartók was struck by a haunting melody sung by a peasant girl; the composer made sketches of the tune and others indigenous to the same district, noting their similarities and speculating that each region of the country might possess a distinct folk style.

Annually from 1906, Bartók traveled around the countryside, visiting remote regions, living with peasant communities, discovering their music. He spent a great amount of time during his career performing musical "fieldwork;" using an Edison phonograph, he collected folk melodies in his native Hungary as well as in the adjoining Slavonic and Bulgarian regions. Together with his colleague and fellow composer Zoltán Kodály, Bartók collected and notated more than 6,000 pieces of folk music between the years 1905 and 1914.

In 1915, Bartók wrote the Romanian Folk Dances.  Originally written for piano, they were transcribed for small orchestra two years later. These folk dances do not actually originate from the country of Romania as we recognize it today. Rather, the title Romanian Folk Dances of Hungary, by which the work is known in Bartók's country, more aptly describes their origins.

Their component parts were collected predominantly in the Central Basin of Transylvania, which used to be a Hungarian territory before it was annexed to Romania in 1920. Characteristic of the excellent Hungarian musician and composer, these folk dances are indeed a truly creative refashioning of Transylvanian peasant dances that could have been composed only by one who knew them thoroughly and personally.

The Jocul cu bata ("Dance with Sticks") is a young men's solo dance, with various figures , the last of which consists of kicking the room's ceiling.  It employs Dorian and Aeolian modes. Festive and energetic, it is based on a syncopated melody.

In the Dorian mode, the cheerful and quick Braul ("Waistband Dance") is usually performed at gatherings in the spinning house - generally only by women , sometimes by young men and women - with the dancers arms tightly clasped around each other's waists. This dance is connected to the next, without a pause.

Rather slow and with a steady beat, the Pe loc ("On the Spot") employs a melody which is notable for its small intervals and narrow range, in keeping with the nature of the original folk setting: a stamping dance in which the participants do not move from their location. Also notable is the use of the interval of the augmented second, suggesting the Arabic influence which is occasionally found in Romanian folk music.

The graceful Buciumeana ("Hornpipe Dance") employs Mixolydian and Arabic modes. Against a subtle string accompaniment, the haunting melody is first heard in the solo violin (given that the dance is usually performed by a single violinist).

The last two dances of the set are again performed one after the other without a pause. Quick and lively, the Poarca romanesca ("Romanian Polka") is a children's dance, poarca being a game played by Romanian peasant children. It is notable for its alternating meters - a pattern of two measures in 3/4, followed by one measure in 2/4.

Requiring great stamina, the Maruntelul ("Fast Dance") uses very small steps and is performed by couples.  It is similar to a courting dance. The two melodies from the Belenyes region are supported by a syncopated chordal accompaniment.

The Romanian Folk Dances show Bartók as a master of assimilation and synthesis of quite diverse forms of expression.

* Author's addendum:

The cover image is Bartók in 1918 at Biharfüred, with Kodály and Ioan Bu?i?ia a teacher from Belényes (Beiu?), to whom he dedicated the Romanian Folk Dances

* The embedded audio file above is arguably the best example of the orchestral arrangement of Bartók's Romanian Dances, as I found no acceptable example of a live performance on YouTube.  As far as a recording goes, this is nice: a mature and clean inerpretation by the TMS.  This is one of the most beautiful works of Bartók, so if you want to purchase a recording, I'd recommend the most well-known string orchestras and avoid the non-pros and youth groups.  These are only examples.  Please support working artists and purchase music and art legally. Thank you.

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