Bartók: Hungarian Folksongs from Csík, Sz. 35a

performed by Andreas Bach, or below by Jenő Jandó

(cover image by Roman Mavrin)

While Bartók’s music may not strike you as something that would challenge your perception or definition of ‘classical music,’ I think this little set of pieces might.

In discussing the magnificent unsuitability of ‘classical music’ as a label or genre, I’ve drawn attention to the fact that something like Handel’s Water Music and Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître are both considered ‘classical music,’ as are Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, or Scarlatti sonatas and Cage’s Etudes Australes

Those pieces show how the term, the ‘genre,’ stretches to comprise everything that at least some people say it does. But now back to Bartók.

Some of what we’ve discussed so far, particularly Brahms’ waltzes, could just almost possibly maybe be considered ‘popular music’ (of the time) rather than classical music. The waltz was a form that was extremely popular in Vienna, associated with the city, and, as we heard, took on many forms, but Brahms never pandered to the crowds in a popular, faddish way.

Bartók’s themes here, however, really strike me more as popular music, or just straight up folk music, than actual classical music. That may sound like splitting hairs, and the subjectivity of these terms is beyond the purview of this article, but give them a listen, and you may be surprised to find yourself thinking that there’s something at least slightly different from what you usually perceive as classical.

That being said, this early work, dating from 1907, does typify the composer’s focus on and use of folk themes and traditional melodies, his connection to the countryside and its peoples. Robert Cummings at AllMusic says that “All are simple themes written in modal styles, and each has an air of innocence about its expressive character.”

So those are two things that make this stand out maybe a little more as sounding not quite so classical as some of the stuff we’ve been discussing or will discuss.

  1. Rubato
  2. L’istesso tempo
  3. Poco vivo

The first piece was apparently inspired by a tune played on a flute-like instrument that Bartók heard in the country. The piece is in the Dorian mode (basically just a type of scale besides major or minor, beginning in this case on “the white notes from D to D, or any transposition of this,” so it sounds a bit different to the ear). Cummings says that the “accompaniment is quite sparse and the overall mood is one of pastoral tranquility.”

If you’ve listened to Bartók’s more mature works, this tranquility and simplicity may surprise you, but it is kind of… part of the DNA of his work, you could say.

The second piece is in the Aeolian mode, or the natural minor scale. The pauses in this little piece give it an air of unhurriedness, even a kind of improvisatory nature, or impulsive (albeit in a very mellow way). It’s mild, and trickly, like refreshing raindrops.

The third, marked ‘poco vivo,’ should expectedly be the most lively. It’s the shortest of the set, at least in Andreas Bach’s recording. Not only is it more spirited, the textures are much richer, more akin to what you may associate with Ravel. It’s also in the Aeolian mode. Cummings says “the melody has a march-like joviality and is heard just twice.” He continues to describe the effectiveness of the music:

These are among Bartók’s earliest folk tune arrangements and their modesty of expression evidences the composer’s intentions to present the music in a guise as close to its native sound and character as possible.

So maybe this music sounds very unlike what we’re used to hearing from Bartók, but it may be the little kernel of inspiration that motivated so much of his obsession with folk tunes. In any case, it’s something a little different in many respects.

We’re not done with Bartók, though, so stay tuned for a work only a year or so after this one, and thanks so much for reading.

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