Bartók: Ten Easy Pieces, Sz. 39

performed by Andreas Bach, or below by someone

(entire playlist for the work here)

(cover image by Aaron Blanco Tejedor)

Back to Bartók.

And to folk music, sort of.

Bartók’s collection of Ten Easy Pieces (or Tíz könnyű zongoradarab, in Hungarian) dates from 1908, just a year or so after the piece we discussed yesterday. It was originally to be a set of ‘Eleven Piano Recital Pieces’…. and then there were ten. The composer moved one to be part of what eventually became his Fourteen Bagatelles.

This did create a small problem for him, with this Sz. 39 down to only ten pieces. He had a contractual obligation to his publisher for eleven pieces, so a ‘dedication’ at the beginning of the work fulfills this. It is, in fact, in Andreas Bach’s recording, by far the longest of the set, but is sparse to say the least. The ten pieces (plus dedication) are as follows:

  • Dedication
  • 1. Peasant Song
  • 2. Frustration
  • 3. Slovakian Boys’ Dance
  • 4. Sostenuto
  • 5. Evening in Transylvania
  • 6. Hungarian Folksong
  • 7. Dawn
  • 8. Slovakian Folksong
  • 9. Five-Finger Exercise
  • 10. Bear Dance

Unlike the set of bagatelles, which do present technical challenges, this set of ‘easy pieces’ was meant to be easy. Wikipedia says:

this set was planned to serve as an easy contemporary preparation for students. It is, indeed, being used in the intermediate piano repertoire, together with his other set of short pieces, For Children.

Wiki also mentions, though you likely don’t need to read it to pick up on it (I made a note of it here in front of me while listening) that aside from the composer’s love of folk tunes, the other influences that seems to stand out here is a likeness to Debussy. It’s clearly not Debussy, obviously, but there are color and texture elements that really bring the Famous Frenchman to mind.

So actually, I’ve mentioned folk music a number of times already, but only no’s 3, 6, and 8 are actually based on preexisting folk tunes. In addition to that, Bartók makes use of pentatonic scales, modes like we heard from him yesterday, as well as “novel  harmonies, and ostinato.”

The dedication presents a pretty simple musical idea, but is again the longest of the set. The peasant song sounds almost gothic. It’s entirely in unison, so it has a kind of chant-like quality to it. Even I could play this probably, maybe even sight-read it.

The second is listed above as ‘Frustration,’ but in the album as ‘Painful Wrestling,’ an alternative title. In either case, the sense of struggle, or pain, is real, not extravagant, but real, and comes to a satisfying little conclusion.

The first even slightly light thing we’ve come across, the Slovakian dance of no. 3, is one of the few uses of a folk tune, although I don’t know it. The Sostenuto sounds at first maybe like Debussy, but has the melancholy of something more like Schoenberg, and is rather chromatic.

No. 5 is alternatively titled ‘An evening at the village,’ and it’s bouncy. It’s also one of the longer in the set, and seems more obviously to have two subjects at play, the second more subdued than the chirpy, rustic first. No. 6, Hungarian folksong, is, as expected, based on actual folk tunes, but I’d be interested to hear it in its original context. I suppose Bartók didn’t change the meter, but it…. isn’t flowing, rather stop-and-go, quaint, but not catchy.

‘Dawn’ is also quite chromatic, with interesting harmonies for an easy piece ostensibly meant for children. Despite the simplicity here, these little works are vivid and interesting. The folksong for no. 8 is more somber, heartfelt, not something to dance to, almost funereal.

The ‘five-finger exercise’ seems to make no bones about the fact that it’s apparently an etude of sorts, very chromatic, and a little bit out of place to me, among these works that are otherwise more aesthetically pleasing than academic.

Any lack of character or excitement is easily made up for by the ‘Bear Dance,’ though, with unrelenting repeated notes and relatively simple chords. There’s a sparse, dry texture to this writing that calls Prokofiev to mind. Save the dedication, this piece is the longest in Andreas Bach’s recording, and probably my favorite. It has by far the most character, that feeling from Beethoven’s bagatelles that something with great potential has been concentrated down to this small form, rather than stretched to fill the space available.

Obviously these are early pieces, and are far from the most notable things he wrote, but as with so many of the early works, it’s a starting point, gives us context, and shows us some of the things he was working with early on. I don’t even know that these works could be considered any kind of primer for Bartók’s work, because they’re not necessarily in that specific voice he would later have that newcomers might find acrid or acerbic. Maybe the last one. I like the last one.

Welp, that’s all for now. There are more installments starting next week, after a nice big juicy chamber piece on Sunday, so stay tuned for all of that and thanks so much for reading.

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