As two of Hungary’s Greatest, Franz Liszt is in good company with today’s star of the hour. That’s right, extraordinary folk music collector and certified rule breaker Béla Bartok is taking centre stage this week.
And though it may upset many of us (we’re including ourselves in this!), Mr Bartok was fully capable of playing 40 different piano pieces by the tender age of four! Given such an outrageous achievement as this, it comes as no surprise that by early adulthood he secured his place at the Royal Academy of Music, Budapest.
Born in 1881 and composing in the early 1900’s, the landscape of Bartok’s musical upbringing was an exciting time for Western classical to say the least. Think Richard Strauss, Johannes Brahms and of course our beloved Claude Debussy, who all had a strong influence on Bartok’s ears. It was a time truly defined by the breakdown of the diatonic rule book of harmony that had defined what composers could write for hundreds of years. And our friend Bartok was very happy to follow this trend!
Bartok provided us with the perfect summary of how his influences affected his music:
“Debussy’s great service to music was to reawaken among all musicians an awareness of harmony and its possibilities. In that, he was just as important as Beethoven, who revealed to us the possibilities of progressive form, or as Bach, who showed us the transcendent significance of counterpoint. Now what I am always asking myself is that: is it possible to make a synthesis of these three great masters, a living synthesis that will be valid for our time?”
A Folk Frenzy
On his quest to tear up the harmonic system, and after overhearing a young nanny singing to the children in her care, Bartok made the discovery that would shape his career for decades to come: folk music. He was fascinated by how folk music from all over the world seemed to have no regard for the “laws” of harmony, and so he began quoting folk melodies in his compositions frequently. An early age tech junkie? Maybe! Bartok took a phonograph around with him to capture on wax cylinders what would amount to over 10,000 different folk melodies from all over Europe.
And so, it was the marriage of all of these influences that led to what can only be described as a stream of masterpieces composed by this Hungarian hero, one of which was his two volumes For Children, a cycle of 79 pieces all derived from original folk songs of Hungary and Slovakia. What a feat! And we’ve got the pleasure of including one of these folk songs in our Debut Classical Piano grade.
"Játék" (or "Play"), is the fifth piece from the first volume of the cycle, and is filled with an infectious, lively energy. A simple little tune, it is the perfect introduction to Bartok’s sound at the entry level stage of piano. The dynamic contrast is a really important element of this tune, so beginners will need to pay attention to that!We've also squeezed some Bartok tunes into the new RSL Classical Violin syllabus. You can find "Round Dance" in Grade 1, and "Quasi Adagio" from For Children, Sz. 42, Volume 1 in Grade 2!
We sincerely hope you enjoy this piece, and would urge you to go forth and delve into the world of Bartok a little deeper. From stunning string quartets to delicious piano concertos, and of course an opera (Bluebeard’s Castle) thrown in for good measure, there’s plenty in his catalogue to keep you entertained for a while!
If you can’t get enough of our Classical Piano collection, then be sure to read more about our featured composers. We’ve got Debussy, Alexis Ffrench and Germaine Tailleferre to sink your teeth into next!