Hidden Gems: Bartók – 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs

Béla Bartók’s music is a hearty stew (a goulash, if you will) of folk influences and crunchy harmonies, held together by counterpoint and symmetry. I first fell in love with his string quartets, but only became familiar with his piano music when I worked on a new Boosey & Hawkes anthology a couple years ago. Bartók built many pieces around selections of Hungarian, Romanian, or Slovakian folk tunes, but experimented with different formal structures around the tunes. In Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs, Sz. 71, the form can be understood as sort of a four-movement sonata, since he denoted movement headings at certain points. Here’s how it all breaks down:

Four Old Tunes (1-4)
Scherzo (5)
Ballad (tema con variazioni) (6)
Old Dance Tunes (7-15)

This design makes many of the tunes virtually inextricable from the whole. In the Four Old Tunes and Old Dance Tunes, segments flow smoothly into each other because of similar mood or key area. The Scherzo could stand alone, but is rather short. The Ballad, which features variations on a single tune and leads to the largest climax of the work, forms a center of gravity.

There’s a quality in this music that I haven’t encountered much elsewhere, and that is that it makes me nostalgic for a land that I’ve never even visited. The journey through fifteen tunes in about fifteen minutes feels like a slideshow of black-and-white photos of scenes of Hungarian village life. Playing through the Four Old Tunes, I found myself wanting to fly to Budapest, rent a little car, and drive through the countryside, perhaps to attend some local festivals to hear some of these tunes sung. I attribute these effects to Bartók’s tender harmonizations of the tunes, which ooze with emotion.

Reading the original lyrics of these melodies provides some insights into Bartók’s musical choices. For example, the Scherzo is a setting of the text: “My wife is so clean, she washes only once a month; All my life I’ll regret getting married!” In contrast, the gravely serious Ballad uses a melody from a tragic song that ends with the death of two lovers. I had trouble tracking down an official translation, but the posts in this thread provide a pretty thorough answer.

I like that Bartók set a series of dance tunes in a row; it creates a consistent spirited mood for the fourth “movement” that acts as a fast Finale. The last of the tunes in the piece imitates the sound of bagpipes, with a droning bass and figurations in the treble register, bringing the piece to high-energy conclusion.

Though the individual tunes aren’t very excerpt-friendly, I think they have a lot of pedagogical value. These miniatures are great lessons in clean melody lines and dynamic contrasts, with unusual harmonies that venture outside simple major and minor. Plentiful articulations aid in interpretation, and the difficulty only rises above intermediate level in the final tune. I envision students having a great time slowly conquering each segment, until they can play through this whole wonderful survey of Hungarian musical heritage.

Where to find it in print:

HL48023887 Bartok Piano Anthology (Boosey & Hawkes)

HL51481404 (Henle)

HL48002456 (Boosey & Hawkes)

HL50481612 Bartok: Compositions for Piano (G. Schirmer, Inc.)

2 thoughts on “Hidden Gems: Bartók – 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs

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  1. You mention 15 Hungarian Peasant songs. As a cellist I have not played many if any selections by Bela Bartok, however I could not get past 20th Century Techniques without learning something about him in as much as I can remember. In music theory I learned about how musical forms are put together by he and other composers of the times of 20th century techniques class. Actually, there may have been at least one concert piece or chamber music piece I performed. Whoo, notes, keys, and musical structures. Play here here, play there, and just play somewhere. Bartok. reading the composer scripts are a skill in itself. I’ll look at a cello piece online now.

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