Bartók’s Dance Suite: Celebrating the Sounds of the Countryside

For several years, beginning in the summer of 1906, the young Béla Bartók traveled to remote corners of the Hungarian countryside to document age-old folk music with the aid of the phonograph. Eventually, his travels extended to villages in Slovakia, Transylvania, and Bulgaria, and resulted in the transcription of over a thousand folk songs. Throughout the project, Bartók was assisted by his compatriot, Zoltán Kodály. The pentatonic harmony which ran through ancient Magyar melodies revealed the cultural influence of Central Asia, Siberia, and Anatolia (contemporary Turkey).

As a composer, Bartók was profoundly influenced by this music. In an autobiographical note, he wrote,

It was decisively important for me to study all this peasant music because it showed me how to be completely independent of the universally prevailing major and minor scale system. For the majority—and most valuable—of the melodies I collected during my research tours moved in the old church tonalities, that is in the Greek and certain other even more primitive (pentatonic) modes, and show the most varied and freely changing metrical and rhythmic patterns performed in both rubato and ‘tempo giusto.’ It is now clear that the ancient scales, that are no longer used in our folk- art music, have lost none of their vitality. Their application has made possible new types of harmonic combinations.

These new harmonic combinations can be heard throughout Bartók’s Dance Suite. The six-movement orchestral work was composed in 1923 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the unification of Budapest. (Previously, Buda and Pest had existed as independent cities on opposite banks of the Danube River). The event, which included works by Kodály and Ernő Dohnányi, came at a time when the post-World War I dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a fresh memory. Bartók’s contribution received a “mixed reception,” which the composer blamed on an under-rehearsed Budapest Philharmonic.

Although it does not include direct quotes of folk melodies, the Dance Suite celebrates the sounds and rhythms of the Eastern European countryside. The first movement (Moderato), described by the composer as “rather Arabic in feeling” features a dark, primal dance, initiated by the bassoons. At times, the music may remind you of Bartók’s scandal-inducing ballet score for The Miraculous Mandarin, which was begun in 1918 and premiered in 1926. The first statement of the ritornello theme, which returns throughout the Dance Suite, emerges wistfully in the muted violins, following a dreamy glissando in the harp. It is accompanied by harmony built on the interval of the fourth, a distinct tonality which recurs throughout Bartók’s music, and can be heard in the Dance Suite‘s concluding chords.

Interspersed by the ritornello theme, the five sections of the piece unfold without pause. The second movement (Allegro molto) is filled with exhilarating jagged rhythms, and punctuated by boisterous trombone glissandi. Rising over a drone, the spirited third movement (Allegro vivace) evokes the sound of bagpipes. At moments, its swirling motion dissipates, and we are left with the magical, glistening sounds of the flute and celesta. The fourth movement (Molto tranquillo) evokes the mystery and eerie stillness of Bartók’s Night Music. Chant-like statements by a woodwind choir alternate with dreamy, nocturnal sounds in the strings and piano. The fifth movement (Comodo) is filled with chilling suspense. The final movement (Finale. Allegro) erupts as a jubilant peasant dance. The final moments bring a dizzying blend of competing dance rhythms and conclude with a joyous leap into the air.

This performance from September, 2014 features the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by Juraj Valčuha:


Featured Image: “Hungarian Folk Dance” (1935), Béla Kontuly

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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