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It was way back when, after a madcap visit to Hungary, I became interested in all things Magyar. Sadly the attraction, as fascinations do, faded. Being of calm Celtic, Anglo Sachsen stock I found it testing to accept the “joyful sadness” of the Hungarians.
One thing which came out of that escapade, however, was a liking for the music of Bela Bartók. Bartók , born at Nagyszentmiklos, Hungary, (16 December 1882 – 6 March 1967) was with Zoltán Kodály, principal representative of modern Hungarian music. It was Kodály, later to be creator of the Kodály Concept, for musical teaching, who took Bartók under his wing and introduced him to the methods involved in folk song collecting. The two became lifelong friends and champions of each other’s music.
Educated at the Royal Hungarian Academy of music at Budapest, Bartók made a special and extensive study of the folksongs of his native land and employed them in his own works. Through his collection and study of folk music, he was one of the founders of comparative musicology, which later became ethnomusicology. My Bartók favourite, and a lasting reminder of those past times in Budapest is his Suite No.1.
Our acceptance of change and of new innovations in classical music is more liberal than it was in Bartók ’s day. On hearing Bartók’s Suite No.1, Op.3 when first performed in 1905, the international music critic, Michel Calvocoressi wrote.
“We miss landmarks by which we were wont to steer. Extensions of the tonal range, new associations of chords, unusual sequences of meters and intervals are enough to make us feel as though tonality, harmony, rhythm and melody told us nothing of the musician’s purpose. But if the purpose is dictated by, and carried out under the guidance of genuine imagination, we shall find it less difficult to grasp than we might think at first.”
The opening sonata-form (Allegro vivace) starts with a romantic theme played by the full orchestra, then proceeds to a more lyrical one stated by a solo oboe. After its adventurous introductory phrase, the second movement, (Poco adagio) begins with a hauntingly melancholy solo on the English horn. Then come the clarinets with a suggestive tune, followed by the full orchestra. Later the introductory phrase comes back, and there follows an evocative “forest murmur”, after which pieces from the first part of the movement impel it its second climax until things subside into silence with a mystifying violin solo.
The third movement is a dance (presto) with some eerily evocative colors along the way. The fourth movement, (moderato) starts with a clarinet solo. Transformed pieces from the first movement are recognizable. A faster, spirited dance comes in the middle and attempts to take over events, which inevitably it manages to do. The ending merges both into one, with the atmosphere of the first prevailing.
The concluding (Molto vivace) resumes the manner of the first movement in phrases that are irregular in length. Reminders of the second movement show up along the way, and the brass make some candid testimonial to the beginning of the first movement. The suite comes to a close with some noticeable allusion to the beginning of the work.
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