Bartók, Béla - Dance Suite

Dance Suite
Béla Bartók
b. Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary / March 25, 1881
d. New York, New York, USA / September 26, 1945

For many reasons, Bartók may be considered the most important of all Hungarian composers. His chief predecessor, Franz Liszt (1811 1886) did much to promote what he believed to be his country’s musical culture. As has been demonstrated, Liszt based several of his practices on questionable principles. His chief error was his confusion of Gypsy melodies with authentic Hungarian folk music. Bartók’s approach, on the other hand, was based on firsthand, ground-level knowledge.

As a young man, recurring bouts of poor health turned him into a social introvert. He used the time these illnesses afforded him to develop his skills as both composer and pianist. For some years, he seemed destined for a career as a concert soloist. Then shortly following the turn of the twentieth century, two developments changed the course of his career forever.

The first was his exposure to the music of Richard Strauss – a performance of the tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), to be exact. Overwhelmed by what he heard, Bartók made up his mind to make composing the focus of his career. The second crucial incident was his first encounter with authentic Hungarian folk music. This earthy, rhythmically complex tradition showed him both his past and his future.

His immediate reaction was to head for the Hungarian hinterlands, primitive recording gear in tow, in order to set down and preserve his nation’s musical heritage before it disappeared forever. Much of what he and his colleague, Zoltán Kodály collected was published and circulated internationally.

Not content with merely gathering this material, Bartók began to use it in some of his compositions, and to create original themes in similar style for other pieces. Gradually working through his earlier influences – Strauss, Liszt and Debussy among them – he developed a unique musical language, one blending Hungarian folk elements with contemporary techniques.

The colorful and exuberant Dance Suite won Bartók his first widespread success as a composer for orchestra. It was commissioned in 1923 (along with Zoltán Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus and Ernő Dohnányi’s Festival Overture) for a concert celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the union between the cities Buda, Pest and Óbuda to form the Hungarian capital, Budapest. Dohnányi conducted the premieres of all three pieces on November 19.

The themes Bartók used in the Dance Suite are original compositions in folk style. Because his creative vision extended beyond his homeland, the melodies reflect not only Hungarian traditions but also those of Rumania, Slovakia and northern Africa. The suite is more elaborate, and more intricately structured than its title would imply. The six dances, quite varied in character, are linked by a tranquil recurring theme, and the finale quotes materials heard in several previous sections.

Program Notes by Don Anderson © 2019

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