Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances

In the summer of 1979, I rented half a small house south of Indiana University’s school of education where most of my classes took place for my master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of English as a Second Language. It was a great university in so many ways–it offered almost every language, a world class department schools of psychology (think BF Skinner), comparative literature, medicine, film studies, and of course, music.



The school of education sat next to the school of music where you could the strains of students practicing their chops floated out of nearly every every window of the great, tall round music building that housed nothing but practice rooms.

Every night you could hear either a symphony performance, a senior, masters or doctoral recital and there were plenty of record stores (vinyl) where you could buy anything you wanted. Every dorm on campus had a library with an amazing collection of records as well, so any piece I heard on the radio or in concert could be found somewhere.

I can’t remember who introduced me to Béla Bartók, Romanian Dances, but I am so grateful for whoever did.  It touched a nerve, or perhaps I was genetically wired to love Hungarian music.

My dad’s parents had emigrated from Hungary in 1904. Every Sunday after church and dinner, my dad would turn on the local radio station, WSBT, which devoted an hour each to “The Polish Hour,” and “The Hungarian Hour.” The Poles played polkas and the Magyars played soaring, soulful “gypsy” melodies. The theme for the Hungarian Hour was a schmaltzy violin backed by an orchestra and cymbalon (a cousin of the hammered dulcimer).  You’ve heard this melody if you ever had a friend to whom you told a sad story and they said, “Pity Party,” and hummed a few notes of the melody while running their index finger over the thumb like a tiny violin.  I’d heard the song in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, I think, (thank you Carl Stalling), so I called up the radio announcer to ask what the name was.  He sounded surprised that anyone was calling to ask and in fact he didn’t know it, which I thought odd because, it was the theme song after all.  He took a moment to look it up and said it was called “You’re the Only Girl in the World For Me.” “What?” I thought. That’s so hackneyed.  Eventually I heard the melody pop up on the local classical radio station from Notre Dame University, and called that radio announcer.  He said it was Pablo de Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen,” (Gypsy Airs), a piece which borrowed a few folk melodies from Franz Liszt‘s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13.

My father, when talking about famous Hungarians, would alway mention the Gabor sisters, Ernie Kovacs, and of course  Béla Bartók, so when I started really listening to classical music I was proud of my Magyar heritage and claimed him as my favorite composer.

The Romanian Folk Dances became and still are one of my favorite pieces of music by the composer.  What’s even more wonderful is that you can find many different versions of it for solo piano, violin, orchestra, among others, as well as the original field recordings Bartok made of folk songs from which he took the melodies for this work (and even a performance by Bartok himself at the keyboard.


Solo Piano (with Bartok playing)




Violin and Piano




Cello and Piano




Muzikas, Hungarian Folk Ensemble playing melodies of the Dances with Danube Philharmonia




Another version with piano and Muzikas Folk Ensemble

Which do you prefer?


For me, I really love the version at the top, which was released in 1979, and performed by I Musici:


I Musici

The the solo piano and violin are great, too. There’s one movement that’s really haunting with harmonics on the violin, that my friend David Hendrickson said was so piercing that whenever he listened to it he said if felt like someone was cleaning his ear with a Q-tip.

Since I posted the above, I found this original field recording that Bartok made in Romania.


It’s a amazing!

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