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!

About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

5 Responses to Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances

  1. kvennarad says:

    I like the version where Bartok himself is at the piano.

    I am fascinated by the folk-instrument interpretation. The long flute with the kargyraa-like overtones has that almost Levantine quality I have always heard in Eastern European music. They use different scales and mixed time signatures to the ones we are familiar with in the West.

    I wonder if you would like this piece of Klezmer. I believe the tune was collected from a Jewish community in Roumania. It is played at a wedding, to make the bride cry, so that her eyes will be beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. XperDunn says:

    I enjoy your college-days reminiscences—they remind me of my own—wandering through a world of new ideas and discovering beautiful music in infinite varieties.
    Bartok always attracted me because he’s so funky, so earthy. His Mikrokosmos is a standard that many piano teachers assigned their students—it teaches the usually score-reading and fingering, but it also involves the performer in rhythmic exploration you don’t see in Czerny, Brahms, or the other, more civilized, technical exercise-collections for piano students. In the seventies, it seemed much emphasis was placed on the Jazz meme: ‘all melody is rhythm’, so learning complex rhythms seemed a laudable goal. I always found it a real bitch to play—I’m not rhythmically gifted.
    What I do love about Bartok is the sense of ancient laborers in the harmonies—have you ever heard the famous Nonesuch recordings of the Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir? It seems the songs of serfs and field-laborers were never major-scale anthems, but twisted, squeaking dissonances so harsh that their resolution practically tears your heart out—I love that stuff. And I hear some of that in Bartok—even when he’s not arranging Folk Songs.
    The piece you’ve chosen today reminds me of my favorite piece of a similar type—Stravinsky’s ‘Pulcinella Suite’. It’s based on old themes by a baroque composer, rather than folk songs—but that sense of the ancient is still there. And it comes in many forms, like your Bartok piece—a ballet, a suite, and a chamber piece for a few instruments, in various arrangements. The standard backstory is that Pergolesi composed the original music—but Wiki sez that they have since been ascribed to some of his less well-known contemporaries. That’s not so important, to me, as the fact that Stravinsky’s very modern harmonies, like Bartok’s, seem to bring out the archaic sense of the very old music, more than the original music itself—if that’s not just a raving mad thing to say.
    Comparing the various versions of a piece is a favorite pastime of mine—so thanks for this sampler.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. EBW says:

    Absolutely beautiful. I’m obsessed with this piece. I believe the Muzikas Ensemble (posted above) was also featured in the orchestral performance of the dances on youtube. I also wanted to contribute that LA guitar guys recently published a delightful classical guitar version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Si5kNn9s2lg

    Liked by 1 person

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