Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Béla Bartók

The Two Elegies for piano date from the same period as Bartók's well-known pedagogical work, For Children; however, the two works could hardly be more dissimilar. While For Children is a work of folk-inspired simplicity and transparency, the Elegies are virtuosic, dense, and even romantic in character. Indeed, Bartók thought that these pieces represented something of a stylistic regression, a return to the style of his earliest piano works. While most of Bartók's music from this time strongly reflects the influence of his ethnomusicological studies of Eastern European folk song, the Elegies instead betray Bartók's interest in Debussyian expanded harmony, but also nineteenth-century Lisztian bombast.

Bartók composed the first Elegy, (Grave) in 1908, shortly after being jilted by his first love, Stefi Geyer. Geyer, a violinist, is musically symbolized in a number of Bartók's earlier works through a leitmotif--essentially the notes of a major seventh chord--his so-called "love motif." It is found in the First Violin Concerto, First String Quartet, and in some of the Fourteen Bagatelles. In the first Elegy, Bartók's love motif occurs again, though now emotionally recontextualised and in reordered form, as part of the main thematic material. While this first Elegy is reminiscent in style to a number of nineteenth-century virtuoso piano works, it is also important to note that it is constructed out of intervals pointing to Hungarian pentatonic scales, suggesting that though the piece does not explicitly evoke Bartók's beloved folk music, it is nonetheless present below the surface. This Elegy also, despite its references to the past, borders on contemporary atonality with its pervasive chromaticism, though Bartók was quick to note that both Elegies had specific tonal orientation--No. 1 in D minor, No. 2 in C sharp minor--for "those who like to pigeonhole all music they do not understand into the category of 'atonal' music."

The second Elegy was not completed until late 1909, nearly two years after the completion of the first. It is entitled Molto adagio, quasi rubato (quasi improvisando). Like its companion, "Grave," the "Molto Adagio" also contains the "love motif," though since this second Elegy was composed shortly after Bartók's marriage to his pupil Marta Ziegler, some scholars have suggested that the "love motif" appears in this work as part of a symbolic renunciation of Geyer. The entire second Elegy is based on a single theme, which is repeatedly transformed. Indeed, this theme, built from the "love motif," is completely integrated into both the harmony and melody of the piece. The "quasi improvisando" in the piece's title refers to the ad libitum repetition of certain accompaniment figures that Bartók allowed the performer.