Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Béla Bartók

After three years of relative inactivity as a composer, Béla Bartók returned to writing music with a vengeance in 1926, producing a variety of works in what has come to be known as his "piano year." In June, he sent his family to the country and began working on a series of short piano pieces that evolved into his Piano Sonata and the suite Out of Doors. At the time, Bartók did not know how the individual pieces would eventually coalesce into finished works. His primary concern was nothing less than a radical revision of his piano style. Bartók's expanding concert schedule throughout Europe and America provided further impetus to create new works for his own use as a performer. The Piano Sonata is one manifestation of the composer's retooled keyboard idiom. The sonata's language is direct, polytonal, and frequently very dissonant. Its polyphony is clear, its melodic development essentialized: instead of themes, Bartók develops motivic cells, which he subjects to extension and variation. The material itself is folk-derived, reflecting Bartók's interest in Hungarian and Romanian folk music. The sonata opens in heavy stamping rhythm, jolly enough but a bit fearsome for its dissonances and the occasional tone cluster. The first motif, a dotted hop into a repeated, hammering note, is heard immediately; the second, a brusque three-note ascending figure on a minor third, follows quickly. Although the movement centers on E major, there is much play with remote keys in either hand. Bartók embellishes his material with coloristic devices new to his style, including fast, blurred glissandi and tone clusters. These effects tend to erode the tonality in ways different from the atonalism of his violin sonatas of a few years earlier. The hammering rhythms are almost relentless throughout, and the movement ends emphatically. The second movement, Sostenuto e pesante, features bell-like chords in the left hand, answered by a tolling melody of narrow scope in the right. The musical rhetoric here is primarily harmonic, building up an argument of anguished dissonance from the sustained rhythm of the tolling figures. A pentatonic motif in octaves, answered by heavy open-fifth chords in the left hand, launches the concluding compact rondo, in which Bartók explores various folk styles in three episodic sections. Originally there were four such episodes, but Bartók excised the evocation of bagpipe music (which he incorporated into the Out of Doors suite as "Musettes"), leaving three picturesque representations of folk singing, peasant flutes, and Romanian fiddlers. The pentatonic ritornello motif brings the work to a driving conclusion.