The Mikrokosmos by Béla Bartók: "Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm"
The load is a heavy weight to bear, but it is necessary. So few understand the treasure he is gathering here, hiking mile after mile through forest and vale. In each town and village he passes, the people smile and laugh. They tell him stories and then they joyfully surrender their treasure to him, and he collects it, bit by bit, into the box he carries on his back, hopeing to study it and find ways to share it with the world.
This was Béla Bartók in the early 1900s, travelling through the countryside of south-eastern Europe with an Edison recording machine strapped to his back, gathering the folk music of the common people. The songs and sounds he gathered during these years became deeply integrated into his own psyche, eventually resulting in the unique twentieth-century musical voice that was Béla Bartók.
Bartók was born in Hungary in 1881. Writing his first dances at the age of nine, Bartók was a gifted musician who eventually began his musical career as a concert pianist, performing all over Europe and, eventually, the United States. Throughout his life, Bartók took great pleasure in melding the muiscal materail of common folk tunes with the ever-evolving styles and techniques of the classical music contemporary to his day.
Locations in the early life of Béla Bartók:
The Birthplace of Béla Bartók, 1881
The Academy of Music in Budapest where Bartók studied music.
The region where Bartók gathered the folks tunes of the native peoples, including Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Slovakia
The “Mikrokosmos,” literally meaning the “micro-cosmos,” is a series of six volumes of piano compositions composed between 1926 and 1939 designed for the musical instruction of his son, Péter. The compositions get progressively more difficult, concluding with two volumes of music intended to be professional performance-quality pieces.
All of the works in the “Mikrokosmos” reflect Bartók’s love of both folk music and contemporary classical rhythms and harmonies. The pieces are still commonly used in piano instruction, and many of the more advanced selections still make regular appearances on the performance programs of professional pianists.
"Well now that doesn't sound right."
If the odd sound of this music surprises you, just know that it shocked me, too. One day as I sat in piano lessons with my professor in college, he suggested I go pick these up and look at them a bit before our next lesson. I bought the book, took it home and sat at the piano with it in complete confusion; the notes made no sense and it sounded flat wrong when I played what was on the page.
A week later, when I began to discuss with my piano professor how I thought the music had been misprinted, he smiled at me and chuckled. “Yes, Bert.” he said kindly, “This is something different.” And different it is, but it has become among my very favorite pieces for the piano.
"Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm"
“Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm” is the last set of pieces in the final book of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. As the name of the piece makes clear, the dances are based on a variety of a-symmetrical rhythms that are common in Bulgarian folk music. The melodies, however, are completely original.
Tonally, the dances make frequent use of a compositional technique known as “bimodalism,” which was a widely embraced contemporary technique in his time. Roughly, bimodalism is when a composer creates music that is in two keys at the same time instead of just one (see the videos below for examples). This creates a sound that will be very odd for those who are only accustomed to the classical music of composers like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.
Each of the dances uses a unique rhythmic pattern to give each piece a distinctive character. All are high-energy and unified together through the creative use and development of a chromatic line that appears in each of the pieces, causing them to resemble one another even amidst their differences in the way that brothers and sisters so often look alike.
The Structure of "Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm"
Note: Each movement of the piece is treated in basically three ways here:
- The reader is given a one to two-sentence summary of the piece
- The basic structure of the piece is laid out, much like a map of where the piece will take you
- A short video is provided that explains the composer’s basic musical material through concrete examples from the piece.
Dance #1: 4+2+3
The first dance in the series is actually the most reflective, having sections that are slower which allows more time for thoughtful consideration.
- A: Gentle, yet energetic introduction of the theme (the melody)
- A’:First Variation—a slower rumination on the theme that gradually builds
- A’’:Second Variation—a return to a calm and thoughtful redition of the theme with an underlying sense of direction and soft but forceful purpose
- Coda:the forceful purpose hinted at in the second variation comes to the foreground, concluding the piece with decisive strength.
Dance #2: 2+2+3
A bright and spritely dance—almost like a musical sparkler.
- A: introduction of the underlying dance rhythm and melodic material
- B: running scales, reminiscent of some parts of the first dance
- A’: development of the initial melodic material
- B’: development of the running scales
- B’’: a driving presentation of the running scales, moving forward with restless energy
- Coda: concludes with the underlying dance rhythm drifting away
Dance #3: 5 (2+3)
In many ways this is an extension and response to the second dance. It retains a similarly high-level energy but adds more force and power.
- A: very brief introduction of the dance rhythm theme
- B: introduction of the secondary melodic line
- A’: development of the initial dance rhythm theme
- B’: development of the secondary melodic line
- A: repetition of the introduction unchanged followed by a short transition
- B’’: a high-energy rendition of the secondary melodic line in which the line begins to pile up on top of itself until three lines are running at once
- Coda: a conclusion in which the introduction is repeated verbatim again followed by a short closure based on the dance rhythm theme
Dance #4: 3+2+3
The first openly joyful dance in the collection. The rhythm is suggestive of a skipping or hopping dance that eventually evolves into an almost raucous stomping.
- A: a light and spirited introduction of the primary melodic line
- A’: the first variation in which a lower voice sings through the melodic line
- A’’: a very quiet rhythmic variation in which the left hand playfully accents the melody in the right
- A’’’: the third variation in which the lower voice returns again, singing a version of the melody that creates a stronger tension
- A’’’’: the fourth variation in which the melodic line falls down like raindrops
- A’’’’’: the fifth variation that finally brings the melodic line into play with full force, bringing the piece to a commanding close
Dance #5: 2+2+2+3
This movement, like the second, dances with quick and light steps, but is more playful and less flamboyant.
- A: brief introduction of a chromatic dance rhythm theme and a more fluid secondary melodic line
- B: a rapid exchange between the two themes, emphasizing the contrast between the short articulations of the dance rhythm theme and the smoother articulations of the secondary melodic line
- Coda: a quick closure to the piece based on the introductory dance theme
Dance #6: 3+3+2
With driving energy from start to finish, the sixth dance pulls together echoes of the melodic material from the other dances, closing the piece with a grand flourish.
- A: an extended introduction of the underlying rhythmic pulse and a strong chromatic melody that rings out like the strike of a hammer on an anvil
- B: this section introduces a tightly spun melodic line that eventually begins to spin around and on top of itself
- A’: the strong call of the original chromatic melody returns, moving through a varied landscape of tonalities
- Coda: and extended coda, introduced by a simple single-note repetition of the underlying rhythmic pulse, creates mounting excitement as the moments pass, driving all the way up to the final notes