BELÁ BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Photograph of Bartok at the time of his Dance Suite premiere.
In 1923, the Budapest city council threw a vast party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the merging of the towns of Buda and Pest: two rather distinct although neighboring — on opposite banks of the Danube — entities: Buda, the old city, with its imperial traditions and aristocratic residences; Pest, the commercial hub and abode of both the middle class and the working class. The resultant city instantly became one of Europe’s major metropolitan areas.
Budapest: divided into Buda and Pest by the Danube River. The 50th anniversary of the joining of Buda and Pest in 1923 was marked by the premiere of works by Hungary’s three great living composers: Bartók, Dohnányi, and Kodály.
The concert, on November 19, 1923, was a partial success. Bartók’s contribution, the present Dance Suite, suffered the dread, proverbial “mixed reception,” which means it wasn’t much liked, but not disliked sufficiently to create a career-enhancing scandal.
The commemoration of this marriage of convenience also represented a return to life for the entire nation of Hungary three years after the Treaty of Trianon, which dismembered the Austro-Hungarian Empire after its defeat in the First World War, divesting Hungary of half of its land, virtually all of its natural resources, and most of the ethnic minorities that made it the most diverse of European cultures.
To cap the celebration the city fathers staged, among other events, a grand concert for which the country’s leading composers. Ernö Dohnányi, Béla Bartók, and Zoltán Kodály were each commissioned to contribute a score, all to be performed by the orchestra of the Budapest Philharmonic Society under Dohnányi’s baton.
Ernst von Dohnányi
“My Dance Suite was so badly performed that it could not achieve any significant success,” Bartók wrote. “In spite of its simplicity there are a few difficult places, and our Philharmonic musicians were not sufficiently adult for them. Rehearsal time was, as usual, much too short, so the performance sounded like a sight-reading, and a poor one at that.” Two years later, however, the Suite was heard again, in the context of the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Prague, in a performance by the Czech Philharmonic under Václav Talich, and was rapturously received — with performances throughout Europe following. It did more for Bartók’s reputation, in the positive sense, than all his previous works combined.
The work was frequently heard, but ill-used, during the post-World War II communist era in Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. While it may likely express its composer’s nostalgia for a Hungary that was, with its extraordinary ethnic mix, the post-World War II communist interpreters of history turned it into a “hymn of brotherhood of nations and people” — Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, gypsy, and Arab. But the composer had earlier stated, simply, that “the Dance Suite was the result of my researches and love for folk music,” which he had been studying and recording since 1905. Nowhere did he suggest its possible function as a “hymn” to anything.
The five-part suite, in which all the tunes are Bartók’s own inventions rather than actual folk melodies, prominently — but not exclusively — employs Hungarian rhythms (2/4 and 4/4 abound). The five movements, played without pause, are bound together by a lyrical ritornello.
Grotesquerie characterizes the first two movements (separated by the ritornello, announced by a quartet of muted violins), the first pungently launched by the pair of bassoons playing narrow intervals: “rather Arabic in feeling,” according to the composer. The second movement, with its slithering trombones and blasting trumpets (with minor thirds milked for all they’re worth), is strongly suggestive of the “Pursuit” section of the earlier music for Bartók’s ballet pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin.
In the third movement, with its 2/4 bagpipe-like opening (Eastern, rather than Scottish), an even greater stretch of time is suggested, all the way to 1940 and the “Giuoco delle coppie,” the scherzo of the Concerto for Orchestra. Notable, too, is the series of celesta and harp glissandos over a trilling flute, heard further on in this dance, which, as a whole, the composer described as “typically Romanian in feeling.” The ritornello is this time announced, wistfully, by solo flute.
The Molto tranquillo fourth dance begins almost motionlessly, with a menacing quiet that evolves into a foretaste of what would become one of Bartók’s most characteristic soundscapes: the haunted nocturne, the instruments entering singly: first English horn and bass clarinet, followed by flute, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, which then depart the aural stage in reverse order.
Finally, a mere wisp of the ritornello announces a rondo that brings together most of the earlier themes of the Dance Suite, culminating in a noisy romp that suggests a mingling of the previously cited Miraculous Mandarin theme (“Pursuit”) and the rowdy finale of the yet-to-be-written Concerto for Orchestra.
Bartok, at left, with Hungarian peasants singing into his recording machine, circa 1905
A page from the manuscript score of the Dance Suite