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Composed: 1912 (orch. 1921)
Length: 22 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet and E-flat), bass clarinet ( = E-flat clarinet), 4 bassoons (4th = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, side drum, tam-tam, triangle), 2 harps, piano, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 21, 1992, Pierre Boulez conducting
For the large music-loving public, the inclusion of Béla Bartók in the hierarchy of greats, sadly enough, came only after the Hungarian composer had died, when his last orchestral work, the Concerto for Orchestra, which he composed in 1943, almost literally on his deathbed, raised him to exalted status. Then the music that the public had rejected and/or taken great pains to avoid was newly appraised and much of it, finally, appreciated.
Appreciation for Bartók by musicians, however, had been virtually unanimous through the years of his painful uphill career. In an article that does not deal with a specific composition, Pierre Boulez wrote, in part, "The triumph of [Bartók's] music is due to the ambiguity attaching to the use of folk music and national symbol. Bartók," he asserts, "unquestionably belongs with Stravinsky, Webern, Schoenberg, and Berg to the 'great five' of contemporary music. [He] is incomparable and remains unique."
By whatever objective yardstick it was measured, Bartók's music had as its distinctive point of reference the folk element, gained by his years of scholarship. On countless field trips in the hinterlands of Hungary and environs, he ferreted out literally thousands of examples of the true folk music, as opposed to the popular gypsy tunes construed by Franz Liszt and others to be the genuine article. Absorbing the many and varied characteristics of the discovered peasant music, Bartók evolved an original folklore, that is, music created in the image and likeness of the models. Virtually everything he wrote was touched by the strong folk flavors, so that his music's individuality remains unmistakable to the ear.
Exceptions, however, prove the rule. (That is an old saying, isn't it?) The Four Pieces of Opus 12 contain some of Bartók's most atypical music, in that the folk element that had already taken strong hold in his creative psyche is not overtly present, although it is often just under the surface. The Pieces were composed in 1912, after the masterful one-act opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, and the seminal piano piece, the Allegro barbaro, both of which bear the imprint of the composer's intense researches into peasant music. Written for two pianos, the Four Pieces were not orchestrated until 1921. After producing the instrumental version, Bartók wrote only two more works for large orchestra, both on commission: the Dance Suite (1923) and the Concerto for Orchestra (1943).
In the Four Pieces, Bartók gives way somewhat to the Debussy within him, apparently still fighting to get out. At the opening of the first movement Preludio, the French composer's imagery is writ bold, as harps enfold sensuous strings, and horns call out dreamily. The tensions that are not long in mounting and that build to a vivid climax are created in language that is more distinctly Bartók's, but the end of the movement, with harps again setting the music afloat, speaks in French rather than Hungarian accents.
Beginning with what may be construed as a 20th-century view of the opening of the Scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the Scherzo here is a vehement and bizarre invention. Bartók invokes dissonance, blaring brass, and incessant percussiveness - including the stomping of drums and four-hand piano - to make his case for a music of savage intensity. A graceful episode midway only serves to point up the pervading violence.
The gentleness of the third movement Intermezzo, with its opening of horns, harp, and murmuring strings more benign than Bartók's characteristic "night music," provides needed balm after the strenuous forces of the Scherzo, and a point of rest before the dramatic somberness of the Marcia funebre. This funeral march evolves with neither pity nor heroics, but rather with a clenched theatricality born of orchestral dynamism as well as of emotional strength.
-- Orrin Howard annotated programs for the Los Angeles Philharmonic during his more than 20 years as Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.