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After a two-year hiatus from composing due to struggles with depression caused by World War I, as well as some disappointments in his professional life, Bartók began composing again in 1915. And it is no surprise that one of his first compositions of this period is the suite entitled Romanian Folk Dances. Between 1909 and 1914 Bartók took numerous trips to the Transylvanian region, where he recorded and transcribed the music of the local Romanian population. He found Romanian folk music to be much richer in its variety than that of Hungary. The rhythms, the timbres, and the different combinations of local instruments such as violin, guitar, peasant flute, and bagpipe proved to be quite stimulating in his quest for new and exciting elements to introduce to 20th-century art music.
Bartók recognized three ways in which folk music can serve as the basis for art music. In the first method, the composer uses authentic folk melody with the addition of accompaniment and possibly an introduction and a conclusion. The second method is one in which the composer invents his or her own melody imitating a folksong. The last method is when the composer absorbs the essence of folk music in such a way that it becomes an integral part of his or her compositional language without an overbearingly noticeable connection to the folk tradition.
Of these three methods, the Romanian Folk Dances are clearly based on the first one. When arranging the folk melodies he had collected in Transylvania, Bartok preserved their pitch and rhythmic structure while introducing a rich harmonic language for the accompaniment. However, he was freer with the choice of tempo as some of the fast dances he made even faster, and some of the slower melodies even slower, thus emphasizing the individual character of each one of them.
The melody of the first dance, entitled “Stick Dance,” came from two gypsy violinists whom Bartók recorded. It is a in a moderate tempo followed by the relatively quick “Sash Dance,” which originally the composer heard performed on a peasant flute. The third dance (“In One Spot”) although also originally performed on a peasant flute, is much slower and darker in mood with a more southern, Balkan, or even Middle Eastern character emphasized by the interval of augmented second. The fourth dance (“Dance from Bucsum”) is in 3/4 meter unlike the rest of the dances, which are mainly in 2/4. Bartók gave it a gentle, almost minuet-like quality and a slower tempo, in sharp contrast to the original violin folk tune, which is quite brisk and energetic. Here again we hear the augmented second, which suggests influence from places south of Romania. The fifth dance, entitled “Romanian Polka,” alternates between 2/4 and 3/4 meters and is quite boisterous, as are the last two dances both entitled “Maruntel” (“Fast Dance”). Bartók emphasized their dance character by providing an energetic left hand accompaniment while preserving the violin-like quality of the lively ornamented melody.
Performer-composer Milen Kirov recently completed his doctorate at CalArts and currently teaches at CSU Northridge and Chapman University. He also maintains a busy performing and recording schedule in Southern California.