Suite, Op. 14
ffcf f The composers of the 19th century created worlds of beauty and brilliance based upon their understanding of the piano as a singing instrument that was also capable of marvelous feats of bravura. In addition to the many crucial changes in the actual vocabulary of music at the dawn of the 20th century was the one in which the piano was defined literally, on the basis of its hammer-striking mechanism, as an instrument of percussion. No composer contributed more to this concept and its practical application than Béla Bartók. Hand in hand with this realization of the percussive nature of the piano came the young Hungarian’s momentous awakening to the true folk music of his country and of neighboring lands.
Immersing himself in the folk tradition through extended research of the most intensive kind, Bartók assimilated the discovered elements until they became a predominant part of his musical language. Nothing that he wrote once the folk assimilation began was untouched by the elements of the native music: irregular rhythms, modality, exotic scale combinations, severely simple melodies, and the alternately naïve and passionate temperament of the folk models. And in his piano music, beginning with the Allegro barbaro of 1911, percussiveness was the operative style. By 1916, the year of the present Suite, many piano works had come from his pen, most based upon folk melodies.
Although not derived from folk sources, the Suite is still strongly flavored by them, and in addition is colored by whole-tone passages. Bartók’s use of the latter, a Debussy influence, serves to abolish tonality, or at least to decentralize it, and also to evoke a Far Eastern aura.
The Suite’s first movement is its most dance-like section, with a pronounced rhythmic step, at times syncopated, accompanying first a right-hand, then a left-hand, melody. The first theme is a small-ranged tune, while the second (left-hand) theme is more a figure than a melody. Bartók’s characteristic hesitations and melodic fragmenting can be observed on the way to a three-octave whole-tone scale before the final chords.
The Scherzo’s main section contrasts broken augmented chords darting up and down the keyboard with the dissonance of minor seconds and major sevenths used to accompany legato chromatic figures.
The original materials of the third movement, Bartók indicated, are Arabic in inspiration. The piece’s mechanical momentum is established at the outset by an ostinato (repeated figure in the left hand), a figure which eventually is developed with vehement, percussive brilliance. The last movement is contrastingly gentle, containing that element of nocturnal yet pensive tranquility which Bartók was so often to conjure. The hesitant rhythm and the dissonances that pervade contribute to a steely ambiance whose severity does not preclude poignancy.