Béla Bartók – Six Romanian Folk Dances (1915)

Alright, I’ll keep it short today. The 1st of December is Romania’s national day and although I’m not exactly a patriot, being more partial to the concept of “global citizenship” if anything, I thought it a good time to bring up the Six Romanian Folk Dances by Béla Bartók. This man had a great passion for collecting and transposing folk songs into classical musical notation and then basing works on themes discovered in his travels. He stuck to Eastern Europe, and well he did, since the wealth of music here as been explored by few classical composers indeed. He collected songs from Slovakia, Hungary and of course Transylvania, Moldavia and Wallachia, three of the historic regions which united on the 1st of December 1918 to form Romania. At the time of composition, the suite was entitled Six Romanian Folk Dances from Hungary, which was later changed, when Transylvania stopped being part of Hungary.

The songs were meant to be played either on violin (fiddle) or shepherd’s flute, and I must say, they are some of the most powerful and accurate renditions of Romanian folk music in classical form I have ever heard, on par with George Enescu’s work, who arguably had a much more accurate insider’s perspective on the issue. It’s really quite hard for me to speak about this music on a technical level, I have no idea what’s going on from a composer’s perspective, all I know there are some specific scale and construction elements to Romanian music which are unique and have a resonance unlike any other. There’s a twisting quality, a convoluted, slightly strange manner in which the tunes develop, coupled with syncopated patterns which are characteristic to most Romanian folk music but especially notable in the dances, and Béla Bartók really knew how to attune himself to these traits. The resonance of these folk dances strikes a deep chord in me, since I was made to listen to a lot of music much like this when I was a kid, my father being truly passionate about our country’s musical and dance tradition. The music sounds like an echo of something, sounds to me like I’ve already heard it long, long ago and every time I listen it’s more like remembering than actually discovering the pieces. I’m talking about a sort of anthropological and psychological archeology here which I don’t suppose will be accessible to every one of you, especially if you’re not from this corner of the world. However I do believe the songs themselves have something archaic, ancient, a quality which can transcend ethnic barriers and stir anyone, even half the world away.

On that note, I leave you with Béla Bartók’s music, in two renditions. The first one has the fiddle as a soloing instrument, and it’s the best I’ve heard. Illényi Katica plays that violin with a spirit which I’ve only ever encountered in the traditional folk players’ grasps. The second rendition has the flute as a soloing instrument (I tried to find a shepherd’s pipe rendition but, alas, no luck) and sounds much more “classical” to me, further away from the fire of the traditional interpretation, but interesting nonetheless, especially on the last of the six dances. Enjoy!

One thought on “Béla Bartók – Six Romanian Folk Dances (1915)

  1. Thanks for this, nice to hear something upbeat and honest after the idiotic pretentious movie I just saw. Also, I read ‘shepherd’s pie’ instead of ‘shepherd’s pipe’ in the taglines and I reread the whole thing looking for the reference…

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