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Dance Suite


On 17 November 1873 the three sister cities of Buda, Óbuda and Pest united to create the metropolis of Budapest. Over the next half-century the city’s population grew five-fold as Budapest joined Vienna as co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1923, however, that multi-ethnic empire of increasing economic prosperity had been shattered, swept away in the aftermath of the First World War. Budapest was still the capital city of Hungary, but of a country barely one-third its original size and stripped of most of its ethnic minorities as well as nearly one-third of its own ethnic kin. Inflation was rampant; living standards were precarious. Amid this gloom some enlightened municipal authorities determined to commission three compositions in celebration of the city’s 50th anniversary. Ernst von Dohnányi produced a Festival Overture, Zoltán Kodály the Psalmus Hungaricus and Bartók decided on a suite of dances. All three works were premièred on 19 November 1923 under Dohnányi’s direction.

After four years of writing highly dissonant music, where tune and accompaniment were often in opposition, Bartók’s Dance Suite marked a retreat into greater consonance. We can already hear in this suite some of the orchestral techniques that would 20 years later come to fuller flowering in another dance-inspired suite, his Concerto for Orchestra. Although the reception of the Dance Suite was only lukewarm at its première, where it was somewhat overshadowed by Kodály’s new oratorio, the work quickly went on to gain immense popularity. It contained the sunny optimism and stylistic sheen that had been lacking in most of Bartók’s works of the previous decade. His publishers even took out advertisements in 1925 proudly proclaiming that his new suite would be heard in 60 cities across Europe and North America during the coming season.

Bartók’s suite uses ‘idealised’ peasant music in various ethnic styles. That is, the themes are of his own devising but according to a variety of different stylistic templates. The result is six short movements, all run together, with a common connecting (ritornello) theme between most of them. Only between the third and fourth movements is there a real sense of a break in the music, where this connecting theme is conspicuously absent. Although Bartók was, at the time, tight-lipped about the ethnic templates he was invoking—the political situation throughout central Europe in 1923 was still very tense—he later gave a rollcall of his styles, with the connecting ritornello being in Hungarian style, his first movement recalling a chromatic ‘Arabic’ style, his second movement Hungarian and his third a mixture of Hungarian bagpipe and Romanian violin styles.

His later three movements were of growing stylistic internationalism, leading to the medley of his final movement in which ‘primitive’ and Hungarian themes predominate. You might ask where the Slovaks were, amid this melodic melange. And Bartók did draft a Slovak-styled movement as well—it was to occur after the second movement—but removed it in his final revision of the suite. In musical practice, then, Bartók was already committing to the cultural pluralism that he would more publicly and controversially advocate in the decade of the 1930s.

This suite also reveals Bartók as an orchestrator of growing confidence, and one now well equipped to score his much more extensive pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin. His interplay between strings and wind/brass is very skilful. The suite’s tranquil fourth movement, with its meandering opening melody on cor anglais and bass clarinet, was an early herald of the hushed style of ‘night music’ that he would develop in his works from 1926 onwards. The snarling glissandos of the trombones and upper strings in his second movement was another highly effective innovation, to which Bartók constantly returned throughout the movement. Of course, not all listeners were impressed. The Times’ critic of a February 1926 London performance remonstrated: ‘It is time that some protest was registered against glissandos on the trombones, even if every other atrocity is admitted to the concert room.’

There was another, more personal reason for Bartók’s new radiance in the Dance Suite: he was in love. During the summer of 1923, as well as writing this suite he divorced his wife Márta Ziegler and rapidly married a 19-year-old piano student Ditta Pásztory. But despite the divorce Ziegler, to whom Duke Bluebeard’s Castle had been dedicated, continued to help him in copying out the Dance Suite’s full score!

from notes by Malcolm Gillies © 2016


Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin & other works
Studio Master: SIGCD466Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Movement 1: Moderato
Movement 2: Allegro molto
Movement 3: Allegro vivace
Movement 4: Molto tranquillo
Movement 5: Commodo – Finale

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