About this work
While Bartók had spent a number of years prior to 1916 collecting and compiling folk tunes from Eastern Europe, the Suite for piano solo does not directly reflect this. Other pieces composed by Bartók around this time include a large number of Romanian, Slovak, and Hungarian folk songs; the suite however, is one of only a few works from this time not to use folk song-derived material. Bartók's strong affinity for folk music is still evident in the suite, as some of the movements have a distinctly Romanian folk flavor, while others reflect Bartók's interest in Arab peasant music. The suite is one of Bartók's most significant and substantial works for piano, with the only other comparable work in his oeuvre being the Piano Sonata, composed in 1926.
Though it appears that Bartók had intended for the suite to have five movements, in the end he abandoned a short Andante and published the suite as a four-movement work. The opening movement has a decidedly folk-like character, sounding rhythmically like a Romanian peasant dance. Its thematic material is derived from the Lydian mode, but also from whole tone scales, which are prevalent in this movement. On close inspection, it is clearly a very Bartókian work. This is most obivous in the movement's complex harmonic structure, which juxtaposes chromaticism and non-traditional harmonic procedures with the simple harmonies associated with folk tunes. Scholars have noted this juxtaposing in the melody as well, where Bartók combines perfect and diminished fifths, thereby comingling tonally stable structures with tension-ridden, unstable ones. This technique continues into the second movement, a quick Scherzo in which further tonal instability -- bordering on atonality -- is created though the use of non-functional augmented chords. The third movement, an Allegro molto that is even faster than the preceding Scherzo, continues the trend of acceleration through successive movements. The Allegro was, as Bartók admitted, influenced by the music of Arabic North Africa, which accounts for the movement's vigorous ostinato figures and chromatic musical language. The most interesting part of this entire work, arguably, is the final movement. From the very beginning of the suite, the tempo accelerates, and by the time the fourth movement begins, the expectation is that it will continue to gain speed and momentum, and will propel the work to a breathless conclusion. This, however, is not the case. Bartók subverts the listener's expectations by suddenly slowing down, a profoundly dramatic gesture. Not only does the tempo change in the fourth movement, but also the character of the work, as this final movement consists of soft, gentle, and even mournful music. The rambunctious repeating rhythmic figures of the preceding movement are gone, replaced by halting rhythms. The tonal ambiguity introduced early in this work continues in the fourth movement, but Bartók's bitonal music is softened by a reduced tempo and dynamics: semitones are still clashing, but here in the context of music expressing sorrow and tragedy.
Curated by Femke Steketee, Saxophonist