Béla Bartók

Improvisations (8) on Hungarian Peasant Songs for piano, Sz. 74, BB 83 (Op. 20)

    Description by Alexander Carpenter

    The Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs for piano marked a significant moment in Bartók's oeuvre, the point at which he began to treat folk tunes as malleable musical material. Instead of taking a simple folk tune and harmonizing it, Bartók was now manipulating the folk tunes, transforming and shaping them to fit his compositional needs while still retaining their original spirit. Folk music is at the heart of nearly all of Bartók's compositions, beginning with his works at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. By this point, Bartók had spent several years collecting folk tunes from all over Eastern Europe. For Bartók, folk music served as raw material for composing art music, and indeed the musical idioms of Hungarian, Romanian, and Slovakian folk music became a fundamental part of Bartók's compositional style. These Improvisations show Bartók realizing, perhaps for the first time, the true fecundity of the folk music he had come to know so well.

    The first Improvisation is a very simple setting of the original melody, with very little variation of the tune, which is repeated three times, followed by a coda. The melody is modal, derived from the C Dorian mode. It is the harmony that is most interesting as it varies between diads, triads derived from the melody notes, and triads harmonically unrelated to the melody. The second Improvisation is more fragmented than its predecessor, with its syncopated rhythms and sudden tempo changes. Though it shares the C Dorian mode with the first Improvisation, the melody of the second also contains mixolydian mode fragments, and is much more dissonant than the first. The third Improvisation is polytonal, and quasi-pastoral in character. The fourth Improvisation is quick, and features ostinati. It is followed by the pentatonic fifth Improvisation, which includes the use of canonic imitation (a favorite technique of Bartók's) and polytonal harmonies. The sixth Improvisation is also pentatonic, but with a bitonal schism: the folk melody is played on the black keys of the piano, which comprise a pentatonic scale, while the accompaniment is played on the white keys, thus creating a harsh bitonal harmonic relationship between the parts. The seventh Improvisation includes the technique of mirroring, as phrases in the accompaniment are immediately followed by their inversions. This particular piece was dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy, whose music had a powerful effect on the younger Bartók early in the century. It was published in a collection of pieces assembled in honor of the late Debussy. It is curious to note that, despite its dedicatee, there are virtually no stylistic elements of Debussy's music found in Bartók's piece. The eighth and final Improvisation is in variation form, and echoes the structure of the first Improvisation with its three repetitions of the melody followed by a coda. As in the first piece, the last Improvisation offers a varied harmonic setting for each repetition. The first variation is a simple setting of the melody with triplets, the second a canon, the third a dense, chordal setting of the tune.

    After the Improvisations, Bartók wrote almost no piano music between 1920 and 1926. In 1926, the so-called "piano year," Bartók began writing for the instrument again, in part to fulfill his own repertoire needs as a touring concert pianist.


    1. Molto moderato
    2. Molto capriccioso
    3. Lento, rubato
    4. Allegretto, scherzando
    5. Allegro molto
    6. Allegro moderato, molto capriccioso
    7. Sostenuto, rubato
    8. Allegro

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Hyperion CDA 68133
    2016 Hungaroton HCD 3279091
    2016 Decca 4789311
    2016 Haenssler / Hänssler Classic HC 16020
    2016 Sony Classical 88875183392
    2015 MSR Classics MS 1410
    2015 Artek AR 00642
    2015 Acousence Classics ACOCD 12014
    2014 Deutsche Grammophon / Eloquence 4807100
    2014 Three Oranges Recordings
    2014 Three Oranges Recordings 3OR 04
    2014 Sony Classical G010003220355W
    2014 Sony Classical 888430147621
    2013 Steinway & Sons 30018
    2013 Bridge BCD 9388
    2012 Sony Classical 88691912562
    2011 Harmonia Mundi 9151094
    2011 Pro Piano PPR 224503
    2010 Decca
    2010 Decca 4782364
    2010 Audite 92568
    2008 Hungaroton 32528
    2007 Eroica Distribution 3131
    2007 Diskant 93
    2006 Sony Music Distribution 78750
    2006 Hungaroton HCD 32437
    2005 Sony Classical 94726
    2005 Orange Factory acoustic arts & m / Orange Factory acoustic arts & tosheva1
    2005 Philips 000531102
    2004 Eroica Distribution 3136
    2003 Vox 3610
    2003 Pierian 0016
    2003 Decca 472464
    2002 Naxos 554718
    2002 Dynamic 413
    2001 Centaur Records 2494
    2000 Hungaroton 41002
    2000 Eufoda 1296
    1999 Philips 454987
    1999 Gasparo Records 2005
    1999 Harmonia Mundi 290888
    1998 Philips 456922
    1997 Sony Music Distribution 63380
    1997 Camerata Records 30CM458
    1997 Arcobaleno 93992
    1995 Hungaroton 12334
    1995 Sony Music Distribution 68275
    1994 Hungaroton 31051
    1993 Harmonia Mundi 1901094
    Hungaroton 1232931
    Dynamic 4