The Hungarian Peasant Songs (15) are short piano arrangements of folk melodies and collectively form an unusual superstructure: the set is cast in two parts, the first consisting of six pieces whose first four works, each subtitled "Old Lament," are based on the same folk theme; and the last part consisting of nine pieces, each subtitled "Old Dance Tune"; together they are designed to form a four-movement entity of its own. Thus one might extract two or more separate but related collections from this colorful set.
The first four of the Hungarian Peasant Songs, as mentioned above, use the same theme. All are melancholy in character, with the funereal No. 1 and the skeletal No. 3 the darkest and most somber. The Second has an almost Gershwinian manner in its sadness, while the Fourth is comparatively vigorous and muscular.
No. 5, Scherzo, is playful and mischievous, offering needed contrast to the generally lugubrious character of the previous pieces, and No. 6, Ballade, is powerful and ultimately tragic, and at two-and-a-half minutes, the longest of the 15 pieces in the set.
The Seventh piece leads off the second part of the collection with a vigorous, colorful rendition of its attractive source melody. The next three pieces offer variants on this same theme, while concluding this, the first of the four inner movements from the second part. No. 8 is comparatively sedate, sounding slower than its Allegretto marking, while the Ninth, lasting all of 10 or 12 seconds, has a colorful, rollicking character. The Tenth is playful and less aggressive, and No. 11 melancholy and passionate.
No. 12 presents a melody that is actually a variant on the theme in No. 11. Marked Allegretto, it is chipper and lively and offers deft contrast to the preceding gloomy music. No. 13 is a very fast variant of the theme in No. 11 and near the end reprises material from No. 12, thereby forming a sort of Trio and concluding section within the second movement (Scherzo). The lively but agitated No. 14 is the third movement and presents yet another variant on the theme in No. 11. The last piece, the finale to the inner work as well as to the whole set, is based on a bagpipe melody and moves from the exotic to the frantic.