Music and harmony

Béla Bartók – 6 Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos Sz. 107

Folk music has always been a source of inspiration for classical composers (it made its way into the works of almost all composers – think of Beethoven’s Scottish Songs, or Haydn’s Hungarian Piano Trio or indeed his Capriccio on the folksong ‘Acht Sauschneider müssen sein’), but it was only in the 20th century that musicians embarked on the mammoth task of collecting this timeless music, to which so many people have contributed over time that it’s hard to see it as having an “author” in the conventional sense. Bartók is perhaps the composer who was most active in collecting folk music traditions. He was born in Sânnicolau Mare which used to be part of Austro-Hungarian Empire, now part of Romania – he was therefore perfectly placed at the centre of a very folk-fertile area. He dedicated his life to exploring the music of the people of Eastern Europe, and his ethnomusicological studies placed a strong mark on his compositional style and musical language. He said himself that folk music had become his ‘musical mother tongue’. He also called this ‘peasant music’, emphasising the idea that this music revolves around the lives of people who live close to the land, it accompanies their most important occasions, and it is what ordinary, working people use to express their joy, and also cope with grief.

The 6 Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm are generally considered the crowning piece in the Mikrokosmos collection. Talking about them in a 1940 interview, Bartók described the meters of this set as typically Bulgarian, featuring ‘combinations of quick binary and ternary beats repeating in each measure’. However, he declared that the tunes are all original and, in fact, that the melodies in the Bulgarian Dances are actually of Hungarian character. This is just an indication that folklore in this particular part of the world is never clearly outlined in geographical terms. It does not respect borders and frontiers, many of which have evolved over time, but rather circulates and joins people together across different countries and people.

I have very vivid memories in a small way of music joining different communities, through the numerous folk music festivals taking place every year in Tulcea, the town at the mouth of the Danube Delta where my grandparents live, which involved the different ethnic minorities living together in that area. In fact, Dobrogea (the south-eastern region of Romania) is a wonderful example of cross-ethnic friendship and camaraderie. For centuries, Dobrogea has been home to Romanians, Greeks, Russian lipoveni, Macedonians, Turks, Roma, and probably many more, and despite all this multi-ethnic society, racially-driven crime has always been extremely low. The local history museums in Tulcea show the harmonious coexistence of all these different peoples throughout history, they have all learnt from each other various skills, ways of processing raw material, and each ethnic folk heritage has always been a thing of pride, but also something to share with the others. These folk music festivals are truly something to put on your bucket list. People of all different ethnic backgrounds take to the streets, dancing, singing, chanting, and displaying arts and crafts (and of course, delicious food and drink!). Especially on a hot summer’s evening, I can think of nothing more magical than going to the large esplanade by the Danube to watch the people dance and to listen to their music accompanied by the shimmering of the water below, and the whispers of the willows from the nearby Delta. Seeing all these different people making music together always gave me a strange but strong feeling of hope, and it also gave music another very clear purpose – to unite, to bring people together.

For me, Bartók’s Bulgarian-Hungarian blend in these Dances brings back all these heart-warming memories. Technically speaking, I think that one of the most important ingredients of this music is the modal harmony, with its amazing expressive potential. In the 20th century in particular, modes have been used to lend music a unique atmosphere, often giving it a feeling of looking back towards ancient times and history. In sung folk music, modal harmony is the norm. Pure tonal functionality happens very rarely.

It was Bartók who coined the term polymodal chromaticism, which he viewed as a distinctive feature of Eastern European folklore, and which he described as a musical language in which phrases come in two or more different modes simultaneously. This is noticeable from the opening bars of the first dance, and continues in the listener’s mind until the closing chords.

The mood and character of these dances is widely ranging, and the juxtaposition of modes enhances it further. The long-breadth phrases and the dramatic feeling of the opening dance give it a wonderful singing quality. The sighing grace notes are very much imitations of the inflections of an untrained, but enormously beguiling, voice. The yearning character of this opening dance is contrasted sharply with the high-octane rhythmic energy, short motifs and snap dynamic changes of the second one. The third dance is perhaps one of the most melodically expressive. Its tunes keep evolving around certain melodic centres, creating a sense of restlessness.

The fourth dance is perhaps ‘the odd one’. Talking about it, Bartók said it is ‘very much in the style of Gershwin, Gershwin’s tonality, rhythm, colour – American folktune feeling’. Its harmonies carry indeed a strong feeling of blues and the tunes keep a sense of improvisation as they rocket up and down the keyboard. The 5th dance is one of the most rhythmically-driven. In fact, the only snippets of tunes are so short that one could argue that rhythm is everything that matters in this short and agitated movement. The final dance is a synthesis where both the rhythms and the melodies join forces. The harmonic mode here (with flattened 6th, to be pedantic…) brings a sense of heroism. The thundering brass-like chords bring this magnificent cycle to a highly-spirited ending.

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