The Kennedy Center

Dance Suite

About the Work

Béla Bartók Composer: Béla Bartók
© Peter Laki

Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (today Sînnicolau Mare, Romania) on March 25, 1881, and died in New York City on September 26, 1945.  He completed the Dance Suite in August 1923.  The work had been commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the merger of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda which resulted in the creation of the modern city of Budapest.  The suite was first performed on November 19, 1923, by the Budapest Philharmonic Society under the direction of Ernst von Dohnányi.

This work runs about 18 minutes in performance.  Bartók scored it for 2 flutes (both doubling piccolos), 2 oboes (second doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, small bell, 2 tambourines, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam), celesta, harp, piano, and strings.

Bartók's lifelong passion for folk music revealed to the world a treasure very few had known existed.  To the Hungarian composer, "folk" music, which he discovered in 1904, became the exact opposite of the "popular" music he had grown up with.  Folk music (or "peasant music," as he often referred to it) meant something ancient that was remembered only in remote regions, a rare jewel, as it were, that had to be placed in the best possible setting, to be shown as an unexpected novelty to an unsuspecting world.  Then, as Bartók's knowledge of folk music deepened through years of fieldwork followed by painstaking transcription and scholarly analysis, he moved beyond the stage of simple arrangement-the setting of a jewel-and reached higher levels of abstraction.  He created "imitation" folk melodies and finally imbued his entire style with the musical characteristics distilled from folk music.  Bartók's use of folk materials was therefore much more than a way of infusing his music with "local color," a sense of ethnic identity or a touch of nostalgia-it was a thoroughly modernist act.  In his harmonic language and his use of rhythm, Bartók was one of the great innovators of the early 20th century.  And his use of folk music, far from clashing with the radical nature of his music (as has sometimes been argued), was precisely what generated the innovations and made them possible in the first place, as Bartók never tired of pointing out in his essays.

The Dance Suite is filled with themes that sound like folk melodies but are in fact all by Bartók.  It is the composer's third orchestral work to be called a suite.  The first two were youthful compositions, the first still beholden to the Hungarian popular music that passed for national style around 1900, and the second making the historic transition, in its finale, from "popular" to "folk."  Written almost twenty years after its two predecessors, the Dance Suite is anything but "Suite No.3."  Its form alone makes it unique: it is in six sections played without pause and linked by a recurrent melody, or ritornello, which appears after each section but the third and the fifth.  The final section, then, recapitulates many of the themes heard previously.

There was a definite concept behind this unusual formal structure - a concept that can only be understood if we know the circumstances of the work's genesis.  The Dance Suite was written five years after the end of World War I, which resulted in the truncation of Hungary.  The country lost two-thirds of its territory, including all of the different places Bartók had lived before moving to Budapest in 1899.  From the very beginning of his work in folk music, Bartók had included nationalities other than Hungarian-above all, Romanian and Slovak-in his research.  Many of the areas where he had conducted fieldwork before the war were now no longer part of Hungary, and relations between the new governments were strained, to say the least.  Bartók's impartial love of both Hungarian and Romanian folk music was not too well appreciated on either side of the border.  Yet the great Hungarian poet Endre Ady (1877-1919), known for his leftist views, had written in one of his poems:  "The Danube and the Olt [river in Romania] merge their voices."  Following Ady's lead, Bartók made this merger one of the defining ideas of his piece.

The underlying internationalism of Dance Suite is particularly significant considering that the work was an official commission-what is more, the first commission the 42-year-old composer had ever received.  The city of Budapest wished to celebrate its 50th anniversary by a special concert with new works by Bartók, Ernst von Dohnányi and Zoltán Kodály, the three most prominent composers of the country.  Yet as it happens, the same three composers had also formed a directorate running the country's musical affairs during the short-lived Communist administration in 1919.  There was a certain "piquancy" to the situation, as Bartók remarked in a letter to his publisher, Emil Hertzka of Universal Editions, Vienna.  It may have been a gesture of reconciliation on the part of the conservative city fathers.  In any event, these three composers hardly had any competition in Hungary.

It probably wouldn't have been expedient for Bartók to discuss the multiethnic roots of the Dance Suite in 1923, at the height of a strong nationalistic course set by Hungary's right-wing government.  He did not broach this issue until 1931, and then only in an unpublished lecture and a personal letter.  These two sources reveal a great deal about the way the Dance Suite was conceived.  About the ritornello, Bartók said that it was "a true imitation of certain Hungarian folk tunes, to an extent that it could confuse even the most experienced music folklorist concerning the question of origin."  This impression is created by the rhythm of this theme; if one examines the pitches alone, a surprising resemblance with the "Promenade" theme from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition emerges - all the more interesting since both themes serve a similar function, as a recurrent melody connecting the various movements.  And we know that Bartók gave Mussorgsky credit for "giving himself over completely and exclusively to the influence of peasant music."  As for the other movements of the Dance Suite, Bartók wrote:

No. 1 is partly, and No. 4 entirely of an Oriental (Arab) character; the ritornello and No. 2 are of a Hungarian character; in No. 3 Hungarian, Romanian and even Arab influences alternate; and the theme of No. 5 is so primitive that one can only speak of a primitive peasant character here, and any classification of nationality must be abandoned.

Bartók's interest in Arab music resulted from a trip he had taken to Biskra, Algeria in 1913.  The music he heard and recorded during that trip influenced several of his subsequent works, though Australian Bartók specialist Malcolm Gillies asserts that the melody in the fourth section of the Dance Suite owes more to an earlier, brief visit to Tangier, Morocco, back in 1906.  Be that as it may, it is clear that Bartók intended to extend the concept of the "brotherhood of peoples" beyond his own immediate geographic region.  On the other hand, Slovak music, which was one of Bartók's special areas of research, is conspicuous by its absence from the Dance Suite.  Upon examining the manuscript drafts, it was discovered that the work did originally have a Slovak movement, but Bartók ultimately decided to cut it, apparently for structural reasons.  In its present form, the main division of the piece, with the long general rest between the third and fourth movements, occurs exactly at the point defined by the golden section (the ratio between the longer segment and the whole is the same as the ratio of the shorter segment to the longer one).  This ratio, to which Bartók was drawn more by intuition than by mathematical calculations, would have been disturbed by the inclusion of an additional episode.

As it is, the Dance Suite proceeds from a "Moderato" opening-a characteristic bassoon theme playing with the changing placement of slurs between the notes-to a gentle ritornello and from there to the more energetic second dance, marked by some powerful glissandos (glides) on the trombones and the violins at the same time.  After a second ritornello (dolce tranquillo), the third movement is introduced by a giocoso ("joyful") melody played by the bassoon and then by the clarinet.  This section is developed until it reaches a full orchestral climax followed by a rest and then a sudden scene change.

The fourth movement, with its quietly meandering "Arab" melody, is a langorous slow dance, exquisitely orchestrated.  The brief fifth is based on a rhythmic ostinato presented by the violas and taken over by other instruments.  It soon melts into the finale, where the recapitulation of past themes begins with this, the most recent one, moving on to the vigorously repeated minor thirds from No. 2, a full-fledged repeat of the opening melodies of No. 1, No. 3, and No. 2, a dreamy recall of the ritornello, and finally a spirited Allegro conclusion that fuses several of the above-mentioned themes.

In addition to its political significance, the Dance Suite is also important in the context of Bartók's personal life.  The summer of 1923 was the time when Bartók divorced his wife of 14 years, Márta Ziegler, and married his 19-year-old piano student, Ditta Pásztory.  (The copy of the full score used at the premiere was copied by Bartók's ex-wife Márta.)  Malcolm Gillies attributes what he perceives as the "radiance and mildness" of the Dance Suite, at least in part, to the fact that Bartók was in love.  The autograph score was completed on August 19, 1923, in the village of Radvány.  Bartók and Ditta Pásztory got married just a few days later, in Budapest.