Terry Eder, award-winning pianist and scholar of 20th-century piano music by Hungarian composers, presented a cogent talk and exciting performances of Bèla Bartók's piano folk music at the November General Meeting at Elefante Music.
To demonstrate the evolution of Bartók's genius, Ms. Eder delved into three major piano works: 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs, written between 1914 and 1918; 8 Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, 1920; and 6 Dances in Bulgarian Rhythms, the last pieces of the 6-volume Mikrokosmos, finished in 1939.
Born in 1881 on the Hungarian/Romanian border, Bèla Bartók first studied piano with his mother, who with his father, were fine amateur musicians. At age 7, after Bartok's father died, the family was forced to move frequently. As a result he was exposed to diverse ethnic groups and to different teachers. He studied during the era of the "big-sounding" Germanic composers - Brahms, Mahler and Wagner - but he did not feel an affinity to their heavy, grandiose type of music. He chose to study at the Budapest Academy (with a student of Franz Liszt) even though he was accepted into the Vienna Conservatory. By 1901 at age 20, his pianism had advanced so much that he made a solo debut in Budapest, playing Liszt's B minor Sonata.
Bartók was moved by the nationalistic spirit of the times and began to delve into the songs of his native people. Zoltán Kodály, also a major influence in this genre, met Bartók in the early 1900's and urged him to study folk songs more seriously. Together they collected folk songs in Hungarian villages and traveled widely throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire and beyond. These sojourns had a profound effect on Bartók and his music. He was an introvert who loved the simplicity and earthiness of the countryside and its people. Some peasants doubted him - they thought he was an academic, so gaining their trust took a long time. He wanted to listen to the songs they sang in their daily lives - while baking bread, tilling the soil, tying up a horse, for example, songs that harbored their basic emotions, personal songs that came from the heart, full of melancholy.
15 Hungarian Peasant Songs, Sz.71, are based on simple, daily activities using parlando rubato, the rhythm of the Hungarian lyrics sung by the "peasants." One can hear the inflection of the Hungarian language in the music. Having translated these from the Hungarian, Ms. Eder was able to capture the character of each piece on the piano and express their wide spectrum of emotions: happily sitting with a sweetheart, sorrow, humor (the rooster and a hen), dancing. Overall, the musical style is sparse, one song per piece. A basic harmony is introduced the first time, and when the melody repeats Bartók changes the harmony to change the expressivity. Never a slave to conventional tonality (triads), Bartók employed more adventurous chords, with 4ths, 2nds, 7ths and 9ths. Ms. Eder calls them "delicious" because they are so different.
In 8 Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Sz.74, Bartók again uses one song per piece, but makes a creative leap into 20th-century contemporary sound that transforms the songs entirely by the last repetition of the melody. Using the same re-harmonization techniques as in the original 15, he goes far beyond by developing fragments and varying them.
Song No. 2, for example, takes off from No. 1 with a harmonic 2nd - a hint that it might contain lots of dissonance, which it does. The new tune is played four times: the second time, on a new pitch; the third time with totally new tonality; and the fourth time, the original melody returns in octaves with a completely different character.
Song No. 3 presents "Night Music" - containing much silence, reminiscent of nights in rural villages with shimmering stars, insects, disquieting fears of the dark and unknown. In this Bartók uses parallel 4ths at the start and end to create a feeling of desolation.
In contrast, Songs No. 4 and 5 are playful dance tunes. No. 6 diverts from his usual unconventional structure by including an introduction and a coda!
Song No. 7 is dedicated to Debussy, whom Bartók met through Kodály. In this piece he uses a modal theme and transforms it with the expansive chordal technique he loved in Debussy's music. Debussy's impressionistic influence is strongly felt here.
The most complex, Song No. 8 harmonizes a folk tune four times, but the tune is hardly recognizable. He is poking fun and its humorous text is punctuated with 4ths upon 4ths.
6 Dances in Bulgarian Rhythms, Sz.107, are the most often performed in concert for their rhythmic content and pianistic challenges. These contain Bartók's own original melodies. They sound folk-like, with irregular rhythms: 2 + 3 + 4, 2 + 5, etc., but they also comprise jazz elements, contrapuntal techniques, canons, inversions, propulsive rhythms with rapidly changing meters, and more. By 1939 when these were completed, Bartók had evolved into a 20th-century composer of renown with his own unique style. To perform these dances on piano, and certainly the 8 Improvisations, requires a deep understanding of this complex music as well as very confident performance skills.
Terry Eder not only presented profound insights into Bartók and his music, but brought to life his imagination through her powerful, sensitive performance of these selected piano works.
After studying at Oberlin Conservatory and graduating from the Indiana University School of Music with a Master of Music with Distinction, Terry Eder won a research grant to the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. There she specialized in 20th-century piano music, working under the tutelage of Zoltán Kocsis. She immersed herself in Hungarian life and culture, learned to speak the language and developed a deep understanding of their soulful music. Bartók, she discovered, is highly revered in Hungary (he and Liszt are considered the greatest Hungarian composers), but greatly underappreciated worldwide. Today Ms. Eder is recognized as a leading advocate of Bartók's music. For more information, go to www.terryeder.comand Bela Bartók.
Photography and layout, Nancy Modell
Written by Charlene S. Step
Hostess, Ruth Kotik