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6 minutes reading time (1124 words)

Bartók's Rhapsody from For Children

The eight-some pieces in Bartók's For Children, based on Hungarian and Slovakian folk tunes and intended for young learners, cover a considerable range of difficulty. Because finding pieces of musical substance at the early levels is difficult, it is understandable that the simplest of these are the best known (the showy "Swineherd's Dance" is an exception). Other pieces in this collection, however, such as the Rhapsody, are too difficult for beginners, yet too modest to attract ambitious youngsters aspiring to play "difficult" music. It is the only piece in For Children formed not on a single folksong, but on two contrasting ones—thus this single piece is designated by two numbers: 36 and 37. It is clearly modeled on the sprawling rhapsodies of Liszt, so that like a bonsai tree or a pony, it has the endearing quality of something large but in miniature. And, in fact, it offers the same kinds of interpretive issues and choices we encounter in non-didactic concert works. This article addresses some of these issues.

It is clearly modeled on the sprawling rhapsodies of Liszt...

Before we even begin, however, we must decide which text of For Children to use—the first version, or Bartók's revised version. Of course, we should always prefer a composer's latest text, right? Not necessarily! Composers change during their lives, and a composer "revising" an earlier work may simply be adapting it to his present aesthetic (and concomitantly extending the copyright, of course!), rather than improving the original. While most of Bartók's revisions in For Children are purely notational, some are occasional little enrichments of harmony and clarifications of markings, and instances of both occur in the Rhapsody. (References in this article are to the revised edition.) Boosey & Hawkes's "new definitive edition" of the revised version weighs all available sources, including manuscripts, and is in my opinion the best choice.

Bartók marked the opening of the Rhapsody Parlando and molto rubato. Many musicians associate "fidelity" to the text with playing in time. But here, of course, fidelity to the verbal directive molto rubato demands infidelity to the exact note values! We may not think of an arpeggio sign as a "tempo mark," but its function is to modify the temporal values of the notes to be rolled. The Rhapsody's marking of Molto rubato invites us to vary the speed of the arpeggiations (some indicated by arpeggio signs, others written out with small notes), as though we were casually improvising. Parlando means "speaking," and in this section, Bartók's detailed markings of tenuto, portato, and accent suggest in ections of a verbal text. Because students associate dots with staccato, portato markings—dots under slurs—are likely to require special explanation. C. P. E. Bach defines portato with complete clarity: notes are to be played "legato, but each note is noticeably accented." One way to achieve this effect on the piano is to play non-legato with the fingers for emphasis, while connecting each note to the next with the pedal for legato.

Bartók's pedaling in measure 6 is explicit (see Excerpt 1). Obviously, the C cannot be sustained through the G chord. But won't releasing it interrupt the melody? In fact, the ear perceives a rolled chord as a single entity. As long as the melody C is joined to the bass G, the ear will not notice that it is not literally connected to the next melody D. (This phenomenon is strikingly exploited in the long, hand-over-hand arpeggios in the chorale move- ment of Franck's Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue.)

Hearing the piece for the first time, the listener might misperceive the unexpected chord in measure 14 as simply "wrong." (See Excerpt 2.) If, however, the player embraces the dissonance— emphasizing the major seventh in the right hand— it will help to convey that the chord is a deliberate point of tension, relieved by the resolution in the next measure. (This principle also applies to the numerous clashes between the hands in the final Allegro moderato.) Often, such slight exaggeration can aid the public's understanding of musical content. Thus, the performer serves as a classic "interpreter," both of the composer's text, and to the public.

The sudden rests following the sforzando at the end of the first Allegro moderato (key of G major) make it seem that the hands have been forcibly wrested from the keyboard. The listener, startled, wonders what will happen next. The performer can help preserve the suspense by keeping the hands motionless in the air. Young pianists tend to feel that such visual gestures are insincere and thus embarrassing. But here, the intention is unquestionably valid: to sustain the tension of the silence, not to "show off."

In measure 40 (see Excerpt 3) and in parallel places, it is easy to misread the fermatas. Here, note that in the lower staff, the low D-sharp has a fermata, but the chord on the first beat does not. In respect to fermatas, the two staves are notated independently. Thus, despite the right-hand fermata on the first beat, the left hand must arrive at the second beat in tempo.

At the change of meter, it is probable that the beat remains the same—the dotted eighth of the 6/8 equals the quarter note of the 2/4— thus, the new eighths are slower than the former ones. This slowing of the eighths is welcome, since it allows more room for the long accelerando which follows. The passage is to make not just an accelerando, but also a gradual crescendo. But because the left hand descends from the middle range to the more resonant baritone range, its crescendo is already composed into the music. At the climax, because the right-hand melody becomes enmeshed with the chords, restraint in the left hand is particularly necessary to protect the melody.

Bartók's title For Children may suggest that he expected this collection to be limited to student recitals rather than public concerts. But what if we consider the pieces as examples of Bartók's folkloric rather than didactic music? Even if we don't find the Rhapsody substantial enough to stand alone on a concert program, we can combine it with other folkloric pieces by Bartók. Or, we could include it in a group of folkloric pieces by other composers. (Grieg and Grainger, for example, also had a special interest in folk music, and both based a wealth of pieces on folk sources.) I have performed the Rhapsody on my lecture-recital program, "Tundra to West Texas: Folk Music in the Piano Repertoire," and its Bartókian combination of poetry and earthiness has given me as much pleasure as any of the "difficult" non-didactic pieces on the program.

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