Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes
Date of Composition: 1923
Duration: 17 minutes
Hungarian composer, conductor, and pianist Béla Bartók (1881–1945) was born in Nagyszentmiklós, a town that now lies within Romanian borders. He spent his childhood in various locations in present-day Ukraine and Slovakia before commencing music studies at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. At the time, the city was not yet thirty years old, for in 1873, Buda, Óbuda, and Pest—three towns on opposite sides of the Danube—were joined to become the new capital, a metropolis that would soon rival other commercial centers in Europe. In 1923, twenty years after Bártók completed his education, the Budapest city council planned a fiftieth anniversary celebration. As part of the event, they commissioned works from established Hungarian composers. Ernő Dohnányi supplied an orchestral overture and Zoltán Kodály produced a multi-movement cantata for soloist, choir, and orchestra.
Bártók, by then one of the most respected composers to emanate from the Hungarian empire, turned to the music he most cherished—folksong—to create a six-movement Dance Suite. Although the council’s motivations may have been insular, Bártók used the opportunity to celebrate many different communities represented within the population of his homeland. Each movement is fully composed, not drawing upon actual folk melodies but instead imitating the North African, Romanian, Arabic, and Hungarian styles Bártók heard in his travels. The first four movements each retain an individual character and are linked by a Hungarian-esque ritornello. This recurring theme provides continuity and grounds the work in Bártók’s homeland. The fifth movement reveals Bártók’s hope for a unified humanity. He later described the section as having a “primitive peasant character” that “must give up any classification according to nationality.” Serving as a true finale, this final movement brings together musical material from all that came before, aurally reflecting the composer’s dream for a future where all ethnic communities might join as one in song.
© Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, 2023