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Béla Bartók

Romanian Folk Dances

The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók ranks alongside the likes of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg as one of the most original and influential composers of the twentieth century. His viscerally compelling musical language drew from a wide range of influences, from Bach and Beethoven to his own contemporaries and even American jazz. But the most distinctive and arguably most consequential aspect of Bartók’s art is his interest in, and avid championship of, Central European folk music. Generally regarded as history’s first ethnomusicologist, Bartók traveled extensively throughout the Central European countryside, listening to and recording Hungarian, Romanian, and Slovak peasant music; his deep study of this music was the most important influence on his own work. His absorption of peasant music and his integration of it into his scores truly distinguish his musical language and have established Bartók as the central figure of modern Hungarian music.

The Romanian Folk Dances, composed in 1915 and orchestrated in 1917, are as clear a demonstration of the influence of Central European folk music on Bartók’s oeuvre as anything he composed. They are the most popular works completed during a fruitful “Romanian year,” which also saw piano settings of Romanian Christmas Songs and a Sonatina later transcribed as the orchestral Erdélyi táncok (Transylvanian Dances). Though Bartók typically simulated the character of folk music in his pieces, rather than appropriating actual folk melodies, these six dances derive directly from fiddle tunes that he heard and recorded on his musicological travels. The first movement, Jocul cu Bata (Stick Dance), takes its theme from a tune introduced to Bartók by a gypsy violinist in Transylvania. The following two movements come from the eastern Slovak village of Egreš: the Brâul, or Sash Dance, is named for the waistband that would traditionally have been worn by the dancer; perhaps the most exotic-sounding of the dances is the third of the set, Pe Loc (In One Spot). Following the slow Buciumeana (Hornpipe Dance) and a vigorous Romanian Polka, the set concludes with a thrilling Maruntel (Fast Dance).

Patrick Castillo ©2014

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Georges Enesco

String Octet in C

The Rumanian composer Georges Enesco’s Octet for Strings invites numerous comparisons with the exemplar of the genre, the Octet of Felix Mendelssohn—beginning with the two composers’ extraordinary gifts. Enesco was a child prodigy in league with Mendelssohn: a violinist from age 4 and a composer by 5, he entered the Vienna Conservatory at 7 and continued his studies with Massenet and Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire at 14, by which time he had established the beginnings of a promising career.

To label both Octets as products of their respective composers’ precocious adolescence is a considerable understatement. Mendelssohn’s Octet, after all—completed when Mendelssohn was only sixteen—remains one of the literature’s most hallowed masterpieces. Enesco penned his Octet at 19. It is certainly one of the finest, if not the finest, after Mendelssohn. More than this, however, it warrants attention in its own right as one of the twentieth century’s most compelling chamber works. Like its composer, the Octet is severely under-recognized.

Despite being composed at such a young age, the Octet already illustrates the breadth of Enesco’s musical language. It incorporates the post-Romantic, hyper-Expressionist language of Schoenberg and Strauss. It also nods to Romanian folk music, which Enesco took a deep interest in, and would advocate for over the course of his career in much the same way that Bartók championed Hungarian music. Finally, the Octet displays impressive contrapuntal skill, and fittingly bears a dedication to André Gédalge, Enesco’s counterpoint teacher.

It is a work of striking thematic unity. The bold unison statement that begins the Octet—wide melodic leaps, as though the master were stretching his canvas—serves as a motto throughout the work’s four movements (played without pause), lending the music a cogent narrative impact. After traversing a piquant scherzo, this motto finds itself completely transfigured in the bewitching slow movement.

This is not to suggest a want of melodic ideas. In the first movement alone, Enesco introduces no fewer than six distinct themes, which, rather than develop in Classical fashion, he fragments and reassembles into a dizzying mosaic. A similar brilliance marks the Octet’s finale, which reprises the work’s entire plethora of musical ideas. “I’m not a person for pretty successions of chords,” Enesco once claimed. “A piece deserves to be called a musical composition only if it has a line, a melody, or, even better, melodies superimposed on one another.”

Patrick Castillo ©2016

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Symphony No. 29

Mozart spent much of his youth traveling through Europe and performing in circumstances arranged by Leopold, his enterprising father. Their last major trip together took them through Italy for over a year, until they returned to Salzburg in December 1771. This period marked a turning point for Mozart, for at fifteen he was getting a little old to be paraded around by his father as a child prodigy. At the same time, the death of Salzburg’s Archbishop (who had made Leopold the Assistant Kapellmeister and Wolfgang an honorary Konzertmeister) complicated their standing at home, and the new Archbishop proved to be a troublesome employer.

Those problems at court did not slow Mozart’s composing, nor did two follow-up trips to Milan to present music for which Leopold had secured commissions on their earlier visit. Between 1771 and 1774 Mozart issued more than twenty symphonies, about half of his lifetime output. Many of those works qualify as youthful experiments, but some bear early signs of Mozart’s genius, such as the Symphony No. 29 in A, written at age eighteen.

The symphony’s opening movement introduces the primary theme, characterized by its descending octave leaps, over a gentle chorale accompaniment at a piano dynamic. As might be expected, this material repeats at a firm forte dynamic; the surprise is that it adds a layer of contrapuntal complexity, with the low strings chasing the violins on the same material but delayed by two beats. This heightened sense of layering and counterpoint runs throughout the symphony, as in the Andante second movement, which waits only four measures before adding a bouncing countermelody to the dignified violin theme.

After the slow movement’s hush of muted strings, the minuet supplies a playful and rustic color with dramatic dynamic changes and tongue-in-cheek fanfares. Closing the symphony, the Allegro con spirito finale re-integrates ideas from the opening movement, including a new theme built from octave leaps. Call-and-response phrases and melodic imitation reinforce the work’s abundance of sophisticated counterpoint, signaling a new maturity in Mozart’s symphonic craft.

Aaron Grad ©2014

About This Program

Approximate length 1:28

For all of Mozart’s brilliance, there may be nothing more awe-inspiring than this sparkling symphony that he composed at eighteen, when the boy wonder transformed into a superhuman conduit for order and beauty in its purest form. Romania’s George Enescu also attained immortality at eighteen with his expansive Octet, a masterful score of symphonic dimensions that becomes even grander with full string sections. Bartók’s artful transcriptions attune your ears to Romania’s alluring folk melodies.