The Clinton Symphony Orchestra will be kicking off their 66th season on Saturday, September 21 at 7:30 pm. The concert, entitled “From the Countryside” will take place in the Centennial Auditorium of Sterling High School in Illinois. More information about the concert may be found here. Please enjoy the following program notes about this portion of our concert.

Béla Bartók – Rumanian Folk Dances

The first decade of the 20th century was a decisive period of discovery in the musical development of Hungarian composer Béla Viktor János Bartók (1881-1945). During this span he came under the influences of several strands of musical invention which led him to recognize his own musical core values.

In 1902, while a student at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, Bartók met German composer Richard Strauss at the Budapest premiere of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, and the composer and his music had an immediate effect on Bartók, for the young man set to work on his first major orchestral composition, a piece to honor his countryman Lajos Kossuth. The resulting piece Kossuth is a late-Romantic work of the first order, clearly reflecting the influences not only of Strauss, but those of Hungarian Franz Liszt as well. He completed the work in short order during the spring and summer of 1903; Kossuth was accepted for performance by the noted conductor Hans Richter for his orchestra at Manchester, England, which led the Budapest Philharmonic Society to beg Bartók for the privilege to hold the premiere in Budapest in January 1904. The Manchester performance took place the following month, the 18th of February. These were the only two performances of Kossuth during the composer’s life.

Bartók’s fascination with Strauss was short lived. In mid-decade Bartók met fellow composer Zoltán Kodály with whom he forged a lifelong friendship. It was through Kodály that Bartók came to know the music of Claude Debussy. Bartók was so captivated by the French master’s use of harmonics that Debussy’s influence is present in the Fourteen Bagatelles of 1908 and in Bluebeard’s Castle (1910-11), Bartók’s only opera. Critical and public reception of the opera was so negative that Bartók took a hiatus from composing to concentrate his musical talents in another field – that of folk music research.

Even as he struggled to find his own musical ‘voice’ through attachments to Strauss, Liszt, and Debussy, the young composer and his colleague Kodály undertook ‘field trips’ into the Hungarian back country to collect and research old folk melodies. To their surprise, they discovered that the Gypsy songs performed in cafés and salons and popularized by Liszt in his Hungarian Rhapsodies had little correlation to authentic Gypsy folk melodies as performed by local bands. Based on their findings, both Bartók and Kodály began to incorporate folk elements into their music. Bartók believed that a composer has three options in the use of folk music – he can quote the music literally; he can write imitation folk tunes; or, he can strive to embody the essence or ‘spirit’ of a peoples’ music in his compositions. Bartók followed the third option, sure that on the foundations of his studies he could base his original music on folk elements.

That first foray into the Hungarian hinterland in 1907 also took the two composers into Transylvania, a largely Romanian district which at the time was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Here, Bartók observed, listened and took notes which he later transcribed and embellished into several collections of folk-song arrangements. One of these sets is Rumanian Folk Dances (1915), a suite of six short piano pieces which he later orchestrated for chamber ensemble (1917). The suite is based on seven Romanian fiddle tunes from the Transylvanian region (The last dance incorporates two tunes).

Program notes are graciously written by William Driver

Béla Bartók’s Rumanian Folk Dances to be performed by the Clinton Symphony Orchestra