Music-lovers would be missing out on an essential experience if they gave the series a pass. The expert hand with which Bartók approached these little songs is quite unique. Brilliant as they are even as monophonic melodies, he always followed the spirit of their message. His renderings are now surprisingly simple (Old Lament, Complaint), now incredibly complex and colourful (Slow Dance, Dialogue Song), but that is naturally determined by the message, which covers a wide range indeed.
Béla Bartók was presumably motivated by the national and international success of Zoltán Kodály’s folk song arrangements with piano accompaniment to further explore the possibilities of the genre (which he called ‘peasant music’). The structural concept of the 20 Hungarian Folk Songs is distinctive. Bartók groups them in accordance with the chronology of the four booklets, proceeding from the ancientmost style (I. Sad Songs) to newer and newer modes (II. Dancing Songs, III. Diverse Songs and IV. New-Style Songs). The stylistic change is also evident in the accompaniment, that is, the piano part whose complexity in certain songs (Six-florin Dance, Nuptial serenade) almost surpasses Bartók’s most challenging piano works. Possibly that accounts for why the cycle never really became popular, and possibly motivating Bartók to orchestrate the five songs picked from the series (In Prison, Old Lament, Nuptial serenade 1, Complaint, Nuptial Serenade 2) for a small orchestra (1933 Sz. 101, BB 108).
Bartók is not especially concerned with achieving stylistic unity within each individual work. It is as if the different songs, largely Eastern European in character, were bound together by some higher principle, perhaps the ‘brotherhood of peoples’, like a few years before the music of the Dance Suite.
We are therefore looking at brilliant compositions; in fact, in a certain sense, one of Bartók’s chefs-d’oeuvre. However, the question is whether this is a work from which one could not take anything away or add anything to? Initially it was my annoyance over the few complete performances of the cycle that prompted me to complete Béla Bartók’s orchestration with the missing 15 songs. Most of the profounder relationships between the pieces of the series were only revealed after I had become deeply involved. Understanding these almost naturally led to the recognition that the small ensemble Bartók employed was simply not adequate in the case of some of the songs for illustrating the intellectual and psychological subtlety underlying the simple words. That led me to include in the orchestration the mixed choir; either as a humming chorus that impersonally renders the natural setting, or as an active participant. This makes the Dialogue Song a real dialogue, or to be precise, two monologues closely complementing one another. That was why the orchestration expanded, naturally strictly in keeping with Bartók’s intentions. Otherwise singable by a single soloist, the cycle gains from the four voices, since the theme usually predetermines the choice of archetype best suited for the character of the song (obviously a wine song or a military song cannot be sung by a female voice, just like ‘Yellow foal with a bell’ would sound strange when sung by a man). The New-Style Songs represent a kind of miniature Spinning Room within the cycle. I tacitly corrected the misprints and anomalies discovered during the typesetting of Bartók’s song arrangements. In its entirety, the cycle received its premi?re at the Music Academy in Budapest on 25 November 2003.
It is my firm belief that the interpretation history of this work will be richer and more eventful in the 21st century than it was in the century of its creation.