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Bartók and the Piano: A Performer’s View  

by Barbara Nissman



Excerpt from  Bartók and the Piano: A Performers View

All rights reserved. Barbara Nissman, 2001




"I must state that all my music is determined by instinct and sensibility; no one  need ask me why I wrote this or that or did something in this rather than in that  way. I could not give any explanation other than I felt this way, or I wrote it  down this way. I never created new theories in advance. This attitude does not mean that I composed without set plans and without sufficient control. The plans were concerned with the spirit of the new work and with technical problems (for instance formal structure involved by the spirit of the work) all more or less instinctively felt."1

Béla Bartók 


Bartók never believed in theories or trusted theorists, and he had good reason, for his music defies pigeonholing. The more deeply one explores his piano music, the more it resists categorization. In other words, there are no easy solutions to tackling Bartók's piano music. There are no sets of prescribed rules or formulas to follow when studying each work. The performer must find and follow the path the composer walked, discarding all preconceptions. Bartók forces the pianist to approach his music with an open mind, a flexible soul, and very good ears.


I am neither a music theorist, a historian, nor a musicologist. I am a pianist and a performer. I did not set out to write a book about Bartók's piano music. It would be more accurate for me to say that the book found me. While preparing Bartók's piano music for recording, I started exploring a wide range of literature written about this difficult repertoire in hopes of clarifying my task at the keyboard. (See the annotated bibliography at the conclusion of the book.) I was looking for material from the Bartók scholars, expert advice I could use to benefit my interpretations at the piano. From some Bartók specialists, I gained an increased understanding of his harmonic language; from others, a heightened awareness of his ethnomusicological frame of reference. But it was the performer's viewpoint I craved. I wanted to know how Bartók, the pianist/performer, approached his music. 


I was stunned to discover that Bartók's piano output-- a total of over 300 works, including the 153 pieces from Mikrokosmos-- had never been discussed in print primarily from the place where the music had been conceived, at the piano and from the point of view of the performer. Himself a student of a Liszt pupil, Bartók was primarily a pianist; he played, performed, and edited most of the standard and early keyboard literature.2 Although he became well known as an ethnomusicologist, Bartók never labeled himself a theorist or musicologist. A formidable pianist, he was probably at his most adventurous and most natural self when composing for the keyboard.     


What I gained from this exploration strengthened my determination to return to the piano, to the printed score and the words of the composer. In retrospect, I am delighted to have approached Bartók's piano music without preconceptions, including those of my teacher, pianist György Sándor, who was a pupil of Bartók. The discipline I imposed on myself was to start with the music, a fresh score without any pencil markings. As I studied this repertoire, I became more comfortable with its new language. I began to discover, and then I began to hear. Fortunately, Bartók has left a vast pianistic legacy with detailed indications and keen observations entered in the scores. The real authority on Bartók's piano music remains Bartók, and the principal source materials are his music and his words.   


In trying to extract the composer's intent a performer must find the way through vast amounts of instruction. Without musical compromise, the performer must then reinterpret, using his or her own voice at the piano and communicating as convincingly as possible a personal interpretation of the composer's wishes. Any one page of Bartók's piano writing is filled with meticulous dynamic, articulation, and metronome markings, and timings calculated to the exact second. This complex music requires intelligence and effort. The brain must first decipher it and organize it; only then can the task of learning begin. Bartók makes pianists learn another language-- his language-- and demands that they speak it as if it were their mother tongue.


I have waded through the mass of details in each of Bartók's scores and wrestled with each work's technical problems and musical difficulties. Perhaps my observations will be helpful in guiding the eye and ear during the initial learning process. At the very least, my conclusions will provide a catalyst for discussion and exchange of ideas. Isn't that why we want to hear different interpretations of the same musical work and also want to hear the same work performed by interesting artists more than once? A phrase in the hands of one pianist sparks an idea, which is absorbed and digested in a different manner by another. I have written this book not to instruct but to give enabling guidelines to further an understanding of Bartók's piano music.


My concentration is on the major piano works in the repertoire, with separate chapters devoted to the most difficult and challenging masterworks: the Out of Doors suite, the Sonata (1926), and the three piano concertos. Each chapter also includes an overview and more general discussion of Bartók's related minor works. The decision to focus on the standard repertory of the advanced pianist precluded my writing in depth about more than a selection of pieces from Mikrokosmos.              


I originally conceived this book chronologically, but I found that the exploration of roots and influences necessary to an understanding of Bartók's pianism did not always follow a chronological order. Chapter I progresses from the youthful unpublished 1898 Sonata to the transitional Elegies, works difficult to pigeonhole because of their combination of romantic pianism and new minimalism. This minimalism was further developed in the Bagatelles, a revolutionary work that reflects Bartók's succinct new style, discussed in Chapter II. The Ten Easy Pieces, written as a complement to the Bagatelles, contain some early folk transcriptions; the Csík Songs were also part of this new approach to the piano. The Seven Sketches, according to the composer, are more or less written in the same style as the Bagatelles [except for no. 4, which could have been included in a discussion of the romantic pianism of Chapter l].   


Because this is a book written by a pianist for other performing pianists or lovers of the piano, a chapter on Bartók's pianism and virtuosic music became a necessity, prompted by my learning the difficult Etudes. The Rumanian Dances and Allegro Barbaro also qualified as bravura compositions to be included in Chapter III. In the chapter on folk music, I tried to show the composer's progression from a simple transcription of a folk tune to paraphrases using folk music, culminating with the Improvisations, inspired by the folk song tradition but written in a completely original language. 


For me as a pianist, form and structure are the most important ingredients in interpretation; the discussion of form in Chapter V focuses on two major works: the 1926 Sonata and the Sonata for two pianos and percussion. In Chapter VI, Bartók's piano masterwork, the Out of Doors suite, is analyzed pianistically and musically. Here I have tried to share with the reader what I discovered as I prepared this work for performance. 


The following chapter features the suite and explores Bartók's relationship with the past. The oddly titled Chapter VIII, Ten Plus Nine Plus Two Plusincludes many other Bartók works pianists love to play. The rest of the book is devoted to a discussion of Bartók's pedagogical works, including Mikrokosmos; an analysis of his three piano concertos; and a survey of the piano/chamber repertoire. Finally, going full circle, the book concludes where it began, with the composer at the piano playing his own music. I believe that this progression presents a logical picture for the pianist's enhanced understanding of a unique composer.  


A brief note about Bartók's relationship to detail: Bartók was meticulous in all of his markings; even metronomic markings and timings have been accurately noted. As an editor of other composers' keyboard music, Bartók was very aware of the problem of authenticity within editions, and the inclusion in many editions of "arbitrary performing indications by unscrupulous editors."3 As in Beethoven's works, the authority for Bartók's music rests with his own manuscript. Whatever is indicated in the score reveals "precisely his intentions,"4 unless there might have been copyist errors in the publication process. While preparing this book, in addition to studying Bartók's published scores, I have gone back whenever possible to autograph sources to further confirm what appeared to be errors. (Note: Currently in preparation by László Somfai at the Budapest Bartók Archives is the forty-eight volume Béla Bartók Complete Critical Edition. Several new editions whose revisions benefit from the manuscripts in Peter Bartók's possession have recently been issued by Boosey & Hawkes and Universal and are discussed in the appropriate chapters.)           


Bartók's piano music defies categorization. Like Picasso, he developed his own language while retaining traditional formal structures. Bartók built upon the foundations of romantic pianism, allowing each piece to dictate its own form and style. What remains constant, however, is the way any performer should approach each composition. All elements-- tempos, rhythm, melodic line, dynamics, mood, touch, color, technical demands, compositional technique, harmonic language-- must be analyzed, evaluated, and then viewed within the larger structure. Yet ultimately it is the individual pianist/performer who must bring to all of Bartók's indications his or her own intelligence and imagination. I wish you an interesting and challenging voyage.        

Barbara  Nissman

Lewisburg, West Virginia





1. Béla Bartók, "Harvard Lectures" (1943) in Béla Bartók Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976), 376.


2. Bartók was responsible for editions of Scarlatti Sonatas; works of Couperin; The Well-Tempered Clavier and other works of J.S. Bach; 19 Haydn Sonatas; 27 Beethoven Sonatas and other miscellaneous works; 20 Mozart Sonatas, plus various pieces by Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin among others; in addition to his piano transcriptions from early Baroque keyboard music. (See Chapter VIII.)


3. Béla Bartók, "Motion in the Committee of Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations" (1932) in Béla Bartók Essays, 499.


4. Bartók, "Motion in the Committee of Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations," 499.

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