No account of Bela Bartók’s musical career can ignore his profound and innovative contributions to the literature, performance, and teaching of twentieth-century piano. His compositions for piano reveal a vast repertoire that embraces almost every aspect of musical art, past and present. Bartók had been established as a concert pianist and piano pedagogue for a considerable period of time before his compositions for piano were recognized. Through all avenues of pianistic endeavor, he pushed the frontiers of piano technique and sonority to greater lengths than did any other twentieth-century pianist-composer, an accomplishment carried out with the utmost deliberation and dedication. He was concerned not only with the circumstances confronting the concert pianist but also with the quality of teaching procedures, methods, and materials for the average piano student. This concern is evidenced in his pedagogical works for piano and the fact that his solo piano compositions address themselves equally to all levels of piano study and with more consistency than shown by any major composer in the history of piano writing.
To understand and appreciate fully Bartók’s vast legacy, it is necessary to investigate his own disposition as a pianist and teacher as perceived by his family, colleagues, and students.
Bartók’s Piano Playing
Most of what has been said or written about Bartók’s piano playing is corroborated in the many recordings that have survived from the years 1912 to 1945; perhaps the most common observation, in written accounts or in personal reactions to his recordings, is that his playing always arrived at the inner essence of the music and avoided any shallow virtuosity or frivolous flamboyance. According to György Sándor, Bartók’s piano student from 1931:
There was a universality in the way he interpreted any kind of music, a vital plasticity that somehow made his music breathe, whether it was Bach or Bartók.
As a matter of fact, it seemed that somehow he had found a valid syntax for recreating any musical idiom.1
Paul Griffiths amplifies this viewpoint with the following, particularly in regard to Bartók’s recordings:
Bartók can execute prodigious feats of virtuosity, as in his race through Scarlatti’s B-flat sonata K. 70, and he can be grandly expressive in things like Liszt’s Sursum corda. But there is always a feeling that the character emerges from the music rather than the player, and this is something that comes out time and again in first-hand accounts of Bartók at the piano.2
Despite the uncontested magnificence of his pianism, most agree that Bartók was not what one would call a colorist with a wide dynamic range or a rich tonal palette. According to Lájos Hernádi, a student of Bartók’s from 1924 to 1927, his performances sounded “as if he had carved each piece in stone” but had “an unmatched clearness and plasticity of sound, a sound that was convincing from him alone.”3
Another notable feature of Bartók’s playing, which can be discerned from his recordings, is the virtual absence of any harshness of sound or blatant per-cussiveness; in fact, many of the loud dynamics or sharply accented syncopations called for in the written score are surprisingly modified in favor of the melodic or linear effect in the Bartók performances. This quality may have resulted from the limited dynamic range of the recording mechanisms of the time or from the mellowness of the pianos Bartók used, but it more likely reflects his refined and sensitive musicianship, far removed from the “hammer-and-tongs” kind of pianism with which Bartók is often associated.
Bartók’s Piano Teaching
Almost all of Bartók’s pedagogical inclinations were centered around piano. His appointment to the faculty at the Budapest Academy of Music in 1923 was as teacher of piano, not composition, and Bartók steadfastly held to this dictum for the rest of his teaching career. It naturally follows that many of his piano works were consciously designed to speak to the technical and musical problems encountered in the piano studio, with which he himself had considerable experience.
Written accounts of Bartók’s teaching style and comments made in interviews with some of his former students, many of them prominent pianists and authors, seem to agree that his main concern was for musical rather than technical solutions. According to Hernádi:
His teaching was par excellence musical: although he never made light of the importance of technical details, fingerings, variants, ways to practise, etc., he thought the purely musical aspects more important. He believed that at an advanced level the technical details must on the whole be worked out by the students themselves.4
Nevertheless, Bartók is described as painstakingly thorough and patient in explaining details of execution; this concern is also evident in the copious interpretive indications found in his own piano music. Ernö Balógh, editor of the G. Schirmer edition of Bartók’s piano music, was a student of his from 1909 to 1915 and relates the following:
Immaculate musicianship was the most important part of his guidance and influence. He clarified the structure of the compositions we played, the intentions of the composer, the basic elements of music and the fundamental knowledge of phrasing.
He had unlimited patience to explain details of phrasing, rhythm, touch, pedaling. He was unforgiving for the tiniest deviation or sloppiness in rhythm. He was most meticulous about rhythmical proportion, accent and the variety of touch.5
Bartók frequently played excerpts for his students during lessons, and he would repeat a phrase an unlimited number of times to explain his musical purpose. His individual manner of playing had a profound influence on his students, some of whom even confessed to inadvertently imitating his playing style in their own performances.6
Bartók’s piano lessons always started and ended on time; if there was a cancellation, the preceding student would get the benefit of the extra time.7 Balógh gives a description of a typical lesson:
Our lesson started with our playing the whole composition without interruption (we had to play everything from memory the very first time we brought it) while he made his corrections on our music with light pencil marks. Then he played the entire composition for us. After this we played again, this time being stopped repeatedly and re-playing each phrase until we performed it to his satisfaction.8
Specific Aspects of Bartók’s Pianism
Perhaps the most complete account of Bartók’s performance instructions is found in Chapter 3 of Benjamin Suchoff’s Guide to Bartók’s Mikrokosmos.9 The following is a synopsis of symbols and terminology from that and other sources.
PERCUSSIVE. Implies almost exclusive use of finger motion.
STACCATISSIMO (♥♥♥). The shortest type of staccato (not to be confused with similar markings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century keyboard composers, which symbolized merely “staccato”).
STACCATO (. . .). Detachment from the shortest in value to half the value of the given note.
NON-LEGATO. Usually implied in the absence of any touch designations; suggests an almost imperceptible separation between the tones.
LEGATO. Indicated by phrase or slur markings and means that tones are to be connected without separation or overlap.
LEGATISSIMO. An exaggerated legato brought about by a slight overlapping of the tones; use of half pedaling suggested.
NON-PERCUSSIVE. Implies hand and arm motion to supplement finger motion.
TENUTO (---). A stress marking that attaches melodic importance and increased tonal color to the tone. Tones are played at almost their full value. The key is pressed with a weighted touch rather than struck with the finger.
DOTTED TENUTO (⨪⨪⨪). A variant of the tenuto marking in which the duration is no less than half the given value, but the note is played with the same weighted touch.
PORTATO () (erroneously called “portamento”). Similar to the dotted tenuto but played with a suspended rather than a weighted touch.
SFORZATO (sf, sff). The strongest possible accent indication.
MARCATESSIMO (^ ^ ^). An accent less strong than sforzato. “A stress of an agogic, emphatic, espressivo character. . . .”10
MARCATO (> > >). An accent less strong than marcatissimo.
SYNCOPATIONS. Played with a certain amount of weight and emphasis.
Accents are commensurate with the dynamic that is in effect.
A decrescendo occurs from the first of slurred tones.
A dynamic sign is effective until replaced by another.
In accordance with the speech patterns characteristic of Hungarian and other eastern European languages, the first part of the measure is more likely than not to receive the main emphasis.
Rhythm, Tempo, Metronome
SOSTENUTO. Indicates a sudden ritardando.
FERMATA (). Approximately doubles the value of the note it accompanies.
[Bartók] put great importance on the fact that in a 6/8 rhythm the last eighth should not be too short, and in a dotted 3/4 rhythm . . . the third quarter note should be not too short [and] the upbeat which is the chief indicator of the [main metric pulse] should get its proper share of time, never be rushed.11
In 1930, [Bartók] heard a record of a brass band arrangement of his Allegro Barbaro and was appalled not by the transcription but by the speed: it turned out that this ... piece had been on sale for twelve years with the wrong metronome marking. He thereupon decided to give every movement he wrote ... a metronome marking. . . .12
PHRASE MARKINGS. Curved lines over groups of tones are used to indicate legato and also mark the phrasing. Phrases should be delineated more by dynamic inflection than by separation.
SEPARATING SIGN (|). Occurs between the phrase markings and indicates a slight separation between the phrase indications by way of a staccato at the end of the first phrase.
COMMA (’). Also occurs between the phrase markings and indicates a separation between the phrase indications; here the pause is almost unnoticeable and the time of separation is taken equally from the notes flanking the comma. RUBATO.
[Bartók] was against excessive rubatos and ritardandos which prevent the continuous, undisturbed flow of the music. Within this continuous flow some freedom of tempi was permitted, but it had to be in the proper place and in the proper proportion.13
In all the performance editions the fingerings indicated are Bartók’s. In his teaching editions, such as Mikrokosmos, his indicated fingerings, no matter how unorthodox, serve pedagogical purposes and should be adhered to. In the more advanced repertoire, the indicated fingerings are usually for a certain musical effect (see Sonata, Sz. 80, third movement, mm. 111-118).
As a whole the fingerings [of the Well-Tempered Clavier] bear the stamp of Bartók’s own style of playing to so great an extent that the expert can reconstruct the editor’s own approach to the instrument from them.14
Bartók was one of the first composers to introduce the bracket-type pedal indication; it gives a clearer indication of pedal change than does the older type. It is puzzling why he did not use the brackets more consistently in his later piano works.
Bartók was for clean use of the pedal without overindulging in its use. On the other hand, he used the soft pedal frequently and encouraged his students to do so. He also used and taught the half pedal for separating changing harmonies or for thinning out a sonority.15
1. High Fidelity/Musical America, September 1970, 28.
2. GRIF, p. 114.
3. CROW, p. 156.
5. Etude, January 1956, 50-51.
6. CROW, p. 156; Etude, January 1956, 51; High Fidelity/Musical America, September 1970, 28.
7. Ibid., p. 156.
8. Etude, January 1956, 51.
9. SUGU, pp. 11-15.
10. CROW, p. 157.
11. Etude, January 1956, 51.
12. GRIF, p. 112.
13. Etude, January 1956, 51.
14. CROW, p. 158.
15. Etude, January 1956, 51.