##1 -14 14 Bagatelles, Sz. 38 (Op. 6)
##15-16 2 Elegies, Sz. 41 (Op. 8b)
##17-22 6 Roumanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56
##23-25 Sonatina, Sz. 55
##26-28 3 Hungarian Folk Tunes, Sz. 66
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A Time Of Manifold Possibilities
Considered in the light of Bartok's output as a whole, the piano pieces of 1908 nark a turning-point whose significance is natched only by the works composed in 1926. However, while the latter year evidently narked a conscious change of direction on his Dart (the conclusion of a previous phase of development and the adoption of a more "classi-:al" outlook), at the earlier date Bartok's ar-istic development could have proceeded ilong any one of a number of paths. At the age jf 27, the composer was ready to move on rrom his early and politically naive enthusi-ism for a national style (although even this ivas grounded in a solid technical foundation), and to define his own artistic hor-.zons for the first time. He had by now assimilated the shock (first paralysing, then liberating) of his encounter with the works of Richard Strauss, had come to realise the true significance of the music of Liszt, and last but not least, had become acquainted with Hungarian folk music - an encounter whose impact was to be felt for the rest of his life. This range of influences may make Bartok seem an eclectic composer, especially if we also consider the influence of his contemporaries, in particular of Max Reger (to whose music Bartok briefly succumbed) and Debussy (whose example was to prove more profound and long-lasting). Yet what is most striking about the sets of piano pieces composed at this time, and especially the Bagatelles Op. 6 (Sz. 38), is their originality and individuality, even if these qualities are sometimes obscured by the kaleidoscopic range of styles and sonorities present. At least one perceptive contemporary of Bartok was able to see the Bagatelles in this light: no less a musician than Ferruccio Busoni wrote of them: "...I count these pieces among the most interesting and individual creations of the present day; what the composer has to say in them is extraordinarily, completely original, though not in the everyday meaning of the word. Yet despite this, their strangeness seems natural, their construction uncontrived..."
It is difficult to define originality and individuality in music, but what is certain is that Bartok did not have at his disposal any ready-made solutions or examples suitable for imitation. No other composer was at that time producing music quite like this, although we may find echoes in the music of composers Bartok could not then have been familiar with. And chronology is of little help here: works do exist which display affinities with the Bagatelles, but these derive from a later date. These pieces represent a milestone in Bartok's voyage of discovery, and his sense of exultant self-confidence is evident in almost every aspect of the music. Bartok himself wrote of the stylistic and aesthetic ideal underlying the Bagatelles: "The new piano style of these pieces is a reaction against the excesses of nineteenth-century piano music; it renounces all decorative elements which contribute nothing to the essence of the music, and the technical demands it makes are deliberately kept in check." Later, towards the end of the 1920's, Bartok came to regard some of these pieces as mere experiments; it is perhaps for this reason that at his recitals he used to play only selections from the set, although the Bagatelle No. 2 continued to feature in his concert programmes until the end of his career. The Fourteen Bagatelles provide a good example (together with the Ten Easy Piano Pieces and the Sketches Op. 9b) for a study of the possibilities open to Bartok at this time, as they contain traces of stylistic and technical tendencies that enable us to see the direction his music might have taken if he had gone further with the expressionism and experimentation that were such dominant features of his style in 1908, instead of turning towards an atonal, functional mode of thought, with its concomitant syn-thesising and classicising tendencies.
The Two Elegies Op. 8b (Sz. 41) show no sign of folk-song influence, but their musical language displays many affinities with the Bagatelles as well as with the Sketch No. 4. As Bartok put it, "the old piano technique has to a certain extent been rehabilitated, as can be seen from the 'decorative' arpeggios here [i.e. in Sketch No. 4], as well as similar effects in the Elegies." Although there can be no doubt that in these works Bartok came closest to the sound world of Richard Strauss, the scale of the pieces, the organic nature of their thematic construction and the close relationship between the motives all unmistakably look forward to the works of the early 1910's.
An examination of these works for piano reveals just how arbitrary is the customary division of Bartok's output into periods. The changes in his art did not take place along a single line of development; the inner connections between works may be more or less direct, but they are rarely chronological. Thus, for example, the two folk-song arrangements to be found among the Bagatelles in no way provide a precedent for the Hungarian and Roumanian folk-song arrangements of the mid-1910's. In keeping with the whole stylistic conception of the Bagatelles, the "composed" element (namely the block-chordal har-monisation - an effect somewhat at variance with the nature of the melody) is more to the fore than in the later works. In the slightly later set "For Children," as well as in the pieces based on Roumanian folk music (the Roumanian Folk Dances and the Sonatina), the melody and its accompaniment for the most part inhabit the same world of stylised folk music, whose sources, romantic antecedents and affinities have yet to be identified and researched. The characteristically Bar-tokian approach to folk-song arrangement first becomes apparent in the Three Hungarian Folk Tunes Sz. 66 (1914-18), where the entire musical composition grows out of the essence of the melody, the folk song and its accompaniment are not separate entities, but expressions of the same musical world, and where the "given" and the "composed" are as one. (The Twenty Hungarian Folk Songs for voice and piano were to be the ultimate, perfect realisation of this method of composition.)