Piece of the Week: Allegro Barbaro by Béla Bartók

PieceOfTheWeek_BlogHeader_Allegro Barbaro

Composition Notes

Allegro Barbaro was composed in 1911 for solo piano. However, the first performance didn’t occur until 1921. Like many of Bartók’s compositions, there are several different editions of Allegro Barbaro. The piece was performed in private by Bartók many times by memory before he even started to notate the music. In many early printed versions of the composition, the tempo markings were indicated at a much slower speed. Certain accents and dynamics would also be performed by the composer, but would not make it to paper because each performance was unique. The publications of the composition that took place in 1918 in Vienna has become to standard and final edition. SmartMusic’s intense and driving concert band arrangement of Bartók’s famous piano work was done by Tom Wallace.

The opening melody of Allegro barbaro is largely pentatonic, and the opening melody uses a Phrygian mode subset. Like many of Bartók’s compositions, this piece circles around a tonal pitch. This pitch almost always stays constant and the major, minor, or modal relations around it changes. Allegro barbaro is a short, dance-like composition, that at first sounds like it’s free composed. However, one can begin to find traditional structure to the piece by looking at the harmony. Allegro barbaro is in ternary form, which means there there are two distinct themes, but one is presented twice. The beginning of the composition centers around F#, the second thematic area centers around F, and the return of theme 1 is again centered around F#. Allegro Barbaro’s melodic material is mostly based on the pentatonic scale, while the underlying harmonies are chromatic. Many of the cadence points end in a major or minor fashion, but arrived by chromatic motion.

The irregular-seeming cadences ending the major phrases and sections catch you by surprise or make you wait a bit for each return to the attack. Many analyses of this composition include the overall form and harmonies, but have not been able to find a pattern in how the cadences are formed. The dynamics are jagged and shocking as well through the entire piece. For example, there are accent marks and the sff mark above these lines of the score.

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Composer – Bartók, Béla

Bela Bartok was born on March 25, 1881 in Nagyszentmiklos, Hungary and died in New York, New York on September 26, 1945. Brilliantly creative, Bartok was the finest composer his country has produced. Bartok began studying piano and composition at an early age, and became a virtuoso pianist. As a composer he is best known for his use of Hungarian, Slavic and Romanian folk music. He collected and made arrangements of these folk songs, combining the spirit of folk music with the discipline of European art music. Despite his eminence in the field of what would later be called ethnomusicology, few of Bartok’s compositions have become part of the standard repertoire. He was a bold experimenter, using in his work the microtonality, freedom from major and minor scales, pentatonic melodies and rhythmic complexity he found in folk music. His body of work exhibits most modern compositional techniques of melody, harmony, rhythm, tonality and texture. Most of his works are instrumental, though he wrote some opera and other works. As a Hungarian Nationalist, Bartok fled his homeland during the rise of Nazism, finally settling in New York city. He never obtained a permanent teaching position, and held various jobs to make ends meet, many related to his expertise in folk music. Bartok’s work was honored posthumously, and forty-three years after his death, his remains were moved from Hartsdale, New York to Budapest, Hungary for a state funeral.

Arranger – Wallace, Tom

Biographical material is not available for Tom Wallace.

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