Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Album for the Young 5

Album for the Young
for Piano

by Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

I have Schirmer's Cenntennial Edition (ISBN 0-7935-3222-1) of this collection of mostly easy piano pieces by the great Hungarian-born composer, who also happened to be an important 20th century leader in music education and a collector of middle-European folk songs. So perhaps it should be no surprise that this book is, in my opinion, the best "Album for the Young" I have found--the best effort by a major composer to combine fine art with a practical method for teaching young beginners to play the piano.

The first part of the book is a set of simple but beautiful folk-song arrangements titled "For Children." Of these 85 brief pieces (most a page long or less), the first 42 are based on Hungarian folk tunes, the last 43 on Slovak ditto. To give even a partial list of their titles would be pointless, because they are not very descriptive of the pieces. After all, they are not so much character pieces as wordless songs with a rustic flavor, dressed in a variety of pianistic patterns. Their authentic rhythms and modes carry an exotic lilt to the western ear, and Bartók uses them to stretch the player's and listener's perception of musical beauty to include a subtle increase in dissonance and a broader notion of harmonic function.

Most of these pieces demand little, in terms of note-playing technique, beyond what an intermediate-level young pianist can perform. Where they will reward willing and regular practice is the area of tempo and dynamics, in which Bartók calls for a certain flexibility, freedom, and sensitivity. Mastering the details and nuances will be a matter for months, if not years, of work. But the pieces are very rewarding, covering a range of moods from elegiac romance to playfulness to furious energy. One piece in this set particularly caught my hymn-obsessed ear: No. 30, "Cock-a-doodle-doo," which repeatedly evokes the chorale tune ERSCHIENEN IST DER HERRLICHE TAG ("We sing, Immanuel, Thy praise" in The Lutheran Hymnal). I wonder which way the influence flowed: from the hymn to the Hungarian folk tune, or vice versa? Or perhaps the similarity is merely a coincidence?

Following 80 musically rich pages of "For Children," the Schirmer volume goes on to include Bartók's Sonatina, whose three movements include "Bagpipe," "Dance" (a.k.a. "Bear Dance"), and "Finale." These movements are of a character similar to the folk stylings of "For Children," and except for a couple of rhythmic wrinkles are equally within Junior's reach.

But then, Schirmer includes "Ten Easy Pieces," most of which are not easy at all. Your young pianist will have to be very ambitious to master these numbers, where Bartók leaves the folk idiom behind and writes, instead, the type of tonally experimental art music for which he is equally well-known. It's a challenging exploration of the other side of a complex artist, and the music is not without its wonders. But Junior will need courage and an open mind to tackle it, especially with its numerous accidentals and notational innovations, such as rests above the barline and time signatures above the staff. If (s)he masters them, they will make really impressive recital pieces--the final piece (another "Bear Dance") especially!

Next come "The First Term at the Piano: 35 Easy Pieces." Though you have to turn to page 103 to find it, this work is really where a beginner should begin. The initial pieces are very brief and straightforward, taking Junior (or perhaps Mom or Dad) through a series of graded exercises that rapidly but systematically drill basic piano skills. Depending on your learning curve, you may need to supplement these 35 pieces with other technique-building books, but this "First Term" collection really does represent a sound theory of how to teach the piano step-by-step. Plus, as the music grows incrementally more challenging, it also provides more of a reward in terms of individual character and musical charm. Some of the pieces include "Remembering Beethoven," "Remembering Haydn," a couple of preludes that may remind one of Bach's two-part Inventions, and a vaguely Chopinesque Waltz.

The book concludes with five selections from the Fourteen Bagatelles op. 6, more challenging than most of the pieces in this book. One of them is a thickly chorded harmonization of a Hungarian folk song, including both the original lyrics and an English translation. The others include a lively exercise in seventh-chords and their inversions, a gravely meditative number that dips its toe into the currents of atonality, and a long quick waltz (subtitled "My girlfriend dancing") that may best serve as Junior's "final exam" recital piece. Again, Bartók delivers modern, chromatic harmony and a variety of rhythmic, dynamic, and tempo-related challenges to keep young noses to the grindstone and young fingers practicing.

I have a CD of someone playing the 85 pieces "For Children" from this book. It's delightful music, even more so now that I have played it myself. I am definitely going to give this book to my left-coast friends to share with their kids. In fact, I have already bought a second copy so that I can do so, and still have one for myself to play from. Do you get what I'm saying? Bartók did it right, yet he did it in such a way that even a 30-year piano veteran is not embarrassed to be heard playing his folk arrangements, bagatelles, and other nifty numbers.

UPDATE: Here, for your viewing pleasure, is a video of somebody calling himself "joecool385" playing the Bear Dance from Ten Easy Pieces.


Evensong said...

What level would you say these are for?? (I mean, obviously that bear dance is quite difficult.) I teach piano lessons to two girls who are just leaving the graded/leveled piano series.

Robbie F. said...

Obviously, the Bear Dance is a bad example to promote the book as a method for teaching beginners & early intermediate pianists. But as my review noted, the "Ten Easy Pieces" which included the Bear Dance are at the harder end of what's in this book.

For beginners to early intermediate, I would recommend "The First Term at the Piano," followed by "For Children" and the Sonatina. The other pieces in the book are best saved for later or for a star student. Each group of pieces can be purchased separately in other editions, such as a Kalmus or Boosey & Hawkes, so you only need to invest in the set that you think your students can handle. I would try them on "For Children" and if that's too hard, take a step back to "First Term at the Piano" and see how far they get through it before it gets tough.

Robbie F. said...

Check out this video of 17-year-old Lorenza Ayala playing the 14th Bagatelle (the Waltz mentioned in my review).

And here, from "Ten Easy Pieces," is the Slovak Youth Dance, performed by somebody named Cubus.