Bartók’s Bulgarian Rhythms

In western classical music all students learn two basic forms of rhythmic scheme. There is simple time, where each beat is own entity, and where rhythms (very generally) occur in divisions of two; and there is compound time, where the fundamental unit of rhythm is a triple. Bulgarian folk music uses a constant mixture of these two schemes, so that beats occur of uneven length. In the west a 3-3-2 kind of rhythm figure is not uncommon, but Bulgarian folk goes beyond this with schemes like 2-2-3 or 3-2-3. These patterns are generally repeated in folk melodies to produce a dance-like effect.

The Hungarian composer Bela Bartok utilized these rhythms for the final sequence of six pieces within his massive pedagogical work for piano ‘Mikrokosmos’, which is intended to follow a pupil from their very beginnings up to an advanced level. Though not all the melodies in these pieces are Bulgarian, the rhythms are clearly so, and as typical with Bartok the harmonies play dissonantly against traditional tonal implications. Listening to the fourth piece (Béla Bartók – Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm) the impression of the folk melody is clearly a guiding presence. But Bartok wasn’t interested in merely recreating the folk music of rural towns, and so he embellishes the melodic material with unstable accompaniment patterns and shifting, contrasting textures, such that the overall effect is far more modern and ‘spiky’.

This combination of new and old is very typical of Bartok’s style, and it is clear how the folk elements of his work help in aiding the ear to accept material that otherwise might come across as unduly harsh or incomprehensible to those not familiar with dissonant music.

By Tim Johnston