Romanian Folk Dances

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Romanian Folk Dances

Béla Bartók
Born March 25, 1881 in Sâanicolau Mare, Romania
Died September 26, 1945 in New York City, NY

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


In the late nineteenth century, Hungarian style music had been used with great success by major composers such as Brahms and Liszt as coloration or substance in many of their most famous works. For Liszt, who was born in Hungary but spent most of his life outside of his homeland, the inclusion of Hungarian inflections...sometimes called gypsy style...could be considered “natural.” Among his most stunning works in this genre are the nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies, so popular they covered the world in various iterations (especially the Second Rhapsody) appearing even in cartoons such as Convict Concerto played by Woody Woodpecker and “Rhapsody Rabbit”, by Bugs Bunny. The Rhapsodies’ popularity has been unquenchable on almost any level. Brahms’ Hungarian Dances paid tribute to the Hungarian style in 21 dances. He first became interested in the sound after hearing Hungarian gypsy music in Hamburg, and on his tours with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi. But, something was wrong: and Bartók and Kodály discovered it.

This so-called “Hungarian style” stemmed quite narrowly from gypsies (Roma) and was thoroughly romanticized. In fact, the style was not representative of authentic Hungarian folk music. This subject, sometimes known as “the problem of Hungarian music” was addressed by many writers and eventually clarified by the extensive work of Bela Bartók and Zoltan Kodály. A fine study titled Redefining Hungarian Music from Liszt to Bartók by Lynn M. Hooker traces their investigations.

Traveling throughout the most remote regions of Hungary, Bartók and Kodály transcribed, saved, recorded on an “Edison” phonograph, and classified thousands of folk tunes which provided tunes, rhythms, harmonies, and ideas for their compositions (Bartók’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, for example) as well as scholarly monographs and a gigantic set of twelve volumes containing their research. The intent was to provide examples of, foundation for, and a renaissance of authentic Hungarian music.

This quest led both men into Transylvania, now a part of Romania, but which had been part of Hungary for many years until added permanently to Romania in 1920. Thus, we find the legitimacy of Romanian Folk Dances as a source for Hungarian folk style. “Bartók was particularly drawn to Romanian folk traditions because he felt that these had been more isolated from outside influences and were therefore more authentic.” (Stephen Strugnell) Bartók noted “I have collected Hungarian, as well as Slovak and Romanian folk music and used them as models.”

The Romanian Dances were written between 1915-1917, first for piano and later orchestrated. In order, the Dances are:

1. Dance with Sticks: a solo dance for a young man, which includes kicking the ceiling
2. Waistband Dance: derived from a spinning song with dancers holding each other’s waists, flowing directly into dance 3
3. On the Spot: a dance in which the participants basically stamp on one spot.
4. Hornpipe Dance: featuring the ancient Mixolydian mode (a type of scale) and Arabian colors
5. Romanian Polka: a children’s dance with changing meters, flowing directly into the final dance
6. Fast Dance: fast, tiny steps are performed by couples, used as a courting dance.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015 

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