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Bartók’s monumental cycle of 153 educational piano pieces and 33 exercises, published in six volumes as the Mikrokosmos in 1940, is rightly regarded as a seminal work within the pedagogic literature. But it often strikes me that it is more important than it is popular.
Even in my own studio (and I am a self-confessed Bartók fanatic!) it emerges from the music cupboard far less frequently than the more obviously popular For Children, First Term at the Piano, Rumanian Folk Dances and Ten Easy Pieces.
For those wanting to explore this musical smorgasbord there has never been more opportunity to do so, however, with three excellent editions to choose from. Which, though, is the best?
In this review I will be looking at classic New Definitive Version from Boosey & Hawkes, and comparing the more recent Urtext editions from Henle Verlag and Wiener Urtext Edition. I should note in passing that there is also a budget all-in-one-volume edition from Chester Music, not submitted for review or included in this survey.
Mikrokosmos: An Introduction
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) had a lifelong interest in piano pedagogy, but as a teacher his work was generally confined to working with highly advanced players at what was then the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. In the 1930s however, the composer was teaching his own son Peter Bartók, and the Mikrokosmos owes much to that experience.
Bartók himself explained in an interview from 1940:
“I had an excellent opportunity to test these pieces in practice right at home. In 1933 my son Peter pleaded with us to teach him the piano. I had a daring idea and undertook this unaccustomed task myself. Besides vocal and technical practice, the child was given only pieces from Mikrokosmos to play.
I hope they proved useful to him, but I must admit that this experience taught me a great deal, too.”
The composer later wrote in his essay Contemporary Music in Piano Teaching:
“My idea was to write piano pieces intended to lead the students from the very beginning and through the most important technical and musical problems of the first years, to a certain higher degree.”
The cycle as a whole might equally be regarded as an introduction to the world of modern compositional techniques and sonorities. As such, its value goes beyond that of a piano method, taking its place as an invaluable resource for analysing and understanding compositional style.
Of all the descriptions of the Mikrokosmos I have read, though, I must admit that I have a special fondness for that given by historian Simon Winder in his highly entertaining book Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe (Picador, 2013):
‘Mikrokosmos is a vast set of over a hundred and fifty piano pieces initially setting out as simple little teaching pieces for Bartók’s son (‘Dotted Notes’, ‘Syncopation’) but by the final ‘Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm’ capering off to the Lunatic Asylum of Virtuosity. I have never dared find out after how many pieces into the sequence poor little Peter Bartók blubbed and ran off.
The first of the exercises, which even I could play, already sound absolutely Bartókian and have made it possible to speculate that his music is so odd because he just heard or imagined things differently (or ‘wrongly’) – but this is of course unverifiable.”
It is this point that the music sounds like Bartók from the first note that perhaps conveys most forcibly the extraordinary musical personality of its composer – and the high value of this collection!
Boosey & Hawkes
To answer Winder’s question in part, Peter Bartók remained engaged with these pieces for many years to come. The New Definitive Version published by Boosey & Hawkes in 1994 is his work, with a Foreword in which he recalls his childhood lessons, and including two family photographs of him as a small boy with his father.
This Mikrokosmos comes in six books, following the original 1940 schemata, and includes both the preface and some useful concluding notes on the pieces written by the composer himself, translated here into English, Portuguese, Spanish and Japanese.
The books themselves are beautifully presented, with simple but glossy covers, and clean well-spaced notation. The division into six books works nicely, allowing each volume to be a self-contained “level” that players can progress through over a number of years.
I must admit that it never occurred to be that there are any problems with this edition. Although we now know that it is perhaps not quite as definitive as the subtitle claimed at the time, there is almost nothing to fault here, and it remains a firm recommendation.
So for those who already own this edition, there’s no pressing need to purchase a more recent one unless particularly curious or undertaking scholarly research. Those in the market for their first edition, meanwhile, will find that the New Definitive Edition from Boosey & Hawkes is as user-friendly as any, and very reliable.
With Bartok’s works no longer restricted by copyright, however, other publishers are now able to undertake new research and prepare fresh urtext editions for the 21st century…
Wiener Urtext Edition
First out of the gate, the Wiener Urtext edition appeared in 2016, edited from the sources by Michael Kube and Jochen Reutter, including Bartók’s original fingering, and with notes on study and interpretation by Peter Roggenkamp.
Much is made of the fact that this edition presents the Mikrokosmos in three, rather than six, volumes – this is apparently as Bartók had himself intended, with the first book containing “the easiest pieces”, the second made up of “the less easier pieces”, and the final book containing “the more difficult ones”.
From the performer and teacher’s point of view, this rather academic consideration will be offset by the need for a score that sits nicely on the book rest and is easy to read from. Rest assured, being a Wiener Urtext edition, these volumes are excellent on all fronts, with superb binding that opens flat on the stand without degradation, and outstanding clarity of engraving that exceeds the high standards already set by Boosey & Hawkes – further aided by the use of high quality cream paper.
But what of the editing? Has a return to the sources yielded important insights?
Kube and Reutter note “hitherto unnoticed errors”, apparently due in part to misreadings and misinterpretations by the engraver. In their introduction they cite as an example Bartók’s habit of following Italian tempo indications with a comma before adding the metronome mark. This comma has sometimes in previous editions been misinterpreted as a number 1, and erroneously added as a fingering.
If this sounds like nit-picking … well, it is! In fact, the lack of significant difference serves to highlight just how good the Boosey & Hawkes editions are. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of fresh scholarship, nor of the clearer understanding that this edition brings us.
Perhaps more significant are the numerous additional pieces which Wiener Urtext have included in their editions.
These include several early versions of pieces subsequently revised, “special versions” written for Peter Bartók, and various other previously unpublished pieces. For those with any interest in Bartók these additions are an exciting extra!
As with the Boosey & Hawkes, the pieces are followed by the exercises and then “Béla Bartók’s Comments on the Mikrokosmos”. Here again these are considerably expanded, drawing on additional sources. The comments are always interesting, and often revelatory, providing a uniquely important insight into Bartók’s own pedagogy, as well as his compositional aims.
Each of the three volumes also includes an excellent five-page Preface written by the editors; an equally outstanding essay on “Study and Interpretation” appears the rear of each publication, offering much valuable performing advice.
Taken as a whole, the three books of the Wiener Urtext Edition significantly raise the bar in terms of their scholarship, insight and presentation.
G. Henle Verlag
Where, then, does the brand new Henle Urtext edition fit?
The simple answer is that this just-published edition belongs somewhere between the other two, offering the content of the original edition in a fresh Urtext edition that corrects the same errors noted by Wiener Urtext. This Mikrokosmos is also published in three, not six volumes.
A newly written Preface is provided by editor Yusuke Nakahara, while Bartók’s own preface for the first edition is also present and correct. His notes from the first edition (but not the additional ones provided by Wiener Urtext) are included at the back.
As one would expect from Henle Urtext, the editing, engraving and presentation are exemplary, with crystal clear music engraving on cream paper. This is in spite of the notation being noticeably a little less spaced out than in the Wiener Urtext – each volume takes up fewer pages than its equivalent, but the presentation never feels squashed.
Indeed, this is a beautiful score, and will be eagerly welcomed by lovers of Henle editions!
Two other points to note here:
Firstly, these three books are a part of the Béla Bartók Complete Critical Edition, an ongoing collaborative project between Henle Verlag and Editio Musica Budapest.
And secondly, the Henle Urtext edition of Mikrokosmos is also available in the Henle Library app for iPad, making this the obvious choice for those wanting a digital edition.
It will hopefully be clear to the reader that all three of these editions come highly recommended, although each has its particular strengths.
The Boosey & Hawkes edition remains a natural choice for the learner wanting a no-fuss score to work from. Being published in six volumes has the particular advantage that each can be bought for under £10 – and even buying the full set costs slightly less than the two more recent alternatives.
The Wiener Urtext edition undoubtedly takes the crown as the most scholarly and comprehensive version, though, and the additional essays, pieces and comments from the composer certainly make this the “must-have” version for teachers and scholars alike. It only costs slightly more, and is in my view worth every penny.
The Henle Urtext, meanwhile, is uniquely available in digital form via the Henle Library app, and is another outstanding urtext edition of the full Mikrokosmos score. While not boasting the enticing extras that Wiener Urtext lure us in with, this edition is a little less expensive, adding to its attraction. Devotees of the Henle Urtext brand, and collectors of the Complete Critical Edition can buy these volumes with confidence.
Whichever edition you spring for, I hope that you have an amazing time exploring this seminal work! All three editions are available now from Musicroom and good music retailers.
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