Bartók: Romanian Christmas Songs

Sheet Music Review

Few of the truly great or most popular classical piano composers have contributed much of substance to the ‘Christmas repertoire’, but Béla Bartók (along with Mendelssohn and Liszt) is one of those few.

Oddly, however, Bartók’s Rumänische Weihnachtslieder (or Romanian Christmas Songs) remain rather little known, even by those of us who are fans of the great 20th century pioneer’s work.

A new edition by leading scholar László Somfai, jointly published by Henle Verlag and Editio Musica Budapest, offers a timely reminder of this brilliant masterpiece, so let’s take a closer look…

The Work

One reason that the Romanian Christmas Songs may not be as well-known as expected is that they don’t draw on the famous Christmas carols associated with the traditional Christian festival. Rather, they belong to a genre of folk melodies which Bartók designated ‘Colinde, assigning them to customs originally associated with folk religion and the Winter Solstice.

As László Somfai notes in his excellent Preface to this new edition:

“Bartók was well aware of their ancient origin and therefore his German translation of the title is slightly misleading …”

The Romanian Christmas Songs were one of three sets of pieces which Bartók worked on in 1915, all based upon Romanian folk melodies; the other two sets were his more famous Romanian Folk Dances and the popular Sonatine.

These three sets can, and in my view should, be in standard use for all players at upper intermediate/early advanced level, assuming a similar status to the well-loved elementary/intermediate collections For Children, which they naturally follow on from both musically and in terms of difficulty.

Like For Children, all these works are hugely appealing, melodically accessible, and of significant pedagogic value.

In the case of the Romanian Christmas Songs the pieces are grouped into two “Series”, each comprising ten individual pieces to be played attacca as a single work.

The first series is slightly shorter (approaching 5 minutes altogether) and a little easier, the second (about 6 minutes) only a little more challenging. A player at around Grade 4 could play the first series, perhaps coming back for the second series the following year.

For those unfamiliar with this music, here’s a clip of the great Hungarian pianist Zoltán Kocsis performing both series:

The Concert Versions

Bartók planned his three sets of pieces, the Romanian Folk Dances, the Sonatine, and these Romanian Christmas Songs to be suitable for smaller hands, avoiding octaves.

However, he himself performed these works somewhat differently, including using octaves and fuller chords in many places. And it’s these “concert versions” which Kocsis performs in the video above.

Generally these “concert versions” weren’t written down, and survive only as recordings (notably, Bartók’s recordings of pieces from For Children  and the Romanian Folk Dances).

However, in the case of the Romanian Christmas Songs Bartók fully notated “concert versions” for seven of the twenty pieces when the publication was revised in the 1930s. These more showy versions were included as an Appendix in the 1936 revised version, at which point he also made significant revisions to the fingerings.

Bartók also included (from the first publication) an index of the traditional folk melodies on which each piece is based, including the lyrics of the first lines, and the names of the villages and districts where he had collected them.

The New Edition

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László Somfai’s new authoritative edition was produced for the Bartók Archives of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest as part of their ongoing Béla Bartók Complete Critical Edition; it will form part of Volume 38, Works for Piano Solo 1914-1920.

It is brought to the wider public as a joint publication by Henle Verlag and Editio Musica Budapest, in the Henle catalogue number HN 1406, and is the latest in their ongoing publication of these new Bartók editions.

Produced in Henle’s typical house style, meaning it has the familiar dark grey/blue soft cover housing classy cream paper, outstanding music engraving and presentation, it is also available digitally via the Henle Library app. The included fingering is the composer’s own.

Prior to this edition, the main version available has been Universal Edition’s 1995 version, edited by the composer’s son Peter Bartók, UE 5890.

While there are no significant amendments to the music itself, three particular presentational differences are worth noting, and add to the appeal of this new edition:

Firstly, the composer’s 1936 “concert versions” are integrated alongside the simpler versions within the main score, which is far more useful when performing.

Secondly, the folk melody index which UE included at the front of their edition (using the exact template of their original 1918 first edition) here appears at the rear of the book, along with the critical commentary. Happily here, Henle have included German and English translations, which is most welcome!

Thirdly, the critical commentary includes a table of metronome markings, as these were changed between the UE 1918 publication and 1936 revision. Also included are the metronome markings taken from Bartók’s field recordings of the original folk melodies. These are of significant practical value to the performer delving into this music, while also providing an interesting insight into the composer’s thoughts on the pieces.

Other Recent Releases

This would be a good moment to mention that several of László Somfai’s other Bartók editions are recently published by Henle/EMB:

  • Suite Op.14  (HN 1403)
  • 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs  (HN 1404)
  • Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs Op.20  (HN 1405)

In all cases, these new editions improve upon those available elsewhere, proving that while Bartók’s piano music has been well-served by previous editions (and particularly through the indefatigable efforts of the composer’s son, Peter Bartók), a fresh Urtext edition was worthwhile, indeed due. All come very highly recommended.

Conclusion

Regular readers won’t be at all surprised to know that I love these new Henle editions. I am of course a particular fan of Bartók’s music, but also a fan of excellent scholarship, and a fan of Henle editions. Here these three combine to deliver an outstanding score.

I will be performing these pieces this Christmas, and without reservation I will be using László Somfai’s new edition. It’s undoubtedly the new benchmark.

OUTSTANDING


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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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