Bartók: 'Bear Dance'*

By Vikárius, László | Studia Musicologica, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Bartók: 'Bear Dance'*


Vikárius, László, Studia Musicologica


(Received: October 2007; accepted January 2008)

Abstract: 'Bear Dance' (German 'Bärentanz') appears to have been a lesser-known nineteenth- century character piece exemplified by Schumann's two related compositions in A minor, Twelve Pieces for Four Hands, op. 85, no. 2 and its early version, for piano solo, composed for the Album for the Young but left unpublished, as well as Mendelssohn's F-major occasional piece. These pieces are all characterized by a very low ostinato-like tone-repetition in the base (recalling the clumsy movements of the bear in Schumann's pieces while imitating the leader's drumming in Mendelssohn's) and a melody in high register in imitation of the leader's pipe tune. Bartók must have had this particular genre in mind when composing his closing piece for the Ten Easy Piano Pieces (1908), herald of later fast 'ostinato' movements, in which the amusing topic, a market place event, is turned into something wild and eerie. The composition and publication history of the piece is reinvestigated on the basis of documents, letters and compositional manuscripts, partly unpublished so far. 'Bear Dance' is closely related to the compositions, such as Bagatelles nos. 13 and 14, resulting from the composer's personal crisis in 1908, due to his unrequited love to the violinist Stefi Geyer, and it also uses a version of the leitmotiv generally named after Geyer by theorists. The employment of characteristics derived from folk music (kanásztánc [herdsman's dance] or kolomeika rhythm, strophic structure, etc.) is analyzed as well as the composer's modernist preference for harmonies integrating minor second/major seventh clash and large-scale tritonal tensions. Bartók's encounter with a special (but distinctly different) musical type accompanying ritual peasant dances in Romanian villages of Transylvania is also briefly discussed as one of his arrangements of a violin piece, the second movement of the Sonatina for piano (1915) was also entitled as 'Bear Dance'.

Keywords: Schumann, Mendelssohn, Bärentanz, character piece

1. A Character Piece

On Christmas Eve 1849 I was invited to the Schumanns' home and had the pleasure to hear him play piano duets with his wife, some of the twelve pieces which had just been published at the time: the Birthday March, the Bear's Dance, the Tournament March and the Fountain. He played the Bear's Dance with delicious humour, actually imitating the bear's clumsy movements with his hands, with a roguish smile.1

Marie von Lindeman, a member of the Verein für Chorgesang directed by Schumann, recalls thus a pleasant musical soirée at the Schumanns.2 The 'Bear Dance' was composed in September 1849 as part of 12 vierhändige Klavier- Stücke für kleine und große Kinder, op. 85, a sequel to the Album für die Jugend (1848). The accompaniment of the A-minor 'Bear Dance', the second piece in the series (Ex. 1), is based on repeated open fifths combined with an appoggiatura and played with octave doubling in low register in the secondo part; this part was obviously performed by the composer. Above this clumsily 'growling' accompaniment, a meandering melody is heard in imitation of the tune played by the bear's leader on his pipe. Dynamics are basically piano, there are only occasional fp accents and the rare forte marking is reserved for the end of the piece. More surprisingly, no tempo indication whatsoever occurs in the score which might well indicate that the character of the piece was considered familiar either under such a particular title or as a musical type in general.3 The simple ternary form including a maggiore middle section closes with an extra coda (A-B-A-coda) where the slightly exotic tinge of the appoggiatura and the minor-mode melody is reinforced. Due to its general mood and mildly exotic character, the piece is akin to Beethoven's 'Marmotte' and Schubert's 'Leiermann' in the Winterreise.

The duet piece was not Schumann's only contribution to the type, however. …

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