Bartók: 'Bear Dance'*

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

Bartók: 'Bear Dance'*


Vikárius, László, Studia Musicologica


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. Its close variant (Ex. 2) was composed among the earliest pieces that were later included in the Album für die Jugend, although this early 'Bear Dance' was finally left out of the series.4 This early version, also in A minor, consists of no more than twelve bars of written music (not counting the repeats) with an eightbar- long main section and a four-bar-long maggiore middle section. Here too, the left hand plays repeated open fifths with appoggiatura, while the right hand has a 'pipe' tune in high register, which, again similarly to the duet piece, is set within an octave range. The texture of the piece is thus exactly the same as that in the duet. The tune itself is, however, significantly simpler, lacking a number of fine details that are present in the duet version. Initial dynamics are missing from the manuscript source but the middle section has forte marking. The two pieces lie so close to one another that the later piece, despite its larger dimensions, should be considered a direct, albeit significantly revised version of the solo piece.

Schumann's 'Bear Dances'were certainly not the only pieces bearing this particular title among piano compositions of the nineteenth century. A few years earlier, in 1842, Mendelssohn also penned a short piece (Ex. 3), a completely occasional one, as an Albumblatt, that he entitled - using the German word in English - 'the real, genuine, warrented Bärentanz'. The piece is only known from a 1909 facsimile edition of the album leaf.5 The notated 24 bars of music consist of a four-bar-long introduction, a main section and a trio, both being equally eight bars long, and again a four-bar-long Coda. According to a remark at the end of the trio - 'Da Capo very often' - the piece can endlessly be repeated. The basic pulse is provided by the continually repeated quavers in the bass (to be played 8va bassa) in contrast to the crotchets of the Schumann pieces. Thus the bass motif is not a direct reference to the bear but rather to the drumming, which is even more obvious from the short passage upbeats at the beginning of almost each bar. …

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