Allen Reiser - Publications

Allen Reiser writes a pedagogical column "Sound Thoughts" for A.P.T.A.'s (Alberta Piano Teachers' Association) quarterly newsletter - "NEWS AND VIEWS". It is amied at giving teachers hints and pointers about teaching repertoire. The following is from that column and appeared in the Summer 2005 issue, Vol. XII #4.

A Repertoire Masterclass with Allen Reiser


The year 2005 marks the 60th anniversary of the untimely death of Béla Bartók. Untimely, because he was only 64 years old, and he was just beginning to receive solid international recognition. Bartók early on made it his mission to give voice to true Hungarian music. In 1904 he began collecting Hungarian folk-songs, being joined in this endeavor the following year by fellow countryman, Zoltan Kodály. For the next fifteen years he traveled throughout Hungary and neighboring countries collecting and classifying folk music wherever he went. Through this process, Bartók became so steeped in his own musical mother-tongue, that even when not borrowing directly from indigenous folk material, he would compose in such a way that it was difficult to distinguish his original themes from traditional ones. Furthermore, as traditional Hungarian music makes much use of the pentatonic scale or old church modes, Bartók also created a new, unique harmonic vocabulary to frame these melodies, and thus, Janis-like, his startling modernity is rooted in tradition.

For thirty years, Bartók held a post as piano instructor at the Budapest Royal Academy of Music, which, along with his taking on the instruction of his own son Peter, probably explains his solid commitment to the musical education of young pianists. He wrote a large amount of instructional material including the six volumes of "Mikrokosmos" (for son Peter), and the two volumes of "For Children". A much slenderer volume, "Ten Easy Pieces" appeared in 1909 and contains the often-played and often-taught "An Evening at the Village". The piece alternates two themes, the first is weary and plaintive in nature, and the second, more sprightly and dance-like. Both themes are entirely built on a pentatonic scale.

When learning or teaching Bartók, it is important to take notice of every dot and dash on the page. Bartók was very precise in his directions to the performer and to miss any of his directives will result in a significant loss of character. In the first theme, Bartók's phrasing gives a parlante nature to the motive. Great care must be taken so that the last three notes of each phrase (bars 2, 4, 6, 8) are audibly separated, as though these notes are partly spoken. The accent on the last note each time seems to be more agogic in nature, rather than just louder, and can be delayed slightly. To make use of Bartók's 'Lento, rubato' direction, push the phrases slightly in bars 1, 3, 5, and 7 and then relax them in bars 2, 4, 6 and 8. For dynamic shape, give these phrases the same natural rise and fall that one would if one were singing them. It is important that students count the half note which starts each phrase carefully, noticing that this half note is replaced with a quarter note when this theme returns at the first Tempo I (bar 21).

The second theme, marked 'Vivo, non rubato', takes much of its character from the syncopations throughout. These must at first be counted out carefully, and then just felt as though playing jazz. The light staccato eight notes here provide a good opportunity for students to continue to develop a good wrist staccato. To keep the LH light enough, a slight pull from the fingers with a relatively still hand, is all that is needed. In this theme, students often fail to notice that none of the notes are slurred, therefore, none should be joined. The sudden modulation to C sharp minor at the end of this theme works well with a slight crescendo. Students often need to be reminded to count out the full bar of silence (bar 20) and to notice how Bartók marks a slow pedal release here and also in bar 41.

The second return of this theme is slightly more decorative, with a more active LH accompaniment. The LH may have to be practiced separately for some students to overcome its difficulties. In bars 30, 32 and 34, Bartók puts staccato dots on 16th notes at the end of beat 2. At the required speed, this is very tricky for students to execute without rhythmic distortion. Fortunately, at such a high range on the keyboard, there are no dampers on those keys and thus the staccatos will not make a difference to the sound. It is best to just ignore them. For the written out mordent on beat 1 in bars 31 and 33, I prefer to avoid repeating a finger and give the fingering 2-4-3 to my students.

The last appearance of the first theme, with its alternating 4/4 and 3/4 bars is the trickiest to count. Although both hands are marked forte, it is still probably best to balance for a better tone by playing the LH slightly softer. The minor 7th chord with which the piece ends is not an attempt by Bartók to predate Gershwin's famous major-minor 7th chord found at the end of Rhapsody in Blue, but is just a good example of Bartók obtaining his harmony from the non-traditional scale used by the melody, in this case the pentatonic scale.

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