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Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm No. 4 from Mikrokosmos by Bartk (ABRSM Grade 8 syllabus)
Posted on August 24, 2014

The ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) graded exam syllabus for 2015/6 is now readily
available, and no doubt pianists across the world are selecting and practising the new set works. I went along to
the launch a few weeks ago, held at Yamaha Music (formerly Chappell of Bond Street) in London, where
ABRSM examiner and trainer, Timothy Barratt, spoke about many of the chosen works for each grade. The
Grade 8 selection is as varied as ever, and over the next few months I will be writing about a selection of Grade 7
and 8 pieces, offering a few practice tips.
Its great to see old favourites on the list; many works appear regularly over the years. Hungarian composer Bla
Bartk (1981-1945) is a particularly popular choice, and this year is no exception; his works appear in four of the
eight piano grades.
Whilst not every students cup of tea, Bartks style is one of the most highly original of the Twentieth century.
A superlative pianist (theres an abundance of recordings of his playing), and prolific composer. I researched his
piano music (specifically the three concertos) in Budapest when I was a student, and had the opportunity to
speak to the renowned Bartk specialist and musicologist Lszl Somfai about the composers highly individual
combined use of harmony and folk songs, which was both informative and enlightening.
Bartk amassed a very large collection of folk songs, which he acquired by visiting various Hungarian villages
(and beyond), recording local musicians on an Edison Phonograph. Heres a wonderful example of a typical
recording (this features a Romanian Folk Dance and is over 100 years old):

Bartk notated and catalogued all the folk songs in his collection. They became a crucial source of inspiration in
his own compositions, and the folk song element was eventually completely assimilated into his style. Indeed it
was to be his hallmark.
Mikrokosmos Sz. 107, was written between 1926 and 1939, and consists of 153 pieces in six volumes,

progressing from very simple pieces for beginners to advanced level works. They demonstrate Bartks
commitment to and interest in music education (he wrote several sets of piano pieces for educational purposes).
According to Bartk, the piece appears as a synthesis of all the musical and technical problems which were
treated and in some cases only partially solved in the previous piano works.
Mikrokosmos concludes with the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, which are traditionally performed as a
group, feature in Volume No. 6, and were dedicated to Harriet Cohen. The 2015/16 ABRSM syllabus includes
the fourth dance in the set, No. 151, and it appears on List C (C1). Bartks music has been described as
dissonant and violent, and whilst there are elements of these qualities in his works, the breadth of musical
variety found in this particular Dance (and in the set as a whole), is breath-taking.
For those considering this piece as an option for the Grade 8 exam, or perhaps who have already started
learning this work, I have compiled a few practice ideas for combatting certain difficulties within the work,
which may be helpful.
Of utmost importance is the rhythm, and more specifically, the Time Signature: 3+2+3 over 8. Unusual Time
Signatures are renowned in the Hungarian composers style, and Bartk has used the rhythm of traditional
Bulgarian Dances here, but the melodic material is all his own. Interestingly, he described this dance as in the
style of Gershwin but with his (Bartks) own tonality. This becomes apparent just by clapping the pulse. The
unusual rhythmic patterns may be unfamiliar to some, so they need complete assimilation before practising
commences. Clapping the pulse followed by the rhythmic pattern of the melody (which can really in grain the
feel), is the best way to start. After which, focus on clapping the rhythmic pattern whilst counting each beat out
loud at the same time. Although there are few accent markings in this work, but there is a definite push (or
groove?) on the fourth beat of each bar (akin to jazz). Once the rhythm has been understood, its easy to make
swift progress.
The melody is featured in some guise or other most of the time during this short piece, whether alone in the
right hand (bars 1-8), the left hand (bars 9-16, where its inverted (or reversed)), played in unison (bars 20-24),
played in repeated notes (44-50), in right hand octaves (bars 55-58) and in sixths too (bars 59-66). So the trick
is to find a way to vary the sound and touch throughout. Bartk is always very specific about tempo and dynamic
markings, but beyond this it is the job of the interpreter to work some magic. Heres the original tune, which is
bright and jocular, and must be played very softly and serenely at the opening:

Start by compartmentalising the melodic sections, so you know where the melody occurs and how it has been
transformed as the work progresses (analysing a piece can prove extremely effective; using red pencil is a good
way to identify sections!). Then write as much fingering in as possible; suitable fingering makes all the
difference when honing a smooth performance.
Next, concentrate on the accompanying material, which is just as important (often more so), again, write in all
fingerings, and touch should be predominantly legato (pedal should be kept to a minimum). The
copious chordal left and right hand passages ably demonstrate Bartks use of bitonality (two keys at once) and
in many cases, polytonality (many keys at the same time). Although this Dance is in the key of C major, the
increasingly dissonant harmonic progressions throughout, provide the exotic flavour and spice.

As always, working in small sections usually proffers the best results, and certain passages require special
attention. Take note of the off beat accompaniment sections; bars 25-32 and bars 33-39 are a couple of
examples. The syncopated chords can be lighter and generally shorter than the melodic material, but placing
them correctly is vital and challenging. Success will depend on the grasp of the pulse, and assimilation of the
groove. If rhythm is causing some grief, try breaking down further, dividing each bar into three sections,
literally playing the first three quaver beats (the first 3 in the time signature), then take a short pause. Now
continue with the two quaver portion (the 2 in the time signature), now another pause. Then finally the last
three quavers in the bar (last 3). It I. s easier to understand a complicated pattern when broken up completely.
This will take time, but eventually the 3+2+3 will be easily grasped, and joining bars or groups of bars will be
relatively straight forward.
Chordal progressions such as those in bar 51-54 need flexibility technically. The 3+2+3 pattern provides the
perfect opportunity to split the bar. Play the first three quaver group, immediately followed by the duplet
(quaver) group, then a slight pause (to rest the hand), before playing the last group of quavers. Giving the wrist
a rest in between the chords, allows for release of any tension and encourages a slight push on the sixth beat of
the bar, adding to the rhythmic energy and momentum. All chordal sections can be broken down in this way.
The other issue which needs addressing is moving at speed from one section to another. Dance No. 4 has a
swift tempo, with many figurations moving from one place on the keyboard to another quickly, and this
combined with the fact that the dynamics sometimes change just as rapidly, mean a free arm and body are
needed for accuracy. Try taking two bars such as this (bars 8 and 9);

And start by working hands separately. Leaps or jumps can be surmounted by slow, deliberate work. Play the
last beat of bar 8 going to the first beat of bar 9, over the jump, carefully calculating the movement needed by
each hand to land accurately in the middle of the note with correct fingering each time. Play the last chord of
the left hand, in bar 8 (A, C sharp and E), then take your take time when finding the low E in the next bar. Once
found, dont play it, just sit on it and survey the movement needed for the jump. Do this slowly, taking your
time. Once youve done this a few times accurately, you can go ahead and play the notes. Do this with the right
hand too and then slowly put hands together, gradually building confidence with each jump before increasing
the speed.
Another useful tool is to practice going too far i.e. one octave higher or lower than necessary (in this case,
jumping in the left hand of bar to bottom E, just below low F). Leaping much faster than actually needed, can
also work well. When the speed is slowed down to the actual or original tempo, the jump can seem easy. Also
working with accents and different touches (especially important for changing dynamics) can reinforce the
accuracy of the jump. Preparing the body mentally and physically for any jump is important, and this is made
much easier when the upper body is loose and relaxed. Build a feeling of relaxation (or physical freedom) into
jumps, so that at the crucial moment your body resists the urge to lock-up and your arm feels light and free
during the leap. Leaps are easier to judge if they are memorised.
These tips are just to help you get started. There are so many ways to work at a piece such as this. Heres a great
recording of Bartk playing all six dances. The fourth can be heard at 4 minutes 30 seconds.

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About The Classical Piano and Music Education Blog


Classical pianist and writer. I love to Tweet and Blog and I love to play the piano too.
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This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged ABRSM, Bela Bartok, Bulgarian Dance No. 4, Grade 8, Graded Piano Exams, List C. Bookmark the permalink.

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