Bartok: Romanian Dances: Transcribed For Cello

The six dances in this compilation are transcriptions of traditional folk tunes from Transylvania that were originally played on the violin or shepherd’s flute. The original name for this collection was “Romanian Folk Dances from Hungary” but when Transylvania became part of Romania in 1920, Bartok (1881-1945) renamed it simply “Romanian Dances”. These are six independent dances and, while we could probably play them in a different order if we wanted to, there seems to be no reason to do this. Bartok’s “original” version of these dances is for solo piano, which he later arranged for chamber orchestra. There exists also at least one arrangement for violin and piano (by Zoltan Szekely) and an arrangement for cello by Luigi Silva and it is the combination of these four sources that has served as the basis for the cellofun transcription.

If you love this compilation of wonderful, spectacular, delightful, potent, charming pieces it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will love all of Bartok’s compositions. In fact, Bartok didn’t “compose” any of this collection: he started his musical life very much as a musicologist and spent a large part of his early years travelling the countryside with a tape recorder, recording the rich legacy of traditional folk music which up until then had been transmitted only aurally through the generations (and had therefore probably never been written down). This collection is no doubt fruit of these musicological travels.

Maybe nowadays it would be considered unethical to put the name of the editor/arranger/compiler on the title page as “author/composer” but in those days the rules were less strict. Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm brothers did not “invent” their fairy tales: they did exactly like Bartok, collecting, compiling, editing, and publishing traditional pre-existing material that had until then been passed on aurally. This work constitutes a wonderful, invaluable contribution to humanity, making this material available to the whole world to enjoy, but don’t expect to love Bartok’s string quartets or much of his other “real” compositions quite as much because they are often very unlike these folk dances/tunes. Folk and popular music tend to be harmonically quite simple – otherwise they wouldn’t be “popular – and most of the time in this piece Bartok restrained his love of dissonance and 20th-century “harmonies”.

These Romanian Dances are quite similar to Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” (Suite Italienne) in that most of their charm and beauty comes from the composers of the original “stolen” music on which these most popular pieces “by” Stravinksy and Bartok are based. In fact, the “best bits” (highlights) of a lot of music by both these composers are often simply arrangements of music mined from popular, anonymous, folk-music sources. If the original composers were still alive they could perhaps have accused our 20th-century classical masters of plagiarism, but being usually unknown, and in every case long dead, their legacy has been expropriated for both the common good and the enhanced reputation of the expropriators.

Because of their aurally transmitted origins, we have considered it justifiable to take quite a few liberties with certain details of Bartok’s original versions. These are detailed in the descriptions below of each dance movement. When we play dance music it is helpful to imagine how it might be danced. Here is a list of the different dances, with their names in english and some explanatory notes about each one, including both the cellofun dance imaginations and our modifications to Bartok’s original versions. Be aware that all the dances follow on from each other “attaca” (with no stopping, tuning, resting etc). Note also that modern editions are written with key signatures despite the fact that Bartok rarely ever used them.

In the different versions of these dances there are several different keys used for the second, third and fourth movements according to the different instrumental combinations. Even between Bartok’s own orchestral and piano versions there are differences in keys used. The following link opens up a table in which five different transcriptions are compared:

Romanian Dances Key Table

1: Stick Dance

In Bartok’s original piano version there is no introduction to the first dance, but for his version for string orchestra, he writes a four-bar introduction. We could do either of these, but have chosen instead to make an exact compromise, with a two-bar forte piano introduction, for a more dramatic effect. Without knowing anything about how a “Stick Dance” is actually danced, we can imagine, at various moments in this piece, the dancers banging their sticks vertically onto the ground (bars 4, 7, 8, 12, 29-32, 45-48 ??)

2: Sash Dance

Here we have added four bars of piano introduction where originally there was none. We have also added not only a repeat of the melody one octave higher (as in the violin and chamber orchestra arrangements) but we also then repeat the entire dance (in both octaves). This makes this charming number last four times longer than the way-too-short twenty seconds that it lasts in its original piano format. In the Easier Version however, we don’t go up into the higher octave, so, to avoid playing the same melody four times, we do not repeat the movement.

It is easy to imagine the sashes being twirled around in bars 8, 12, 20, 24, 28 and 36, and, in order to allow time for the humanity (flexibility) of this dance, we also take a little bit of time in each of these bars. In the original versions for solo piano and for chamber orchestra (and the Luigi Silva cello version) this dance is in D minor but we present it here in F# minor, the same key as Szekely’s violin arrangement.

3: In One Spot

Here, the leaping, prancing, skipping, and energy of the two previous dances is suddenly cut short. This dance feels like a gentle, sinuous, arab-inspired (like the scale it uses) dance, swaying and undulating in one spot (without taking any steps) as the title indicates. Time, like the dancers’ feet, stands still here.

Bartok used D minor for his piano version but B minor for his chamber orchestral version of this dance. The violin arrangement uses D minor, no doubt because it allows all of the artificial harmonics to be played on the D-string. Although we don’t need this (we play our notes high up the A-string) we will keep this violin key because it allows a most beautiful modulation in the next movement.

This dance is offered here with three different possible fingerings. Whereas the violin version uses artificial harmonics throughout, their use seems too difficult on the cello, especially if we want to do the mordents as written by Bartok: the notes simply move too fast. For this reason, we offer a fingering with stopped notes, high on the A-string which we could play “sul ponticello” if we wish to give it an even more “spooky” feel. Fingerings with artificial harmonics on both the fourth and the fifth are also offered for the more virtuosic (courageous) amongst us.

4: Dance from Bucium

The third dance ends with a total fade-out to zero and we mustn’t disturb this magical silence with a page-turn. Therefore, after the third movement, we should wait before turning the page until after the piano has started their introduction and it is in order to give more time for this page-turn that this piano introduction to the fourth dance has been doubled in length. The cellofun arrangement, as with the violin version, starts this dance in C, which, thanks to a beautiful modulation in bars 20-21 (not present in either of Bartok’s versions), allows us to prolong this lovely lyrical movement and also return to Bartok’s original key, where we will now stay till the end of the entire dance suite.

5: Romanian Polka

This dance signals an end to the lyricism of the previous two and we now arrive at the loud, energetic, leaping, jumping and foot-stomping dances so typical of a grand finale. We have, just like in Bartok’s orchestra version, taken out the double-stops (open string pedal beneath the cello’s melody line) because they just seem to cloud the waters. We need as much clarity as possible in the cello voice in order to be able to hear the rapid appoggiaturas that characterise this dance, and in any case, the piano fills in the harmony notes with no need for cellistic support.

6: Fast Dance

We have added a repeat of this entire dance and also rewritten its last few bars to include a somewhat more spectacular “cellofun” final flourish, which does however use material from the first dance:

We have also changed Bartok’s B natural to a Bb in bars 28, 44 and 52 because this now repeats the whole-tone interval found in similar motifs in bars 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 32, 36, 40 and 48, thus giving the dance more stylistic (melodic) unity:

Here are the downloadable (and printable) parts in an arrangement for cello and piano.

  1. Cello Part: Edited Version
  2.     Cello Part: Clean Version
  3.    Cello Part: Easier Version
  4.    Piano Score

Here below are two downloadable audio files of a play-along accompaniment. The first is at a performance speed while the second is an easier practice version with slower tempos (for the fast movements especially) and no repeat in the second movement (to fit with the Easier Version).