Bartók’s Out of Doors: Five character pieces or an integral cycle?

“Five fairly difficult piano pieces”—thus Bartók described his masterwork Out of Doors, which was published in the same year (1926) as some of his other iconic piano works, such as the piano sonata and the first piano concerto. Nowadays, however, we tend to refer to it as the “Out of Doors Suite,” implying that all five pieces belong together. This is also how I refer to it. Perhaps I am wholly under the influence of the present zeitgeist, being quite a purist when it comes to playing whole cycles as opposed to individual movements. I believe that great cyclical works have a narrative larger than any combination of individual movements, whether in Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, Debussy’s Preludes or Medtner’s cycles of Forgotten Melodies. Naturally, I believe the same about Out of Doors, but as it happens, the composer seemed to think differently. Of course, in Bartók’s time, performers and composers alike were less dogmatic about playing full cycles rather than individual movements. In the case of Out of Doors, Bartók’s compositional process seems to imply that the cycle wasn’t conceived as integrally as I’d like to imagine it was. Rather than try to argue against Bartók’s idea of Out of Doors as five individual pieces, I’d like to explore a more interesting question: How does treating it either as a cycle or as individual pieces affect a performance?

Sadly, no recording of Bartók’s is available that would allow us to judge the effect of treating Out of Doors as five individual character pieces. All we have is the titles of the pieces, the score, and our imagination. The titles of the five movements, With Pipes and Drums, Barcarolla, Musettes, The Night’s Music, and The Chase, are all quite descriptive. They can be seen as snapshots of country life in its varied aspects. In this way, they are similar to Grieg’s many wonderful Lyric Pieces for piano. Therefore, in a performance of individual movements from Out of Doors, the feeling that one “could guess the title of the movement just by hearing it played” should be conveyed. Naturally though, some titles would be easier to guess than others. While it’s fairly easy to recognize the drums at the beginning of the first movement and the sense of pursuit in The Chase, the second and third movements have somewhat more concealed attributes. Because of the rhythmic complexity of the second movement, Barcarolla isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when hearing it, and Musettes is quite a remote concept that can mean two things—either a small bagpipe, or a possible middle section of a Gavotte. Both definitions reflect Bartók’s fascination with old music. (When I started learning this work, I was sure that the movement evokes a middle section of a Gavotte, but alas I was wrong, as  it turns out that Bartók did have the old bagpipe in mind). 

Naturally, the descriptive titles of the movements still matter a great deal when playing the cycle as a whole. But when thinking of Out of Doors in its entirety, other aspects of the work come into play, and we start to look for certain patterns emerging from the different movements. Bartók published this cycle in two volumes—the first three movements make up the first volume and the last two the second. Initially, The Night’s Music and The Chase were supposed to be played as a single movement. Although they have been separated, an attacca subito between the two is natural, organic, and much desired. The first three movements, however, don’t have the same natural continuity of contrast. Their continuity lies elsewhere, and we have to dig beneath the surface to find it. 

Bartók was not a composer of atonal music. Although he did experiment with the twelve-tone technique, and tonality is often replaced by modality, his music eventually finds its way to a tonal center. This can help explain Bartók’s rationale behind initially thinking of the second volume as a single movement, as The Night’s Music does not really come to any tonal conclusion. The first three movements, however, all conclude tonally, and all three conclusions turn out to be somewhat unexpected. Bartók’s way of reinforcing a tonal center is repeating the said tone, rather than cadencing in it (as would be expected in a piece of tonal music). So when we hear in With Pipes and Drums the tone E repeated and emphasized, we hear the piece in E. That’s why we are startled when the movement ends on a long F-sharp. The Barcarolla starts by reinforcing G as the tonal center, so much so that unlike in the previous movement, we get tonal motion from G to its dominant, D. But after many vicissitudes, Bartók tampers with our tonal hearing. Following a page-long pedal point on A, we expect the movement to end in A, and are surprised when Bartók slithers in the last three bars right back to G. With A still fresh in our ear, Musettes starts with the same pedal point on A that we heard at the end of the previous movement. But unlike in the Barcarolla, no surprise return to the tonic awaits us at the end. Instead, Bartók ends the movement on an almost spiritual note, on the subdominant D. Why spiritual? Because cadences from the subdominant have been thought of as having religious characteristics, hence the subdominant cadence is often referred to as an “Amen” cadence. 

The characteristics of Musettes and its spiritual ending are key to grasping the cycle as a whole, because the third movement symmetrically stands at the heart and middle of the work. Observing the cycle from this standpoint, parallels begin to emerge between the second and fourth movements, and the first and last. The cycle, which begins and ends with zestful and energetic movements, converges by way of the lyrical and mysterious Barcarolla and The Night’s Music towards its spiritual epicenter in Musettes, like an upside-down V.

This cannot be coincidental, as Bartók employed this type of structure, called “arch form,” in a number of works, such as the fourth and fifth string quartets and the second piano concerto (whose second movement has many parallels with The Night’s Music). 

As it happens, many if not most performances of Bartók on the piano tend to be harsh and overly loud. Nothing could be further from the composer’s intentions. All it takes is to listen to any one of his recordings to hear that Bartók was a pianist of supreme elegance and grace, for whom “banging” on the piano was unconscionable. But many performances of Out of Doors begin the first movement so loudly and aggressively that one would never guess that Bartók wrote only a single forte at the beginning. The imagery of the title perfectly corresponds to a single forte—the bass drum is by nature a loud instrument, so why would one need to exert oneself to produce a loud sound? Just as Bartók begins the cycle with only one forte, he also ends it on a single tone F, marked with the same single forte. Could this be another indicator of arch form? I think so, as a crescendo emerges from the single forte at the beginning of the first movement, and the final gesture of the last movement is part of a dynamic wave whose apex is an impassioned cascade of ninths marked fortissimo

Out of Doors is an inexhaustible work. Although all of its movements are irreplaceable components in the larger structural scheme, they also work equally well as individual character pieces. Either you dive into the enchanting world of programmatic music, or you enter Bartók’s structural maze, where form, architecture, and humor come together in a most vivid manner. 

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One thought on “Bartók’s Out of Doors: Five character pieces or an integral cycle?

  1. Had the great pleasure of hearing you do this piece out of doors in Norfolk. Such an interesting piece and great to see as well as hear after all these months without concerts. Thanks for making the journey to Norfolk.

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