I composed Dirge-Fantasy in 2003, based on the first of Béla Bartókʼs Four Dirges, Op. 9a. Bartók composed the set in 1909–10; Ernő Dohnányi premiered the first two dirges only in 1917, but there is no record of the premiere of the entire set. The Four Dirges, along with other early sets like the Fourteen Bagatelles, Op. 6, the Ten Easy Pieces, and the Seven Sketches, Op. 9b, show Bartók grappling with the influence of Debussy, and redefining his relationship with the piano from his hyper-romantic, showily virtuosic earliest works into something leaner, more abstract and personally expressive.
I am astonished by the first dirge of Op. 9a—its 28 bars are a model of efficiency and expressive power. Three dyads, falling by octaves, are answered by a simple, halting phrase; this formula is repeated once. On the third time, the dyads morph into dissonant triads, and the halting phrase transforms into a yearning one that climaxes powerfully in A minor, on a rhythmically augmented three-octave spread that recalls the opening falling dyads. The denouement, developed from the halting phrase, veers to a secondary climax in B major, and the melody, again spread over three octaves, simply runs out of steam, hovering in gentle dissonance over soft, thick B major chords in the lowest octaves of the piano.
In Dirge-Fantasy, I was moved to explore the extravagant effect of Bartókʼs dirge by exploding his original over four movements. Each of my movements—Intrada, Nocturne, Furiant, Lament—focuses on just one portion of his dirge, and each meditates on one of the affects that lay latent in his. The Intrada introduces the opening dyads and coiled tension inherent in Bartókʼs halting phrases. The Nocturne explores his snaky, chromatic melodic lines. The Furiant makes more apparent the already extreme emotionalism of Bartókʼs surprising first climax in A minor, and the Lament attenuates that emotionalism via an understated retelling of Bartókʼs second climax in B major. I end my Dirge-Fantasy with a literal transcription of Bartókʼs dirge; in this context it reveals itself as both the source and apotheosis of what comes before.