Béla Bartók's Mikrokosmos (Hungarian: Mikrokozmosz) Sz. 107, BB 105 consists of 153 progressive piano pieces in six volumes, written between 1926 and 1939 and published in 1940. The individual pieces progress from very easy and simple beginner études to very difficult advanced technical displays, and are used in modern piano lessons and education. In total, according to Bartók, the work "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." Volumes one and two are dedicated to his son Péter, while volumes five and six are intended as professionally performable concert pieces.
Bartók also indicated that these pieces could also be played in different arrangements. In 1940, shortly before they emigrated to the United States, he arranged seven of the pieces for two pianos, to provide additional repertoire for himself and his wife Ditta Pásztory-Bartók to play. Tibor Serly transcribed six of the pieces for piano and string orchestra, arrangements which were first performed on the composer's 61st birthday in 1942. In 1969 Huguette Dreyfus recorded selected pieces from Books 3 to 6 on the harpsichord.
The pieces are notable for their display of folk music influence, their unusual use of tonality, and their use of additive rhythms. Bartók travelled extensively during the period 1906–1936 to rural Hungary, Romania, Algeria and Turkey, transcribing folk songs and dances; that influence is especially apparent in the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm at the end of Mikrokosmos, as well as in his (separate) set of Romanian Folk Dances (1915).
The title Mikrokosmos comes from the Greek mikros kosmos, meaning "little world", to reflect Bartók's aim that the pieces "deal not only with the rhythmic, but also with melodic, harmonic and pianistic problems."
The works were first published with the subtitle "Progressive Pieces for Piano" to emphasise the collection's didactic structure. Ernst Roth, as representative of the publisher Boosey & Hawkes, initially suggested "Progressive Piano Pieces in Modern Idiom", but this was rejected by Bartok on the grounds that "in 20, or let us say in 40 years this work will cease to be 'modern.' And what does it mean 'modern'? This word has no definite sens [sic], can be misinterpreted, misunderstood!"
The pieces progress gradually in difficulty through the entire collection, from number 1 at the beginning of volume I to number 153 at the end of volume VI.
- Volumes I and II: Pieces 1–36 and 37–66, beginner level
- Volumes III and IV: Pieces 67–96 and 97–121, moderate to advanced level
- Volumes V and VI: Pieces 122–139 and 140–153, professional level
The list of pieces is as follows:
The opening (mm. 1–76) of "Boating" (V, 125) is typical of the modernist compositional techniques used in the later volumes, featuring the bimodal use of the pentatonic collection on E♭ in the right hand and either G mixolydian or dorian collections in the left:
Volume VI contains the "Six Dances In Bulgarian Rhythm", dedicated to the English pianist Harriet Cohen. Bulgarian folk music is characterized by additive rhythm, that is, rhythm where the beats in each bar are of unequal length. For example, the first dance (148) is grouped into 4+2+3
8 (nine quavers in each bar), and the final dance (153) is grouped into 3+3+2
8 (eight in each bar).
Some pieces utilize extended technique, such as stomping or tapping in piece 9, holding down keys silently in piece 102, or singing in pieces 14, 65, and 127.
Pianists who have recorded all six volumes include György Sándor, Edith Farnadi, Homero Francesch, Zoltán Kocsis, Dezső Ránki, Jenő Jandó, Claude Helffer, and Georges Solchany. Bartók himself was the first to publicly perform pieces from Mikrokosmos, on February 9, 1937 in London.
- Suchoff, Benjamin (1959). "History of Bela Bartok's Mikrokosmos". Journal of Research in Music Education. 7 (2): 185. ISSN 0022-4294.
- Kube; Reutter, eds. (2016). "Preface". Sechs Tänze in Bulgarischem Rhythmus (1 ed.). Vienna, Austria: Schott/Universal. p. II.
- Carpenter, Alexander. Mikrokosmos at AllMusic
- Suchoff 1959, p. 194.
- Kube & Reutter 2016.
- Suchoff 1959, pp. 186–187.
- Suchoff 1959, pp. 190–191.
- Stein, Deborah (2005). "Introduction to Musical Ambiguity" in Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, pp. 82–83. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517010-5.
- Suchoff, Benjamin. Béla Bartók: A Celebration, p. 83 (Scarecrow Press, 2004).