The Three Etudes Op. 18 are some of the most outstanding examples of the composer’s attempt to work out his own piano style which strictly rejected the standards of romantic and impressionistic doctrines. The world premier took place in 1918. Afterward the etudes were never again included in his concert program, admittedly because of rejection on the side of the public, but also because of the work’s particularly high level of technical difficulty.
In these technically demanding etudes that require maximal extension of the hands, the melody appears in the background, superseded by different passages and an accumulation of rhythmical and structural elements. Here there are no folkloric citations or borrowings, which are characteristic of Bartok’s work on the whole. The musical language is extraordinarily complicated and individualistic. Nevertheless, Bartok wrote in a letter to the music critic von Nell that centers of tonality would be maintained in the etudes. On the other hand, the multilayered structure, polyrhythm and use of diverse modes displayed the composer’s striving to leave the traditional understanding of harmony in favor of new means of musical expression. This distinct example of the young Bartok’s attempt was rejected by the common public.
The artistic complications of the musical prelude, the fragmentation of the motifs, all of this was poorly understood and not well-received. Bartok wrote to a friend: “In the cities that find themselves at the level of a Hungarian province, one mustn’t experiment with such works as my two violin sonatas, my piano etudes – with improvisation. These works only frighten the unprepared public.” Still, the etudes played an important role in the works of the experimental Bartok in that they served as a necessary part of his quest for the renewal of musical language.