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The Bela in the title refers to Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian composer who used folk music of his region as inspiration for his own brilliant concert music. While he is rightly remembered today as a great composer, Bartok spent almost equal time and energy working as a musicologist, seeking and writing down peasant music in remote villages all over Hungary, Romania, and the Balkans, to preserve music before it was lost to the advance of commercial society.
The melodies themselves have an irresistible, expressive and fresh quality to them. Often irregular and earthy, they are unlike what any trained composer would create. Each one is the product of generations of anonymous musicians, and as such is really a natural phenomenon more than an individual artwork. Bartok regarded each of these melodies as perfect, like a flower or gemstone is perfect.
Berners' composition started with an assignment given his composition class. For this project, students worked with folk melodies actually collected by Bartok. Following Bartok's practice, students use their chosen melody as raw material for a piano composition. They were free to adapt the tune in any way, and add accompaniment, often of a dissonant or modern variety.
Bela's Village is made in just this way, starting with four tunes collected by Bartok, adapting them , and setting them for woodwind quintet. This piece echoes Bartok's style to some degree, to evoke life in a peasant village and to serve as a tribute to one of the author's favorite composers.