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Thread: Cycle review: Bartok

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    Default Cycle review: Bartok

    In an attempt to get more threads going in the Chamber Music section, I thought to begin a monthly discussion on quartet cycles.

    Focus on one composer. Focus on quartets/quintets, including piano.

    Generally, hoping to get opinions on the respective composer's cycle, specific anecdotes or comments on pieces, movements, or notes. Maybe you have a ranking. Maybe you recently saw a performance. Maybe, like me, you are just looking to discuss particular pieces after hearing them.

    So, I hope this draws some interest.
    ---


    And let's not start with the GIGANTIC composers first. Instead, let's start with the oft-performed (in my experience), but somewhat nontraditional (dare I say atonal? Controversy!) Bela Bartok and his six special quartets (plus piano quartet and quintet). How to even describe his works?

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    I've been exploring the 4th quartet a bit recently, after seeing Cuarteto Casals play it in London, so I'd be very interested for ideas about the music - what are the main points to be looking for in a performance? That sort of thing.

    I'm not sure whether this is a distraction from the topic, and if I'm told it is I'll edit it out, but the other Bartok I've been exploring are the last two books of Mikrokosmos. I always knew that the series of dances at the end of Book 6 were fantastic, but I was surprised to find how much fun the other music is, in both these books. I think Jeno Jando is really convincing, but also Gyorgy Sandor. I only have Sandor's mono recording, is the stereo one better performance wise? (Bartok recorded a lot of mikrokosmos himself of course.)
    Last edited by Mandryka; Apr-27-2014 at 07:55.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mandryka View Post
    I've been exploring the 4th quartet a bit recently, after seeing Cuarteto Casals play it in London, so I'd be very interested for ideas about the music - what are the main points to be looking for in a performance? That sort of thing.

    I'm not sure whether this is a distraction from the topic, and if I'm told it is I'll edit it out, but the other Bartok I've been exploring are the last two books of Mikrokosmos. I always knew that the series of dances at the end of Book 6 were fantastic, but I was surprised to find how much fun the other music is, in both these books. I think Jeno Jando is really convincing, but also Gyorgy Sandor. I only have Sandor's mono recording, is the stereo one better performance wise? (Bartok recorded a lot of Mikrokosmos himself of course.)
    I think the Mikrokosmos mention is appropriate, in that the String Quartets and it progress from most approachable to something quite mind-stretching. Actually a perfect strategy/format for new Bartok listeners.

    Both bodies are well-represented in the catalogue. At the moment, I have Solchany (EMI, rec.1973 - '75) for Mikrokosmos, and ABQ (EMI, rec. 1984 - '86) for the SQs, but I have and could live happily with others.

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    Unsurprisingly, the Fourth Quartet was the ingress of my exploring Bartok's entire repertoire. Yet the structure and literal, tonal aspects of the piece escape me, like much of his music.

    I've read that Bartok commonly incorporated mathematical concepts/approaches into his compositions -- the fourth being one of them. The piece is structured as an arc, with themes and elements mirrored apart from the middle lento. This is only me reciting some of what I read and understood. I may be far off base. But is this approach unique? Does that lend itself to the novel sound?

    Generally, I'm interested in why Bartok's quartets sound the way they do. Is atonal the right description? I truly don't know; a trained musician's perspective would be appreciated.

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    Avey, it's a commendable idea for a thread, but I think you may get faster/more results by searching the web for musicological helpings.

    Example:

    http://www.bayarea.net/~kins/AboutMe..._Analysis.html

    Also, Paul Griffiths is a noted Bartok ( amongst other modernists) authority. He supplied the liner notes (1987) for my ABQ SQ set. His book may be helpful Bartok (Master Musician). Inexpensive paperbacks are available via Amazon Marketplace.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Avey View Post
    Generally, I'm interested in why Bartok's quartets sound the way they do. Is atonal the right description? I truly don't know; a trained musician's perspective would be appreciated.
    It's not "tonal", at least not in the sense that Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Mahler are tonal, but it's not in a style associated with the word "atonal", either (if that's confusing, that simply shows how nonsensical the word atonal is to begin with!). Bartok tends to use ostinati or pedal points to give a sense of local tonal center (and thus of stability) to groups of notes that are otherwise dissonant.

    Beyond that, it's the use of folk material in distinctly modernist ways (like Debussy and Stravinsky before him), bringing the spiky edges into relief rather than softening them.

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    Avey, Wonderful idea for a thread. And Bartok's String Quartets are among my favorite works in the entirety of the classical corpus. As I noted on another thread, I was privileged about a month ago to see the Takacs Quartet perform the entire cycle. Seeing it live was simply thrilling. For me the Takacs may be the finest of the many, many fine string quartets working today.

    You used the word "atonal" and Mahlerian offered a quite precise corrective. Generally speaking, the Quartets sound the way they do because of Bartok's ethnomusicological research into the folk idioms of Hungary and beyond. Let me type in some of the superb notes that were in the program concerning String Quartet #4, which deals with these issues:

    "Folk influence pervades the Fourth Quartet, composed during the summer of 1928, soon after Bartok returned from his first tour of America as pianist and composer. It is evident in the small-interval melodic leapings, gapped scales, and snapping rhythms of the first movement; in the whirling motion and fiery syncopations of the two scherzos; in the florrid, chromatic melody of the central movement, which evokes the melancholy pastorales of the tarogato, a Hungarian single-reed woodwind instrument ... that Bartok encountered during his field researches. The tendency of themes constructed from these tiny folk gestures when subjected to the developmental and harmonic pressures applied by Bartok is, however, to fragment and fly apart. To counterbalance this problem, Bartok used for this Quartet a rigorous overall formal structure that describes an arch shape centered upon the third of its five movements: fast -- scherzo -- slow --- scherzo -- fast. The first and fifth movements are paired in their mood, tempo, and thematic matieral, an association further enhanced by sharing the smae music in their closing pages. The second and fourth movement, both scherzos, are related in their themes, their head-long rhythmic propulsion and their use of novel effects from the strings: the second movement is played throughout with mutes, while the fourth movement requires a continuous pizzicato, including the percussive snapping of the strings against the fingerboard that Bartok was among the first composers to use. The slow movement, the midpoint of the structure, is itself organized symmetically in three parts ( A - B - A) around the twittering 'night music' of its central section"
    I hope that is of some help.
    Last edited by Alypius; Apr-27-2014 at 22:08.

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    I did a little digging in the library this afternoon. A few more quotations regarding Bartok and his quartets, esp. #4. As I and Mahlerian noted, what may at first sound "atonal" is rooted in his research. Here's from an essay simply entitled "Autobiography" from 1921 (from Béla Bartók’s Essays, p. 410:

    “The outcome of these studies was of decisive influence upon my work, because it liberated me from the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys.... It became clear to me that the old modes, which had been forgotten in our music, had lost nothing of their vigor. Their new employment made new rhythmic combinations possible. This new way of using the diatonic scale brought freedom from the rigid use of the major and minor keys, and eventually led to a new conception of the chromatic scale, every tone of which came to be considered of equal value and could be used freely and independently.”
    In an essay from 1931, entitled "Influence of Peasant Music on Modern Music", Bartok enunciated three different ways of appropriating "peasant music" (from Béla Bartók’s Essays, pp. 341-344):

    “(1) We may, for instance, take over a peasant melody unchanged or only slightly varied, write an accompaniment to it and possibly some opening and concluding phrases. This kind of work would show a certain analogy with Bach’s treatment of chorales. Two main types can be distinguished among the works of this character.
    (a) In one case accompaniment, introductory and concluding phrases are of secondary importance, and they only serve as an ornamental setting for the precious stone: the peasant melody.
    (b) It is the other way round in the seocnd case: the melody only serves as a ‘motto’ while that which is built around it of real importance. In any case it is of the greatest importance that the musical qualities of the setting should be derived from the musical qualities of the melody.

    (2) Another method by which peasant music becomes transmuted into modern music is the following: the composer does not make use of a real peasant melody but invents his own imitation of such melodies. There is no real difference between this method and the one described first.

    (3) There is yet a third way in which the influence of peasant music can be traced in a composer’s work. Neither peasant melodies nor imitations of peasant melodies can be found in his music, but it is pervaded by the atmosphere of peasant music. In this case we may say, he has completely absorbed the idiom of peasant music which ahs become his musical mother tongue. He masters it as a poet masters his mother tongue.”
    If one studies Bartok's actual practice, he does all three modes. In the case of the Quartets, it's the third. I have a few more items that I found and will post more a bit later.
    Last edited by Alypius; Apr-28-2014 at 03:37.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Alypius View Post
    I did a little digging in the library this afternoon. A few more quotations regarding Bartok and his quartets, esp. #4. As I and Mahlerian noted, what may at first sound "atonal" is rooted in his research. Here's from an essay simply entitled "Autobiography" from 1921 (from Béla Bartók’s Essays, p. 410:



    In an essay from 1931, entitled "Influence of Peasant Music on Modern Music", Bartok enunciated three different ways of appropriating "peasant music" (from Béla Bartók’s Essays, pp. 341-344):



    If one studies Bartok's actual practice, he does all three modes. In the case of the Quartets, it's the third. I have a few more items that I found and will post more a bit later.
    Thanks for making this interesting post, much appreciated.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Avey View Post
    And let's not start with the GIGANTIC composers first. Instead, let's start with the oft-performed (in my experience), but somewhat nontraditional (dare I say atonal? Controversy!) Bela Bartok and his six special quartets (plus piano quartet and quintet). How to even describe his works?
    I did not know Bartok had a piano quartet...hmm...

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    Yesterday I said that I would post some more of my notes on Bartok's string quartets. This is from the superb study by Amanda Bailey, “The String Quartets and Works of Chamber Orchestra,” The Cambridge Companion to Bartok, Cambridge Guides to Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007):

    Significance of Bartok’s 6 String Quartets: “The Six String Quartets offer a fascinating insight into the chronology of Bartók’s musical style, as they span some thirty years of his compositional career. Their stylistic development is such that each Quartet is the culmination of a different phase of his artistic growth, focusing almost all his creative ideas and compositional techniques into a single genre. On the one hand they represent the continuation of a Classical tradition through an intensity of motivic writing that parallels Beethoven’s, while on the other they reflect developments in musical language and a changing aesthetic during the first half of the twentieth century. Unlike his Austro-German contemporary Arnold Schoenberg, Bartók did not consciously seek to champion the cause of atonality. Rather, his interest lay in the fusion of folk and art music, the synthesis of East and West Europe: his inspiration from the folk music of different nationalities uniquely influenced the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic structures of his own music. Following his increasing involvement in the collection and study of folk music, the Second Quartet shows a more direct use of folksong than the First. The discovery of unusual scale structures provided him with new melodic and harmonic formations to explore in response to the general weakening of tonality at the beginning of the twentieth century, although his use of folk music is not yet all-encompassing. The piece contains the seeds for the full germination of Bartók’s compositional style in the Third and Fourth Quartets, completed in 1927 and 1928 respectively.” (pp. 151-152)

    4th Quartet & Use of Folk Material: “In the Fourth Quartet, Bartók’s solution to the problem of the new music is different from the Third: his inspiration is derived specifically from folk music, even though he avoids direct quotations. One of his recommendations to composers was ‘not [to] make use of a real peasant melody’ but to ‘invent [an] imitation’ of it: for the most part it was less important for Bartók to copy an exact folk melody than to let the music be ‘pervaded by the atmosphere of peasant music’. For instance, an immediately striking feature of the cello’s rhapsodic parlando rubato melody in the third movement is the downbeat semiquaver/dotted-quaver rhythm intrinsic to Hungarian prosody: the strong-beat start to the phrase is indigenous to ‘old’-style Hungarian melodies. This type of melody,whose ‘long notes are encircled by shorter ornamental notes’, is identified by Judit Frigyesi as ‘a lament or slow verbunkos belonging to the Hungarian tradition’. Yet the construction of the melody throughout the movement also fits Bartók’s description of the Romanian hora lunga˘: ‘a single melody in numerous variants. Its features are strong, instrumental character, very ornamented, and indeterminate content structure’." (p. 162)

    Bartok on the Arch Form of the 4th Quartet: Bartok, quoted by Bailey, p. 160: “the slow movement is the kernel of the work; the other movements are, as it were, arranged in layers around it.Movement IV. is a free variation of II., and I. and V. have the same thematic material; that is, around the kernel (Movement III.), metaphorically speaking, I. and V. are the outer, II. and IV. are the inner layers.”

    Richard Taruskin, Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 4: Early Twentieth Century, p. 400:

    On the Arch Form of the 4th Quartet: “The Fourth String Quartet (1928), completed six years earlier than Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, is often looked upon as the culmination or far-out-point string of Bartók’s maximalist explorations. It brings his preoccupations with symmetry to a peak that encompasses two musical dimensions: both the ‘vertical’ dimension of harmony, as in the works we have already considered [e.g. Bagatelles, Music for Strings], and the ‘horizontal’ dimension of form as it unfolds in time. In it he deployed for the first time the all-encompassing symmetry of ‘bridge form,’ as he called it, meaning the casting of the constituent sections in a movement (like the nocturnal slow movement of the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta) or even the constituent movmeents in a full-length ‘classical’ composition like a string quartet, in the form of a palindrome. Like several of the works that followed it (including the Fifth Quartet, the Second Piano Concerto, and the Concerto for Orchestra composed in America), the Fourth Quartet contains five movements, in which a unique central movement is flanked fore and aft by neighbors of similar character, while the outer movements draw on a common fund of thematic or motivic material. But when representing the form schematically (as in his preface to the Fourth Quartet), Bartók did not designate the sections simply as ABCBA as one might label the sections of a rondo, but rather ABCB’A’, to denote his concern that there be a dynamic forward moementum as well as a sense of return, as in the classical sonata form. To quote László Somfai, the leading Hungarian Bartók scholar, despite all its ‘quasi-geometical symmetry,’ Bartók’s bridge form ‘is not static: it does not return to its origins but progresses toward a cathartic outcome,’ which of course implies a drama.”
    Last edited by Alypius; Apr-28-2014 at 23:37.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Alypius View Post
    Bartok on the Arch Form of the 4th Quartet: Bartok, quoted by Bailey, p. 160: “the slow movement is the kernel of the work; the other movements are, as it were, arranged in layers around it.Movement IV. is a free variation of II., and I. and V. have the same thematic material; that is, around the kernel (Movement III.), metaphorically speaking, I. and V. are the outer, II. and IV. are the inner layers.”
    This is useful, just because I've been struck by how many performances make it sound like a rag bag of disparate bits of music. I wonder if anyone thinks there is a recording is particularly successful at revealng the architecture.
    Last edited by Mandryka; Apr-30-2014 at 11:34.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mandryka View Post
    This is useful, just because I've been struck by how many performances make it sound like a rag bag of disparate bits of music. I wonder if anyone thinks there is a recording is particularly successful at revealng the architecture.
    This one:


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    Alypius, thanks for the posts. Appreciated.

    Something I noticed a while ago was the distance between S.Q. #1 & 2 from 3 & 4. There are nearly thirty years in between the publication of the works. Some of the above notes get to this, making sense of Bartok's musical progression over the years.

    Off my simpleton ear, w/r/t his quartets, I do find that the 4th marks a dramatic progression in rhythmic and thematic impression. That is, the first quartets feel a bit loose and expansive -- without some rhythmic bounds, if you will -- in contrast to the later quartets. Of course, this may just be me. That's just what I hear.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Avey View Post
    Something I noticed a while ago was the distance between S.Q. #1 & 2 from 3 & 4. There are nearly thirty years in between the publication of the works.
    #2 was finished in 1917, #3 in 1927, that is only 10 years. But Bartok's style indeed changed at the end of the 1910's/beginning of the 1920's.

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