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Bartok And His Musical Language Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2438 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Bartoks music showed signs of a rejection of traditional tonality and growth in his individual harmonic language, giving a new rendition to tonal principles. This characteristic was very much due to the influence of Debussy, and also affected other composers such as Stravinsky. Additionally, after his several years of studying the German tradition at the conservatory in Budapest, he had picked up a manneristic sympathy towards this German late-Romantic style of composers like Wagner, Richard Strauss and Brahms. His earliest works show several stylistic influences present, for example his Piano Quintet (1904-5) which has a finale unquestionably modelled on that of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto.

In time, Bartok’s music was somewhat liberated from such influences due to his encounter with Magyar folk music in 1905. In spite of this, some influences remained, like the discovery of new harmonic possibilities in Debussy’s music which came about in 1907.

Bartok’s researches, which eventually encompassed the folk music not only of Hungary but the Slavic regions, Turkey, and North Africa, convinced him that the essential folk traditions were those having frequent contact with other cultures, allowing a mutually enriching exchange of ideas1. Bartok’s compositional style reveals this outlook, which draws upon various, even seemingly contrasting, sources yet he manages to integrate them within a fully coherent frame while keeping in touch with his personal expression.

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4.1.1 Tonal Language in his Piano Music

1 Morgan, Robert P. Twentieth-Century Music (W.W.Norton & Company Inc., 1991). p.109Works like the Fourteen Bagatelles and Ten Easy Pieces were described by Bartok himself as ‘experimental’, reflecting this influence and revealing a certain affinity with Debussy like the use of parallel dissonant chords; except that the quality and colour of the dissonances in Bartok’s music differs significantly from that of Debussy. Moreover, the Fourteen Bagatelles and the Ten Easy Pieces, small and early composed as they are, show stylistic homogeneity within each of the pieces and are more adventurous than, for example, the Debussy Preludes. The first composition which brings to light Bartok’s research on folksong is shown in his series of piano pieces called For Children, based on Hungarian and Slovakian folksongs. Harmonies are usually simple but never predictable and conventional, making use of Aeolian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian melodies, pentatonic and other modal tunes. Bartok composed three Burlesques, all of which were composed in different years, and these bring out the typical style of his development. They are slightly unpleasant in mood, with harsh clashes of dissonance and bizarre accents. In his Allegro Barbaro, he had established a complete assimilation of folk elements with authentic Magyar style, unrelated to the pianism of Hungarian characteristics found in Liszt and no signs of the impressionist keyboard music like Ravel’s. This work had brought out an immensely percussionistic sound through the martellato chords and the hammering rhythms. It marks Bartok’s becoming of age, from whence his stylistic progress is outspoken, without trial and no going back to the earlier style in his music. He had recognized the piano as a percussion instrument, with works such as the Sonata, his Concertos, and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion abiding by this idea. In his answer to a questionnaire about the ‘Piano’ problem (1927), Bartok had stated the following:

”The neutral character of the piano tone has long been recognized. Yet it seems to me that its inherent nature becomes really expressive only by means of the present tendency to use the piano as a percussion instrument. Indeed, the piano always plays the part of universal instrument. It has not lost its importance for concert performances.”2

4.2 Mikrokosmos

Bartok was quite the innovator when it comes to writing what he wanted on the score, and in his Volumes of the Mikrokosmos, one might encounter special musical notation which indicate a specific sound that he had in mind such as newly devised key signatures (also including the use of two different key signatures at the same time), use of ½ pedal, and the use of the ‘¯’ for the effect of harmonics, an effect generated by playing the selected keys without sounding them and producing harmonics as the other notes are played.

Figure 4.1 – First 10 Bars from No.102, Vol.4

2 Bartok, Béla. Béla Bartok Essays ed. Benjamin Suchoff. (University of Nebraska Press, 1976) p.288The first four books of the Mikrokosmos were specifically written for pedagogical reasons as they propose specific tasks which should prepare students as they take on new problems step by step in their first years of learning. Albeit this, Benjamin Suchoff had stated that:

”Evidence indicates that the Mikrokosmos was not conceived of as a piano method in 1926, the year of its origin, but as recital pieces to fill the need Bartok had of such material due to the increase in his concert bookings”3.

The exercises are supposedly put in progressive order according to technical and musical demands, although this order might be manipulated by the tutor with each individual student according to their abilities. Despite this, the value of these volumes lies not so much in the technical demands themselves, but it provides the opportunity for the player to encounter essential characteristics of twentieth-century music, for instance, harmonic practices like: bitonality, whole-tone scale, chords in fourths and major and minor seconds, or counterpoint methods such as: inversion, mirror and free canon, not to mention other devices like syncopation and irregular rhythms.

4.3 Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm

Bartok ends his 153 pieces called Mikrokosmos with a set of six dances which he composed and dedicated to the British pianist Miss Harriet Cohen. As the title suggests, they are comprised of dances with folk flavour dominant throughout, containing a variety of rhythms commonly found in Bulgarian folk music. Bartok had already made use of the Bulgarian elements in No.113 and No.115 from the fourth Volume of Mikrokosmos, and he aptly named them Bulgarian rhythm I and Bulgarian rhythm II. This rhythm is frequently found in folk music from Bulgaria, and refers to a rhythm in which the beats within each bar are of dissimilar length, so that the subdivisions of each beat change in number. This set, all composed with quavers as the main beat, would therefore represent the Bulgarian rhythm grouped like this: qzzz qz qzz- corresponding to the time signature of 4+2+3/8, although the whole set of these last six dances exhibits a wide variety of possible groupings. The different rhythmic groupings give each of the dances a contrasting character, but still give a sense of a unified work, mostly due to a chromatic characteristic appearing in each piece and the fact that all six dances are full of energy.

Figure 4.2

3 Suchoff, Benjamin. History of Bela Bartok’s “Mikrokosmos” from the Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Sage Publications Inc., 1959) p.196The first dance opens with a mildly temperate mood, but still full of life as it introduces the main theme. The dance is polymodal, based mainly on the E-Phrygian/Lydian scale, occurring in the two main elements present, which are the melody (Fig. 4.2) – using notes of the E-pentatonic scale – and the accompanying scalar ostinato passages based on the E major scale (Fig. 4.3).

Figure 4.3

This first dance makes consistent use of the 4+2+3 Bulgarian rhythm throughout the piece, and is the only work from the set of six that has the most distinct tempo changes. A variation of the main folk motif (Fig. 4.2) occurs in the slower section marked ‘Meno Vivo’ (Fig. 4.4), which builds up towards a transitional energetic area, leading to yet another calm variation of the main theme with a sense of direction leading towards the closing of the dance which is contrastingly loud and decisive in mood compared to the previous soothing variations, but it rounds off the dance bringing it well into balance and aims directly towards the complementing second dance.

Figure 4.4 – Variation of the main melodic motif is marked with the brackets

The second dance is lively and bright in mood, introducing itself with the main rhythmic element appearing throughout the piece which is based on the 2+2+3 meter (Fig.4.5).

Figure 4.5 – Bb.1-3

The first three bars of ostinato-like chords are immediately followed by another motif (Fig. 4.6a) containing a syncopated melody on the C-pentatonic scale which repeats soon afterwards; this time it is transposed a 4th higher – on F-pentatonic scale – and it is half the length of the previous phrase, almost as if it is getting slightly impatient and increasing in tension (Fig. 4.6b).

Figure 4.6a

Figure 4.6b

Figure 4.7Subsequently, running scales appear (Fig. 4.7), which give a reminiscing sense of some parts from the first dance. This is followed by developing material of both the initial melodic material and of the running scales once again. The scale passages keep occurring against a thick chordal bass until eventually coming to a halt and transitioning to the coda which concludes with the introductory dance rhythm, slowly drifting away to the last to chords.

The third dance acts like an extension to the second dance, with a similar energetic drive but with more added force to it. Its meter is marked as 5/8 and the rhythm is subdivided into two groups: 2+3. The first rhythmic motif is divided as shown (Fig. 4.8), using notes from the E-Lydian pentachord with a minor and major seventh degree4.

Figure 4.8

The second thematic material that follows is based on a symmetrical 3-bar phrase:

±±. | ±¥± | ±±. – lasting until Bar 19, leading to four bars of ostinato rhythm using chords a 5th apart, based on the dominant (V) of the A-major pentachord5, employed in the second thematic material. Variations with development on both first and second motifs appear following each other with chromatic elements throughout, leading to the close which starts off with the same introduction as the beginning, followed by a short closure using the main dance rhythmic theme, rounded off by the concluding chord (Fig. 4.9).

Figure 4.9

The next dance is more upbeat and cheery in mood compared to the previous dances. It has the form of a rondo-variation with the parts generally subdivided into four-bar sections. According to Bartok, this piece is ”Very much in the style of Gershwin’s tonality, rhythm, and colour. The American folk song feeling.”5 The additive 3+2+3/8 meter grouped as such (Fig. 4.10), occurs in the first movement, second theme, of Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra as 4/4 ¥ q ± ± ¥.6 The first theme (Fig. 4.10), consists of harmonies from

the C-Lydian/Phrygian polymode, and the motif is soon repeated an octave higher. The same ideas soon answer in different registers transposed into the left hand almost upside down.

Figure 4.10

In discussion to the Gershwin-related tonality as described by Bartok himself, there is a section in this dance where the same melodic motif appears in a ‘slower’ area (as indicated by the composer; ‘Meno mosso’) with a jazzy colour added to it, accompanied by triads ascending in stepwise motion (Fig. 4.11). This area is followed by a brief recapitulation of the melodic introductory motif played in octaves with a small ritardando at the end of the phrase which jumps to a short but very energetic Coda that concludes the dance.

6 ibid.

5 ibid. p.158

4 ibid.

3 Suchoff, Benjamin. Bartok’s Mikrokosmos: Genesis, Pedagogy, and Style (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004) p.157

Figure 4.11

The fifth Bulgarian dance has a more varied rhythmic schemata, in the sense that it has at least three different sections which consist of diverse rhythmic groupings (Fig. 4.12a; 4.12b; 4.12c), but all under the same meter i.e. 2+2+2+3/8.

Figure 4.12a – i.e. qz ±z ±z ±zz

Figure 4.12b – i.e. ± ± ± ± ¥

Figure 4.12c – i.e. ±zzz ± ±zz

Like the second dance, it has brisk, light steps, but is more playful, slightly more colourful in tonality but less ostentatious in character. The introductory material starts with a short passage of alternating chords between the two hands, eventually leading to a clearer melodic line in bar 7 which serves as the basic material for the entire piece. The middle section consists of brief dense phrases occurring in between short staccato areas, with the thick areas having a fundamental chromatic melodic line which corresponds to the whole element of the six dances.

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The sixth and final dance of the whole Mikrokosmos automatically shoots off with a jump start as a kind of reaction to the strong intervallic ending of the previous dance. The chordal motifs reflect a Debussy-like influence, with the striking rhythmic elements proving the underlying thoughts of having the piano regarded as a percussive instrument. The chords against a repeated 3+3+2 quaver movement – grouped as such: qZZ qZZ qZ – switch hands, increasing in thickness of sound the third time it appears, due to the lower register of the keyboard. The chords are the holders of the main melodic line in this dance. Repeated eighth notes occur throughout most of the dance with abrupt accentuated phrasings. Corresponding to the chromatic element of the whole set which links them together is an area full of melodic motifs displaying chromatic movement in both hands, with the phrases running on top of each other constantly, keeping a rhythmic flow (Fig. 4.13).

Figure 4.13

The only section in this piece where there are not any running rhythms is in the extremely aggressive chordal area marked fortissimo (Fig. 4.14), halting abruptly on a dissonant chord which is followed by several bars of repeated notes, soon to have the other voice join in once again, both charging towards the flamboyant ending of the piece.

Figure 4.14


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