This week we are rehearsing, performing and recording Bartok's Music for Percussion, Strings and Celeste. I have never performed this music before, and being a huge Bartok fan, I am really looking forward to it.
Yesterday was our first rehearsal, and it is quite a learning process. In Bartok's melodies, he often uses intervals based on Hungarian folk music which are somewhat foreign to our ears. There is a lot of chromaticism, changing pitches moving in close range. For that reason, we spent much of yesterday playing sections of the piece under tempo.
First hearings of Bartok can be daunting; I remember going to a concert in college and hearing one of the more dissonant Bartok string quartets. I thought it was noise. Just a year or so later, when I learned one of the quartets, I began to appreciate Bartok's musical language. Now I believe that his quartets are right up there with Beethoven's.
Despite the strangeness of his melody and harmony, there is always a tonal center, a note or a chord around which Bartok builds. And with repetition, the listener begins to understand and wants the music to return to that center. For my taste, of all of the early 20th century composers who used non-traditional harmonies/intervals (like Stravinsky or Hindemith), Bartok is the one who speaks to me most vividly.
It is a strange, frightening, often very beautiful world to which he takes us. I am told that some of this music was used in the movie The Shining with Jack Nicholson. You can always count on Bartok for something scary.