Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Strange, Frightening, and Often Very Beautiful World of Bartok

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.

6 comments:

  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Montana

    http://pianotutorial.net

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  2. I was in Mayerhoff last night.
    Bartok was a difficult job both for the musicians and for the conductor. The syncopated (irregular) rhythms are an underwater rock.
    However, been from Bulgarian origin I can testify for there sub cortical influence to the listeners mood. I expected more dramatic expression in the allegro molto..
    Been in the “roots” mood, do you think that a concerto based exclusively on syncopated rhythms may be of interest of BSO?
    Yours,
    George Lazar MD

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  3. Thanks, Arnold. I'm glad you enjoy this blog; I enjoy writing it. Thanks so much to Jamie Jean Schneider at the BSO for reminding me to write when I'm just thinking of the upcoming double flats in Bartok and for her editing, monitoring, etc!

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  4. Hi George. Thanks for coming to hear the Bartok and for your comments. Yes, performing Bartok is always a challenge, and in this case, the BSO hadn't played this great piece since (just before I joined the orchestra) 1979, I am told. I was pleased that we were able to learn it as quickly as we did.

    So what do Bartok's rhythms do to listeners' moods from the sub cortical influence? I've noticed over the years that practicing/rehearsing/performing certain composers' music does have various effects on my moods.

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  5. Interesting post. Well when there is so much a new. Thanks.

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  6. I think though Bartók claimed in his writings that his music is always tonal, it rarely uses the chords or scales of tonality, and so the descriptive resources of tonal theory are of limited use.

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