Four By Four For Four, Part III

Four By Four For Four, Part III

Part III

Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók

Another fundamental cycle of music of the string quartet repertoire is the set of six quartets by Béla Bartók (1881-1945).  Like the collection of Beethoven quartets, Bartók’s cycle spans the length of his compositional career.  Bartók developed in his music a very personal and individual solution to the chromatic crisis that was early twentieth century music.  Like our pal Ludwig, Bartók was an accomplished concert pianist, as well as composer.  Béla Bartók also was one of the earliest persons to study, record, and describe folk music.  In doing so, he became one of the founding academic authorities on ethnomusicology.  I absolutely adore and identify with all of the music of Béla Bartók, and have for many years (as my musical brother Mike could attest to).

contentAs chromatic and hyper-organized as Bartók’s music is, it almost always has a tonal center.  He is not a completely atonal composer in the sense of Schoenberg or Webern.  His fascination with mathematics and symmetry is evident in the way he incorporates The Golden Ration and the Fibonacci Sequence into many of his compositions.  The chromatic harmonic language of his works is often derived from whole-tone, octatonic, and other non-traditional scales (sometimes borrowed directly from his folk music research).  Small intervallic cells of notes become fundamental structural elements connecting themes and entire movements with one another.  The Bartók specialist Ernő Lendvai wrote a revealing 115 page volume describing many of these organizing features of some of Bartók’s music. (Béla Bartók, An Analysis of his Music)

In true OCD fashion, the best place for me to start a discussion of the Bartók quartets is with his String Quartet Number 1, Opus 7 in A minor.  The first edition of the work was published with the title “ Vonósnégyes”, which is simply Hungarian for “First String Quartet”.  I am not entirely sure why this title was removed in subsequent editions of the score.  One should not put too much emphasis on the “A minor” indication in the title.  While it is true that many of the structural points of the quartet center on some harmony built on the note “A”, this is a highly chromatic work that does not use an A minor scale as its foundation.  The opening of the first movement is a wonderfully constructed slow fugal section, starting with the violins, who are then joined by the viola and cello seven bars later.  This opening has reminded some listeners of Beethoven’s Quartet in c sharp minor, Opus 131, which also opens with a slow fugue.  Bartók was surely aware of the late Beethoven quartets when he put a pen to paper to start his own.


Stefi Geyer

These opening melodic figures become structural elements of all three of the quartet’s movements.  There is an interesting story behind the opening melody.  At some point in 1906 or 1907, Bartók fell passionately in love with a young violinist named Stefi Geyer.  She was a talented musician, and the two exchanged many long letters.  Clearly, the most personal thing a composer can do for a violinist he loves, is write a concerto for her, which is what Bartók did.  Unfortunately, this was one of the many unsettled times in Béla Bartók’s life.  He was raised a Roman Catholic, but at this point in time had lost faith and declared himself an atheist.  As one can expect, this is not a peaceful serene sort of declaration.  Bartók wrote long tirades in his letters to Geyer against Roman Catholicism, and also the middle class.  (I’m not sure what Béla had against the middle class).  Stefi Geyer must have found all of this a bit of a turn off, because the relationship did not work out.  Bartók took the violin concerto he wrote and put it in a drawer.  It was never played until after his death.  What he then did was use a melody from that concerto for the opening motif of his First String Quartet.  In a letter to Geyer he described the first movement of the quartet as a “funeral dirge”.  The entire work is built on elements from this opening motive.  In this sense, Bartók’s First String Quartet is a masterpiece of a breakup letter.  Not bad if you ask me; I was lucky to get half of my record albums back after any of my breakups.

Less than a year later, the 28 year old Bartók married the 16 year old Márta Ziegler, in a marriage that lasted 15 years before they divorced.  About two months after the divorce, the 42 year old Bartók married a 19 year old  Ditta Pásztory, who was a piano student that he proposed to just 10 days before.  I suppose we can draw two conclusions from this, that  Béla Bartók did not like to be alone, and he did have an attraction to younger women.

Many string quartet ensembles have made a project of recording all six of Béla Bartók’s quartets.  There are quite a few marvelous modern recordings from which to choose.  The video below is from the fine cycle done by the Takács Quartet, an Hungarian group now based in Colorado.  I think they have a very personal affinity for the music of their fellow Hungarian, and I hope you enjoy their performance as much as I do.

Béla Bartók – String Quartet No. 1 in A minor – Takács Quartet


A Trip To The Symphony

A Trip To The Symphony

The brown coat of a man brushes past audience members as he moves toward the stage.  What is going on?  This is an orchestra concert, and there is no mosh pit!  Why is this guy out of his seat?  “Ode to Joy” resounds in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, and this renegade is now on stage waving his arms in the middle of the action.  His smile stretches from ear to ear as he is pushing for the orchestra to go faster, play louder, his arms flapping, hair flying, a bewildered and abused conductor trying to go on.  The man’s euphoria is exactly in line with the spirit of the music, and by heaven, he is right.  It needs more sound, more speed, more intensity, and more JOY!  YESSSS!!!!!

Mr Jones MovieAlthough I’ve often felt like that in an orchestra concert, it’s actually a scene from the 1993 Richard Gere movie “Mr. Jones”.  At that moment, he is my hero.  I mean no disrespect  to anyone suffering from bipolar disorder, but part of the point of the movie is how charismatic and irresistible the character is in his manic episodes.  One is supposed to sit quietly in a symphony performance, but the music is often overflowing with deep human emotion.  Passion, grieving, joy, dance, love, despair, angst, celebration ….  you name it and it can be found in an orchestra concert.  I shouldn’t be expected to sit still for all of that.


Orchestra HallI had a break in my busy work schedule, and decided to make a point of attending a concert of my hometown orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  It’s been a long time since I attended one of their performances, too long in fact.  There is something about a live performance of music that just cannot be captured in a recording.  The DSO plays in a wonderful historic auditorium, Orchestra Hall,  which was designed by C. Howard Crane. It has the most wonderful acoustics.  I have sat in almost every section of seats over the years, and can personally bear witness that the music sounds great from every seat in the house.  The DSO first performed in  Orchestra Hall in 1919.  The hall closed in 1939 due to depression era economics, was sold and reopened in 1941 as Paradise Hall.  In the ten years it was Paradise Hall, the venue hosted some of the greatest jazz performers of all time.  Sadly it closed again in 1951, and had to undergo extensive restoration before it was home to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra again in 1989. Since 2003, it has been the anchor of the expanded Max M. Fischer Music Center.  I have been fortunate to hear the DSO play there almost my entire adult life.

Orchestra hall stageTo attend a Sunday afternoon concert, I parked in the nearby parking structure, and entered the front doors of Orchestra Hall.  It is a beautiful building, with the inside containing lots of dark stained wood, and the stage surrounded by ornate gilded decoration.  I have been coming here for so long, it is very comfortable for me.  I have no need for the usher to show me to my seat, I know my way.  I am familiar with the restrooms, the bar on the landing of the second floor, the pictures of the music directors from past years, and the view overlooking Woodward Avenue from the third floor window.

Music is one place I feel quite at home, and I often forget how the formality of the hall can be intimidating to some.  Lots of people dress up to attend, but lately, I am of the thought that it is more important to be comfortable.  I want to think more about the orchestra than about how tight the knot on my tie is.  One of the things I would love to accomplish with this blog is to demystify classical music a bit, and make it more accessible to a larger group of people.  This is just MUSIC, and all that matters is that you have ears, not what shoes you are wearing.  I think if we all thought of Beethoven as a grumpy, messy bachelor with a poor love life and worse digestion, rather than the marble bust in the corner, we could begin to feel like we can connect with his music more.  It does us no good to put these figures up on  pedestals where no one can reach.

The program for my Sunday afternoon concert was:

Toshio Hosokawa, Blossoming II
Bartok, Piano Concerto No. 3
Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique

This is an example of orchestra concert programming the way bacon, eggs and toast is a classic example of breakfast.  An overture (of sorts), followed by a concerto, and a symphony.  The shortest work, the 10-12 minute overture, leaves a natural break for the ushers to seat any latecomers in between the overture and the concerto.  The featured soloist then plays with the orchestra in the concerto, and can take a number of bows and play an encore before intermission.  The second half of the concert is taken up by the large multi-movement symphony.  I have attended dozens of concerts programmed in this sort of format.

As a composer, another detail of this program sticks out to me.  The opening work is by Toshio Hosokawa, an actual living composer.  One of the few ways a music director will program a contemporary composition is to pair it on the program with a well known warhorse like the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique.  I may have been one of only a handful of people that had heard the Hosokawa piece before the concert.  The music director is playing this first, and gambling that the audience will stay for the Berlioz.  Rarely would the contemporary work be played after intermission, for fear of losing some of the people in attendance.  Sad to me, but true.

HosokawaIt is an ironic situation, because Blossoming II is the easiest piece of the entire concert to understand.  It is a poetic, atmospheric, mood driven piece of music.  It is a meditative experience with shimmering soundscapes.  You are truly meant to sit back and let it wash over you.  All you have to be is a human being with ears, and you are in.  So much of Western/classical/art music is about complexity, form and architecture, but Hosokawa is creating an environment of sound for us to inhabit.  All you are required to do is listen.

Toshio Hosokawa, Blossoming II

6403_BartókI honestly have little idea how the Bartok Piano Concerto No. 3 sounds to everyone else.  I know Bartok’s music very well, and identify with a great deal of it.  This is a very familiar work to me, more so than for the rest of the audience.   The slow middle movement is my favorite, the solemn and meditative Adagio Religioso.  The center section of the Adagio has some of the evocative “night music” sounds Bartok is so very good at.  The concerto was one of the last pieces Bela Bartok wrote, in fact it wasn’t quite finished at his death.  The orchestration of the last few measures were completed by someone else, using Bartok’s notes.  In the music of his last couple of years, Barok didn’t always use the harsh dissonance found in some of his earlier music.  He was an accomplished pianist himself, and was writing this concerto as a surprise birthday present for his second wife.

Bela Bartok, Piano Concerto No. 3

louis-hector-berliozMy “Mr. Jones” moment came in the finale of the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique.  Anyone who has trudged around with the Grout music history textbook knows that this piece by Hector is the quintessential example of a program symphony.  A programmatic music has some sort of extra-musical narrative, a story or scene outside the music, which the work is trying to portray.  This one is subtitled “An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in five parts”, and the story line is one of a creative artist who has taken opium in the depths of despair over a hopeless love.  Berlioz provided program notes for the audience describing each movement.

Hector Berlioz, program for Symphonie fantastique

The finale is a dream of a witches’ sabbath, with the sounds of all sorts of ghoulish creatures dancing a mad dance.  The beloved Idee Fixe melody that has represented the focus of the artist’s love is present, but now distorted.  All of these monsters have gathered for the artist’s own funeral, and the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) hymn melody is shouted out first by the trombones. This all culminates in a loud ending that deserves a mosh pit, a raucous musical moment that has enthralled me since my first listen.  I was enthralled by the music again, and tempted to rush on stage to lend my assistance.  It was at this point that I had to recall that the next scene of the Richard Gere movie has his character strapped to a hospital bed, surrounded by burly orderlies, and being sedated before admission to the in-patient mental health facility.  I elected to let the conductor on hand complete his job without my help, but one day I promise I will have to show them how it is to be done.

Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique


Allegro Barbaro

Allegro Barbaro

Bartok BelaThe music of Béla Bartók is a huge influence on my musical identity.  It began in college, but strangely enough, my first exposure to Bartók was not in music school.  I can remember clearly the first time I heard the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra.  There was still a classical music station on FM radio in Detroit, and I was driving and listening to a rebroadcast of a live orchestra concert.  A Concerto is a piece for a solo instrument and orchestra.  I was puzzled by what a “Concerto” for a whole orchestra was going to sound like.

I was mesmerized by the opening of the work, introducing some of the musical material that was going to build the piece.  By about the two minutes and forty-five second mark, when the violin sections come screaming in, I was hooked.  I pulled into a parking space and listened to the rest of the broadcast.  I had a new musical hero.  Mind you, I had a pretty good looking girl waiting for me as I sat in my car and listened to the music.  I was eventually quite late in knocking on her door.  She did break up with me, but that was several years later.  I don’t think the Bartók had anything to do with it.

I could go on for pages and pages about Bartók, his life, all of my favorite pieces of music.  I could write all night about just the Concerto for Orchestra, which is still one of the great masterpieces of the orchestral repertoire to this day.  For now, I simply want to make one point about the music of my favorite Hungarian.  To illustrate that point, it will take just a few minutes of piano music.

Let me start with a couple of pieces from the generation of composers before Bartók.  The “Romantic” period of music history gave a wealth of material for pianists to play.  A great variety of character pieces, dances, sonatas, and other works exploring many of the possibilities of the modern grand piano as we know it.  Most of these were very lyrical, and melodic in nature.  To illustrate the concept of lyrical music at the piano, let me start with a “Song Without Words” from Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn, “Songs Without Words” Op. 30 No. 6

Another example of a melodic, lyrical character piece would be this Chopin Nocturne.  It is played brilliantly by the great Vladimir Horowitz, after he is done wiping his nose with his handkerchief.

Chopin,” Nocturne” F minor op. 55

4092742So we have two pieces of virtuoso piano music, both melodic and inventive, using the major/minor tonal system of harmony.  I offer these to compare and contrast  a piece of piano music from Béla Bartók.  One of his most often performed piano works is the Allegro Barbaro (Sz.49).  Piano students and professionals alike have all frequently played this piece.  It was composed in 1911, and the standard version was published in 1918.  It is a piece of the twentieth century, of the era of the Great War, railroads, the first assembly lines, and further industrialization of the modern world.  Music was breaking away from the “Romantic” era, and becoming shattered in the process.

There are many things I could talk about in the Allegro Barbaro. The scales used to create the music are not your normal major or minor scales.  There are chromatic scales, pentatonic scales, and a good deal of the Phrygian mode.  Bartók didn’t happen upon these by accident, rather, he was borrowing sounds from Hungarian peasant music and Romanian music.  He works with little harmonic cells, and with great craft, centering the music around a central note.  The harmonic analysis is fascinating, and could go on for a long time.

The major point I wish to make about this piece is the reimagining of the piano as a percussive, rather than lyrical, instrument.  When one presses down on a piano key, a little hammer strikes a string or set of strings inside the mechanism of the instrument.  The harder one strikes the key, the louder the note sounds.  It is this percussive, striking action that Bartók exploits in this piece, and so much of his piano music.  Instead of smooth, lyrical melody, Bartók gives us accented rhythm, pounding tone clusters and explosive dynamics.  Take a listen.

Béla Bartók, Allegro Barbaro (Sz.49)

bartok4This is similar to some of the primitivism of The Rite of Spring, but for solo piano.  It is driving, pulsing, rocking music with an element of violence to the phrasing.  It is not gentle, but it is very dramatic stuff.  I think for my next 25 composition lessons, I marked every piece I wrote “pesante”.  I was trying to recreate the energy and driving, heavy rhythm of a Bartók piano piece.  I have only slightly mellowed with age, and still find the music of Béla Bartók a major influence.

This will not be the last time Béla Bartók joins us on Good Music Speaks.