|The Doric Quartet|
As Mozart and Haydn's quartets define the 18th Century String Quartet, and Beethoven's, among others, define the 19th Century's, Bartók's six quartets are considered the high-points of the 20th Century's.
Thursday night's concert with the Doric Quartet – 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom (you can read more about it in the previous post) – concludes with Bela Bartók's 5th String Quartet, though we could list it as “String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat.” In that sense, it might look little different from any 19th Century Quartet, less an opus number (Bartók rarely used them), except I didn't say “B-flat Major” or “Minor.” There's something very comforting about seeing that “B-flat” because it means we're expecting something familiar: that sense of tonality composers had been using since 1700 and the days before Vivaldi and Bach.
But it won't take 20 seconds for a listener to realize this is not your grandfather's string quartet – and certainly not even Papa Haydn's string quartet!
I couldn't decide which of these two Hungarian quartets to recommend: the legendary Hungarian Quartet, recorded in 1961; or one of those “younger generation” ensembles, the Kelemen Qt of Budapest, recorded in 2011. The Hungarian Quartet was formed in 1935, the year after Bartók wrote his 5th Quartet, and it gave the work its Hungarian premiere. In 1961, the 1st Violinist was Bartók's close friend and colleague, Zoltan Szekely for whom he'd composed the Rhapsody for Violin & Piano Francisco Fullana closed his recital with last month. Of the Kelemen Quartet, two of the players currently teach at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest where Bartók had been a student and, later, professor of piano. So, yes, both ensembles have a direct connection with this music!
First, here is the Kelemen Quartet in a live performance recorded at a Beijing competition in 2011:
(If you only have time for one of them, I strongly recommend the Kelemen's live performance if only for the energy and passion they bring to their performance. As I mentioned in the previous post about the last movement of the 4th Quartet, they makes this quartet definitely sound like “down-home music”!)
So, what makes Bartók sound different than previous, more familiar composers?
It is in the way he's chosen to “organize” his music – how he chooses the pitches that become the melodies and harmonies we think of, just as other composers chose to organize their melodies and chords to give the music a sense of order and, with any luck, inevitability. “Tonality” is just another way of systematically organizing and ordering these pitches and chords, and while “Atonality” might be thought of as lacking that organization, Bartók's quartet, here, is not atonal!
Just as Schoenberg developed “serialism” which spawned a whole school of serialist composers, a system full of rules and mathematical-sounding procedures, Bartók looked for another way of coming up with “rules and procedures” to organize his music to be an equivalent system to “tonality” which, if you ask any first year theory student studying classical music, is full of all kinds of rules (“thou shallt not commit parallel fifths and octaves; thou shallt follow thy subdominant chord with thy dominant chord before approaching thy tonic chord” and so on). Without rules like this, music would just be arbitrary and you might as well call it “quantum theory.” It's the way they treat (not to mention bend and break) these rules that gives composers their recognizable sounds (or “voices”).
|Bartók (during a rehearsal break)|
The 5th String Quartet, written in 1934, the “Music for Strings, Percussion & Celeste” of 1936, and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion or 1937 are three of his most significant pieces from his “Middle Period” in this development of his style. Unfortunately, World War II intervened, uprooted him and his family from any sense of peaceful creativity and financial stability, finding him in New York City trying to survive. It was a form of misdiagnosed leukemia (combined with inadequate health care, war-time immigrant or not) that prevented Bartók from exploring a “Late Period.”
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Even if you don't read music, there's something like watching “abstract art” unfold while you listen to this performance, and it might help you make some sense of Bartók's style. He loves to take a motive you've just heard and invert it, in this way creating a varied texture that often helps “increase the tension.”
The Hungarian Quartet's 1961 recording of Bela Bartók's String Quartet No. 5:
As I said, the work is billed (at least, by the composer) as being in B-flat – it actually starts on a B-flat and ends on a B-flat – but it's not “Major” or “Minor” and certainly like no other B-flat Major piece you've heard, like Haydn's Op. 33 No. 4 Quartet which is “also” in B-flat Major.
Bartók thinks “linearly” rather than vertically with chords, not concerned with the rules Western Art Music had long developed to regulate how those chords move – what we musicians call “harmony” – so the pitch B-flat becomes more important than the chord B-flat. If the pitch is in a prominent place in any chord that could contain a B-flat, it is a more important placement of the pitch than if it's just part of a chord. And Bartók is fond of “harmonizing” a melody with chords that may have nothing to do with those pitches: it's like playing a melody in the Right Hand on the piano's white keys while playing chords in the Left Hand on the black keys.
It's not organized around the B-flat Major (or minor) Scale either, as Haydn or Beethoven would have done. The sense of "scale" might be from any number of possibilities including different scales found in folk-music, particularly an eight-tone (not seven-tone) scale called an octotonic scale, for what it's worth.
All of this is the result of his studies of folk music from Hungary and the Balkans combined – or synthesized – with what he'd learned from traditional classical Western Art Music. His ideas are not meant to replace and destroy traditional concepts but to be their equivalent, essentially, creating the same sort of results only differently.
It's the surface language you're hearing and reacting to, but a good performance will let you sense that, deep down, the end results – these age-old ideas of creating unity and variety, of creating and resolving tension, of creating some kind of framework we call form you can hang on to – are essentially the same.
Instead of the traditional four movements of “standard classical music,” Bartók often uses five which he places in an “arch form” with the central movement being the apex of the arch, the two movements on either side of it related in some way – in the case of the 5th Quartet, the scherzo is the keystone with two short slow movements on either side – and the first and last movements, balancing each other, being both of the same dramatic cloth, just as Beethoven did with his first and last movements, regardless of the less demanding middle movement(s) – think his Eroica Symphony.
This progression from the opening to the ending of the quartet also creates a kind of palindrome – “Madam, I'm Adam” and all that – and though you may not be aware of it from listening to it, many of the motives and themes you hear in the first movement become transformed into something else in the last movement. Whether the listener is conscious of this doesn't really matter, but it may explain why, to those familiar with Bartók's style, these pieces have an innate sense of coherence and organic logic that sometimes you just can't intellectually explain.
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The first movement opens with its vigorous reiteration of a B-flat in seemingly convulsive rhythms (hardly “patterns”) and then, like something ignited by a burning match, it takes off in a flurry of sparks and rhythms that presents one shiny object after another before the repeated-note-motive returns – oh, but it's not a B-flat this time – before what might be called, in a traditional sense, the contrasting “second theme” with its change of tempo and mood, long slithery lines over drones and a persistent pulse in the cello (if you're following the score, around 1:30) where the repeated tone in the cello is... a B-flat.
But Bartók gradually moves this “focus” pitch up a step at a time until, around 2:29, the repeated-note-motive returns again, this time on an E. The pitch E become the main “focus,” now – and this is what Bartók uses as the equivalent of modulating to the old classical “dominant” to his initial tonic pitch, B-flat. In Haydn or Mendelssohn, it would be B-flat to F, that's the main axis of tonality, before returning to B-flat. Since about 1600 or so, that's been the foundation of the basic harmonic language of classical music. But Bartók turns this into an axis on B-flat to E – which happens to be the interval of a tritone or what musicians since the Medieval period called “The Devil in Music.” Subsequently, it was a “forbidden” interval for about eight centuries.
Anyway, as Bartók's quartet continues, after a great deal of scurrying motivic (and “tonal”) chaos, what happens around 7:26? The repeated-note-motive breaks out in the open – ta dah! – on a B-flat, just like a Haydn or Beethoven Sonata-Form Recapitulation. And before the movement ends on its last B-flat, notice how the two lines honing in on it in those last measures (at 7:36), create a wedge-shaped scale-like approach starting on... an E (or, enharmonically, an F-flat, same pitch). Just like any dominant-to-tonic chord to say “Tonal Center arrived at and established – check!” that could've ended any piece by Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms.
Just as any 18th or 19th Century composer would've done, the next movements are a kind of contrast both dramatically and emotionally as well as less intellectually daunting. Bartók often wrote slow movements he referred to as “Night Music,” evoking the sounds of the night and inspired by visits to his uncle's farm. Instead of emotional, even “romantic” music – tender, tragic, wistful – Bartók creates a sound-world that is almost cosmic in its loneliness: sit still on the back porch of that farmhouse and hear the buzzing of insects, the sighing of breezes, drops of water plopping off the leaves following a passing shower, perhaps the distant croaking of frogs down at the pond (not in this quartet, but they exist in other works), all moving with the slowness of celestial time (whatever that means), as lacking in rhythmic propulsion as the other movements sound like foot-stomping folk dances heard after a Saturday night celebration has gotten out-of-hand.
Which is what the scherzo, the apex of this quartet's arch, is all about, and in this particular case, Bulgarian folk dances. As early as 1907, Bartók and his friend Zoltan Kodaly began wandering the countryside “collecting” the authentic folk music of their native Hungary which they began using in their own music, initially as arrangements or as quotations, then, as Bartók called it, creating his own “imaginary folkmusic” based on the logic and patterns he discovered in the real folkmusic. Eventually going further and further afield, he used some of the complex rhythms that make Bulgaria one of the most unique-sounding cultures in Europe – music guaranteed to drive any Westerner who insists music moves in consistent grouping of beats like 2/4 and 3/4 absolutely bonkers.
Imagine dancing this at your high school prom?
(Actually, compared to this, Bartók's scherzo is kind of laid back!)
Following another bit of quiet, almost timeless night-music, when the Finale begins – at 24:18 – we reach a repeated E a few measures in which then starts off the main part of the movement where B-flat is again prominent (but not stable). Around 27:11, we're back to more B-flats and Es, sometimes simultaneously, and while it may not be a recognizable “tune” to tell us, “ah, we're back to the main theme,” he goes through the opening material of the movement just as if it were a Sonata Form recapitulation, just as Haydn or Beethoven might have done in their way.
Then a very weird thing happens – weird if you've gotten used to all this hectic linearity and pounding chords and rhythms that seem more like seizures. At 30:11, an actual “tune” in actual A Major breaks out! Marked to be played “indifferently,” it sounds like a German folksong gone wrong (or after a few too many beers), perhaps as if played on a hurdy-gurdy. Is it an off-the-wall quote? (Actually, it's based on motives we've already heard!) But what's that pitch in the cello – an E?
And just as suddenly, we're off with all that flurrying linear chaos, up and down, piling pitches on top of each other, leading to B-flat/E or leading away from B-flat/E until... there's an eight-note scale broken into two groupings: first one ends on an E, second one ends on... B-flat! Ta-dah!
Beethoven didn't care if you couldn't tell what key he'd modulated to or where in the structural scheme of things you were (is this the Development Section already?) – one of the reasons his music so horrified fans of his teacher, Haydn. Wherever he went along the way, he let you know the key structural points by releasing the tension he'd been creating, by simplifying the texture, or giving you long preparations that created the expectation of, yes, I believe this is going to... perhaps... no definitely, yes, that's the tonic!
Bartók does the same thing but, however you say it in Hungarian, “I'll do it my way.”
- Dick Strawser