Monday, 26 December 2011

Bartok II: Of Burlesques and Barbarians

Continuing from where I left off...

The richness of the music that immediately followed For Children is something of a well-kept secret and is so good that it needs to be gossiped about with a vengeance. The Seven Sketches are such a well-kept secret that YouTube is yet to register their existence. So no link I'm afraid, merely words, words, words.

The opening piece, Portrait of a Girl, concerns an actual girl - Marta Ziegler, the 16 year old Bartok married in 1909 (pictured above). Marta's tune is full of charm and caprice with harmonies that are just as surprising. There's more than a touch of Debussy at the start of the melody of the second Sketch where the exploratory vein, especially concerning harmony, that was found in the Bagatelles is further explored. Called See-saw, it's a fascinating study that see-saws between two voices and two keys, being (like the first Bagatelle), a study in bitonality (or should that be 'bimodality'?). The growing influence of Debussy is one of the recurring themes of this post. It's an influence that was quickly to crescendo, be absorbed and transmuted then, because the absorption and transmutation had been so thorough, never heard as a direct influence again. The beautiful Lento that follows takes a short melodic idea for a ride through some highly unconventional harmonies, though it also touches occasionally on paths where Debussy was also walking at the time. The fourth Sketch marks an extraordinary return to the ultra-Lisztian rhetoric and virtuosity of the Elegies, though the generally dismissive critics seem to ignore what seem to me to be quite clear similarities between it and those rare but electrifying stormscapes by Debussy - it's as much an impressionistic tempest as it is a Romantic one. I find it far more satisfying than the Elegies. Bartok was never to walk that way again though and I would have to concede that it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the music in the set. (Still, never mind!) Next comes a vibrant and enjoyable Romanian Folk Song, presented three times, each time with fresh harmonies. This is followed by In Walachian style, where Bartok presents a fine tune of his own invention in the style of a Transylvanian folk tune. Little bagpipe-like drone effects add to the rustic feel of the piece. The strange little scale figures that hurtle downwards at the end of each phrase are a feature that the composer found to be common in the region. The final sketch, Poco lento, is a dreamy mixture of music that many listeners also will recognise to be Debussy-like (whole tone scales and so on) and music that could be by no one but Bela Bartok. (It's far more dissonant than Debussy, to state only the most obvious difference.) Quite why something like these Seven Sketches can be pretty much hidden from sight while far less satisfying piano pieces by the other great modernists get regular airings is nothing short of scandalous. (I must write a stiff letter to the Times!)

The Two Romanian Dances, Op.8a (not to be confused with the popular Romanian Folk Dances of 1915) are not among my favourite works from this period. They are, perhaps, to be classed as another by-way in Bartok's long and fascinating journey towards the landmark Sonata of 1926. Liszt (in Mephistophelian guise) is still a felt presence and the Dances are largely not based on actual folksongs, but instead mostly based on tunes of Bartok's own invention. It's unusual for Bartok to use his own folk-inspired melodies as if they were genuine folk tunes, but that's what he does here - though the second dance does incorporate an authentic Romanian folksong into its main theme. The first dance has the best tune - a vigorous, stamping one - which emerges growling out of the lowest registers of the keyboard. After a middle section where a gentler melody (a variant of the first) flows and ebbs over a dramatic shimmer (a passage I believe is meant to depict the sound of an instrument called the Jew's harp), the main theme returns and turns even fierier (devilish even) before the music grinds to a halt - as if the dancing peasants have tired feet. The second dance has much of the same rhythmic force (with a gentler central interlude), though it hasn't got quite the melodic appeal of its companion.

The Three BurlesquesOp.8c are fabulous. You might have to brace yourselves for a significant increase in dissonance though. The first piece, 'A Quarrel', was dedicated to his new wife Marta and is a thoroughgoing depiction of a hammer-and-tongs row. If it's about a actual row between the newly-weds then it's perhaps no wonder they eventually divorced! Much of the music develops the waspish-sounding opening figure (a six-note motif ending with a falling tritone). The initial bickering between the two hands gets ever angrier-sounding until it results in some highly dissonant chords and a plain-speaking unison phrase, all suggesting the shouting at its loudest. There's a lull based on the interval of a rising fourth which leads to an expressive melody in octaves, nagged at by its accompaniment. There's a pause, but the quarrel then begins to flare up again. The opening figure is then expanded, magnificently, into another expressive melody (with rippling broken chords in the right hand). This passionate plea exhausts itself and the row begins all over again. The music's chromaticism might lead you to expect a dissonant close, but instead Bartok ends the piece with repeated Cs played in octaves - the final one sounding (to me) like someone slamming the door!

The second piece, A Bit Tipsy, has a delightful tune. The tune is folk-like and flavoured by that most Hungarian of intervals, the fourth. The slurred effect of being 'a bit tipsy' is achieved by staggering (an apt word) the left and right hands and by continuous (here relatively gentle) dissonance. The central section reminds me of Debussy's Golliwogg's Cakewalk from Children's Corner, where Debussy mocks the opening phrase of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Here an arching, romantic phrase sounds as if it is being laughed at. The music then wanders around uncertainly (as if forgetting where it's supposed to be going) before the opening tune returns, now sounding positively pie-eyed!

The highly capricious third Burlesque has no title but is like a will o'the wisp with teeth. A darting rising scale fragment (heard straight away) plays a major part in creating this movement's unsettled character, though there are plenty of unpredictable accents too. The piece is melodically attractive but the tunes are forever being pestered by this buzzing figure - though the vigorous tune towards the end manages to capture it and carry it along with it towards an exciting dancing climax before the ironically-quiet ending.

The Three Burlesques are another of Bartok's barely-sung early masterpieces and should be heard far more often. As are (and should) the superb Four Dirges, Op.9a. Now I know the idea of a dirge doesn't sound like a particularly appetising proposition and the idea of four dirges in a row probably sounds distinctly off-putting, but these four pieces are some of the most beautiful things Bartok ever wrote and are life-enhancing in spite of their lamenting characteristics, so please try to get to know them.

The lamenting characteristics are ritualised, so they are not passionate outpourings in the Romantic manner. They are all slow and sonorous and float strange and beautiful melodies through magical harmonies that are generally built from the simplest chords - triads, fifths and octaves. Listen to no one who tries to persuade you that these pieces aren't strongly impregnated by the spirit of Debussy. Bartok was always open about this particular influence and the Dirges don't exactly hide their Debussyan lights under a bushel. Of course, the influence is filtered through the lens of Bartok's sensibility and not one of the pieces could have come from the Frenchman's pen, especially their melodies. They may sound a bit like Debussy but they sound even more like Bela Bartok. The folk influence is just as plain to see.

The First Dirge, beginning with beguiling falling triads, is full of gentle beauty as it slowly unwinds its wonderful melody, gaining in grandeur as it reaching its majestic ending where bells toll. The Second Dirge begins by singing its magnificent tune in unison but soon adds a succession of ever richer drone effects as the harmonic implications grow more complex. Rippling chords then enter to accompanying the tune's majestic return (in a low register). This is spell-binding music and was clearly important enough in its composer's eyes for it to be later orchestrated (to excellent effect) as 'Melody' in the Hungarian Sketches. The Third Dirge, darkest of the pieces harmonically, trudges grimly to a glowering climax before a sequence of falling phrases ever more quietly leads the piece to its place of rest. The Fourth Dirge has a dignified folk-influenced melody, a rare moment of simple (but lovely) imitation, and lots and lots of enchanting bell-like sonorities. After a fine climactic passage, the closing minute is quiet and magical.

To return to my moan from earlier, what possible good reason is there for not giving such masterpieces as the Burlesques and the Dirges their rightful share of attention, when lesser pieces by Bartok's great contemporaries get so much of the limelight?

This fascinating, fertile period in Bartok's development (as viewed through his piano works) now reaches its first famous landmark - the fierce Allegro barbaro of 1911. This is a work that does receive a lot of airings and has, thus, achieved popularity - though it's no better (and no worse) than several of the barely-heard works I've being describing and enthusing over so far. Bartok wasn't the first to use the title, as I see (from Googling) that the great, neglected French mid-Romantic maverick Alkan wrote one several decades earlier as part of his Op.35 Studies - and, remarkably, it's available to listen to on YouTube! It's believed that Bartok gave the piece this title after a hostile French critic called him a musical barbarian. It was set to become a notorious piece of  'modern music'.

Bartok's barbaric allegro was his latest attempt to give voice to the wilder side of East European folk music. (Performances that don't stress that wildness let the piece down badly). He applies many of the lessons drawn from his close study of the music of the villages - lessons he'd been putting to use in the aforementioned pieces. His tunes are based on the old modes, the pentatonic scale and chromatic folk scales (i.e. the chromatic scale with missing notes!). From them - mingled, as the music demands, with the major and minor modes we all know and love - he also formed his tangy harmonies. The barbarous element comes from the exciting, punchy rhythms, which pulsate with a vengeance, and the aggressive-sounding dissonances of so many of those harmonies, which he packs with tritones and clashing semitones. Above all though, it comes from the way the work is written for the piano - using the instrument as percussively as possible. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was being composed at the same time and shares some of the same features - albeit the Russian uses the orchestra rather than the piano.

The work has, however, attracted the attention of scholars for its apparent use (and, if these analyses are correct, this isn't the only use in Bartok) of structural features based on mathematical sequences, here the Fibonacci sequence. This would give the music, which sounds so full of furious folk energy, a fascinating hidden dimension. Is this alleged mathematical underpinning an early sign of the Classicising urge that was to become so strong as Bartok got older? A strong interest in making great music that uses mathematical ideas is a recurring feature in music history, from the Renaissance masters to Bach and onto Xenakis, and Bartok takes his place in that tradition. He uses them here, or so I read, to help structure his chord groupings. Would you have guessed, given how wild and impulsive the Allegro barbaro sounds? (All the caveats are there because Richard Taruskin states that many musicologists don't accept that all this mathematical underpinning really exists.)

(For Emerson, Lake & Palmer's take on the Allegro barbaro, please click here!)

Fifteen years separated this miniature masterpiece from the next major landmark - the Piano Sonata of 1926, but there were more masterpieces for piano to come in the intervening years.

(To be continued, again!...)

No comments:

Post a Comment