Finally here to share my FIRST listening experience...
So yes, this semester brings us to opening our ears to be more receptive and accepting of what we seemed 'foreign' from our tonal world and that is, music from the twentieth-century! With that, I've decided to have a closer listen to one of the works by Bela Bartok, one of the prominent composers of that era.
Chanced upon his work titled "Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta" and its title attracted me a little. Prior to even first listening to the music, I tried to form an aural impression of how this piece might even sound like, since it's not our usual 'music for the orchestra' setting. Well, the word "Percussion" suggested to me that it could be something percussive, rhythmic and perhaps even the jumbling up of different percussion instruments with their various timbres! And all these accompanying and interacting with the strings. Well, of course I was not entirely right and imagination will always be an imagination and here's how the actual work sounds!
I. LISTENING REVIEW:
To my surprise, this work consists of FOUR movements. So here it goes:
The very first impression that i had upon listening to this was the eerie feeling that one would get from watching a horror show! This atmosphere is perhaps formed by the style of playing the strings throughout - the dark tone produced, with sustaining melodic lines played that forms layers together forming melodic interactions and sometimes they also end up forming harmonies if we take into the point of 'hearing' vertically. I liked how the way the different lines pass on from one section to another through the different registers and then thickening the texture through this process. This movement came to the climax upon the first entrance of the percussion instruments - the triangle giving it a surge of energy, making it seem like it was going to reach the climax, until we hear the timpani row with the crescendo that bring us to a higher point and then the strings continuing the lines before coming to the end of the roll yet continued by the strings' emphasis on the repeated "E" that was played. This form of prolongation of the moments of climax somewhat relates to our understanding of 'phrase extension' and to expand the whole section. However, the moments of climaxes do not seem very definite to my personal listening as i felt that they come and fade off rather quickly, yet seamlessly. There were no sudden pauses whenever the climaxes were reached but simply back off once they passed those indicative points. After spinning through in and out of these moments, the theme returns, with the similar texture used in the opening (although now at a higher register). The thick texture also disappeared inconspicuously, leaving the thin texture created by a particular melodic line that was heard in the beginning. Felt like the whole movement was a cycle and ends at the same point! Idea of symmetry?
Just as I was expecting something to develop from perhaps the first movement, I was caught by the very rhythmic feel right from the start of this movement! I would say that this movement is a contrast from the first, in terms of the various aspects:
-tempo much quicker here,
-tone colour - much brighter compared to the dark and sustaining lines we hear in the first movement. Timbres of different instruments also helped to brightened this movement - the use of timpani is more percussive now and there is the use of snare drum (and i think higher toms).
-rhythm: the previous meandering lines now replaced by the percussive characteristic, giving it more vertical than horizontal movements upon listening.
What i thought was pretty interesting was the pretty long passage of pizzicato used by the strings, which has its similar effect created by the repeated notes to create that rhythmic intensity all the way till the end of this movement.
Personally, I am beginning to be puzzled at the direction this piece seems to take - we are now back to another slow movement with its beginning feeling like a fresh new piece that was unrelated to the previous two? Anyhow, we are back at the mysterious feel, this time created first by the repeated 'F' played by the xylophone (a percussion instrument) and then later there seems to be a question-an-answer between the different strings instrument, all these with the presence of the timpani rolling that uses the pitch bending effect. The later use of the strings instruments at the high registers (i'm guessing is the effect of sliding along the strings) also created that mysterious on top of the melodic line played by the violin at the high register. Later on we also hear the contrasts between the timbres of the strings instruments (violins against the lower strings and harp if I'm not wrong) during the pizzicato section. This portion was also contrasted by the bowed section, resulting in the different sounds produced via the different performance techniques. The ending is marked by the return of the beginning theme, where the xylophone plays a repeated high note accompanied by the sustained note on the timpani. This also gives us a feeling of a symmetry, where the start and the end seems to be at the same point (cyclic).
We first hear the striking strumming of the strings producing harmonies - which somehow reminds me of a ukelele. This movement gives a dance-liked feel generally, which was later disrupted by the use of repeated notes by the piano and later on has this motif repeated by the violins and the two parts placed against each other before entering a fury of running notes and settling down on a sustained harmony produced by, i believe the organ?, where the strings change its style to the long sustaining, with familiar harmonies heard earlier. Towards the end of the movement, snippets of the dance-like movement emerged once again before charging its way to the end of the movement and piece! (however somewhat abrupt to me...)
II. What I found out:
Thanks to some netizens that could help give me some insight through internet research, below is what I have read from analysis of the piece.
The first movement of this piece is actually a fugue! A great example to show a classical form used in the 20th Century. In this movement, there is a frequent use of meter changes as well as irregular meters such as ‘5/8’, ‘7/8’ and ‘10/8’. This variable meter has allowed for the passage to sound seamless in terms of metric, giving us no apparent regular meter Also, in terms of pitch, this movement iss centred on pitch class A, where the beginning and ending lands.
In this fugue, the melody is churned out from this 5-note germ motive that goes up a third followed by the use of other intervals. The subjects enters successively in circles of fifths (via direct imitation) while the answer enters in the reverse direction ie. Fifth lower. This results in having a subject or answer on each of the 12 pitch classes. The movement of the subject and answer lines could be demonstrated as follow:
A ----- E ------ B ------ F# (Gb) ------ C# (Db) ------ Ab -----Eb
A ----- D ------ G ------ C -------------- F--------------- Bb ------Eb
We can see that both lines start off with A and ends of with Eb, a significant interval to take note, as it forms a tritone with A. It is not of convention to have a tritone being the climax of the piece, before the music drops in terms of energy level. As the music leaves the climax, the melodic lines move in retrograde inversion in the case where the subject line moves down a forth while answer line moves up a fifth so that both lines return to the starting point, A. To differentiate the energy level, dynamics was created through the use of texture. This could be seen when instruments are added as the passage develops, increasing the dynamics gradually as the texture thickens towards the climax Eb, and having instruments dropping out, leaving a thin texture as the passage returns to its pitch centricity A.
It was right to say that there is some sense of symmetry in my first hearing. But little did I realized that symmetry is one of the compositional factor that Bartok has used in this piece.
From the above, the movement of the subject and answer towards the climax and then back to pitch centre A forms a symmetry. This is also accompanied by the use of dynamics where it is complementary to the movement of the melodic lines, opening up towards the climax, and then decrescendo (together with the closing effect) towards unison A.
Erno Lendvai claimed that Fibonacci numbers and Golden Sections have been used in this piece, as well as other pieces of Bartok. Fibonacci numbers is an arithmetic sequence where each number is equal to the sum of the previous two. Eg. ‘ 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, …’He noted that there are relations formed with the intervals used as well as successive intervals used within chords and chords progressively involving the Fibonacci numbers. These include the recurrence of minor third, major second, perfect fourth and other intervals used. The ‘Golden Section’, or better known as the ‘Golden Ratio’ is a number that the Fibonacci Sequence will tend towards as it increases. I would not go on to explain the use of these two relations as it may not be relevant. It did intrigued me as I've seen this number elsewhere, with maths as my second AS. However, it is important to note that both the Fibonacci Numbers and Golden Sections are important numbers to Mathematicians and they are also important numbers that contribute to aesthetics and exists in nature. They are also used in architecture and found in many art works; besides, it is used in the 16th and 17th Century in the design of musical instruments as well as a system of tuning derived based on it.
Other points that I have noted:
-movement II, ‘allegro’ has a form of a sonata.
- movement III, ‘adagio’ : it has a similar symmetrical design as compared to the first movement, where the arch structure: A B C D C B A is used, having section ‘D’ as the point of reflection to form the symmetry. The above structure could also be regrouped as |A B| C D|C+B A|, forming [A][B][A’] structure.
-movement IV, ‘allegro molto’: Also based upon the tonality A (similar to movement I)
-the entire piece (movements 1-4) also forms a symmetry where:
a third down from pitch centre A
Starts on ‘F#’,
a third up from ‘A
Starts on ‘A’,
same as the first movement
-there is a graphic analysis of the first movement by Solomon as follows: