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Awesome Music / Béla Bartók

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Béla Bartók is sometimes named alongside the more famous "three Bs" (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms) to complete a quartet of great composers of every era from Baroque to early 20th century - and with good reason.

  • With the possible exception of Maurice Ravel's String Quartet in F major, Bartók's six string quartets are collectively regarded as the greatest 20th century quartets, and provide a compact picture of his development as a composer, particularly his lifelong fascination with Hungarian folk melodies.
    • No.1 in A minor moves without break across three movements from solemnity to life-affirming energy, hurtling full tilt toward the open fifth chords in its final measure.
    • The fast, flighty movement is in the middle of No.2 in A minor rather than at the end, making it an early example of the "arch" structure Bartók went on to use extensively in his long-form compositions.note 
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    • No.3 in C-sharp major is in one tightly constructed movement that expertly presents and develops its melodic ideas, and also provides an early example of another Bartók hallmark: a slow "night music" passage characterised by dissonantly ethereal accompaniments to nature-like noises and isolated melodies. Like the first quartet, No.3 gallops full speed toward a final chord that is all fourths and fifths.
    • The harmonically forward-looking No.4 in C major sees the "arch" structure more fully developed into five movements, with a slow "night music" central movement framed by two thematically linked scherzi and two thematically linked outer movements; the two scherzi, one played entirely with mutes and the other entirely pizzicato (in some passages, Bartók specifies that the strings should be plucked with enough force to strike the fingerboard as they rebound, a technique now known as "Bartók pizzicato"), are highlights.
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    • The intensely virtuosic No.5 in B-flat major was written several years after No.4, and is another "arch" quartet in five movements with a scherzo inspired by Bulgarian folk music at its centre and two slow "night music" movements either side of it, while the first and last movements are arches within arches as they present melodic ideas and then re-visit them in reverse order (inverting them in the process in the first movement). The finale ties up the quartet neatly by finding new ideas in the first movement material, and the banal "mistuned" scalar passage just before the end - marked "Allegretto con indifferenza" - is a gleefully vicious satire of how a less talented, more reactionary composer would have treated the same material.
    • And finally, No.6 in D major finds Bartók still experimenting with form; each of the four movements opens with the same melodic idea, marked "Mesto" ("Sadly"), and each time the introduction is longer and adds an extra contrapuntal voice until, in the finale, it becomes the entire movement, bringing us back to earth with a crash after the sonata allegro, march, and burlesque of the first three movements.note 
  • Bartók's three piano concerti are among the best the first half of the twentieth century has to offer.
    • The jagged, percussive No.1 in Enote  is perhaps the least popular of the three due to its less accessible melodic and harmonic structure, but its huge technical demands on both the soloist and the orchestra make it exhilarating to hear, and the eerie second movement (another piece of "night music") for piano, woodwinds, and percussion shows Bartók's mastery of almost melodic, rather than purely rhythmic, use of drums, cymbals, and gongs.
    • The brash, upbeat No.2 in G major is even more technically demanding than No.1,note  but is thus even more exhilarating to listeners (the simpler melodic language also makes it more accessible), and once again shows Bartók's skill with orchestration. The energetic first movement features just woodwinds, brass, and percussion accompanying the piano, while the "night music" second movement places two ethereal chorale-like slow passages with muted strings and timpani either side of a frantic virtuoso whirlwind for the pianist accompanied by all sections of the orchestra (but never all at once), and the third movement completes the "arch" by re-working the themes of the first movement as Bartók finally brings the entire orchestra together with the soloist for a brilliant conclusion.
    • Perhaps the most popular of the three, the sunny, optimistic No.3 in E major may be the least technically difficultnote , but it is also the most accessible to listeners. A lyrical first movement with numerous memorable melodies is followed by an almost hymnlike second movement marked Adagio religioso (another "night music" movement with a brilliantly fast episode at its core, making the concerto another "arch" composition), which leads without a break into a bright finale with a triumphant coda.
  • The Concerto for Orchestra is one of 20th century classical music's masterworks, in which Bartók's flair for orchestration is on full display as each section gets time in the spotlight (hence the apparently contradictory title), and his command of the "arch" structure reaches its zenith. The expansive first movement introduces themes which recur throughout the work. The second movement scherzo, subtitled "Presentation of Couples" (or sometimes "Game of Pairs"), sees the woodwind instruments pair off to play parallel melodies, with different pairs separated by different intervalsnote  and side drum accompaniment throughout. The slow, haunting third movement, subtitled "Elegy", is the apex of Bartók's "night music". The grotesquely comic fourth movement, subtitled "Intermezzo interrupted", is another shining example of Bartók's penchant for musical satirenote  and features a passage in which the timpanist must play ten different tones on just four drums in under 20 seconds. Finally, the triumphant finale brings the entire orchestra together in a whirlwind of folk melodies and counterpoint; the opening brass call is one of his more familiar melodies.
  • The Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is another showcase for Bartók's gift for orchestration, particularly for percussion, as well as his mastery of counterpoint, with the fugal subject of the first movement providing the germ for many of the melodic and counter-melodic ideas in the other three movements.
  • Bartók's solo piano output mostly comprises collections of short pieces less than three minutes long; one of the few exceptions is his savage Piano Sonata in E. Like many of his greatest compositions, it is heavily influenced by Hungarian and Romanian folk music, changes metre frequently, and uses dissonant tone clusters to blur the notion of a tonal centre. The compact opening sonata allegro is dominated by percussive rhythms under melodic fragments that are broken apart and re-assembled constantly, the plaintive slow movement recalls tolling bells with both the melody and the open fifths in the accompaniment, and the boisterous concluding rondo unfolds from a pentatonic melody that appears in multiple guises in three episodes imitating folksong, peasant flutes, and Romanian fiddle music, all building to an explosive coda.


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