December 10, 2014
Béla Bartók began working on his Contrasts in 1938 as the result of a request by violinist Joseph Szigeti who was also a friend of the composer. Szigeti was working with Benny Goodman to record a number of shorter works when the idea to commission a work from Bartók came about. Although Goodman would eventually pay for the commission, the work was dedicated to both musicians.
For the original recording project, two short movements were needed: One with a cadenza for the violin and one with a clarinet cadenza. Later, Bartók incorporated an atmospheric middle movement to balance out the composition structurally. The overall result is a carefully crafted work of musical carpentry. Folk dance rhythms are paired with melodic material achieving an effect difficult to mistake for any composer but Bartók. For the final movement, the violin must retune with altered pitches (called scordatura) to achieve a more rustic sound. This sort of messing about with the listener’s expectations of sound was in some ways Bartók’s specialty. But the attractive beauty of his creations are such that they have gained significantly in popularity since the composer’s death.
Like much of Bartók’s music, Contrasts can be a bit difficult to grasp if one is looking for traditional harmonic exploitation of dissonant tension. Instead of common practice progressions of harmony, Bartók preferred several twentieth century means of creating musical drama, including intervallic axes of inversional symmetry. His structural planning is often based on natural mathematical principals, including the golden ratio. Although this makes his music sound very contemporary, it also makes Bartók quite literally a classical composer in his seeking perfection in form, proportion, and harmony in the philosophical foundation of Greek antiquity.
A fun example of this is in the first movement of this work: If one divides it roughly into an exposition, development, and recapitulation, the positive golden ratio falls directly on the first measure of the recapitulation. What is even more, he writes in the score obsessively detailed tempo markings along with timing marks for each small section to ensure that the temporal golden ratio occurs at the exact same location when measuring the simple passage of time.
The following is a recording of Contrasts performed by Goodman and Szigati with Bartók at the piano. This recording dates from the first months Bartók spent in the United States.
Hear this work along with pieces by Brahms, Saint-Saëns, and Novacek performed by the Music of the Spheres Society on Monday, February 9, 2015, 8:00PM at Caruth Auditorium on the SMU campus.
-Zachariah Stoughton, Contributing Writer