Adventures in Fourths: Music of Debussy, Bartók, and Gershwin

The Greek name for the interval of the perfect fourth was diatessaron. Translating as “across four,” it is a word which brings to mind Pythagorean harmonic ratios. Wide open sonorities that suggest neither major nor minor, perfect fourths and fifths became prevalent in the early medieval polyphony of composers such as Léonin and Pérotin. In the piano pieces below, we hear twentieth century composers exploiting the perfect fourth for purely expressive reasons. Here are three …

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Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto: Brilliance, Structure and Symmetry

Regarding his first two piano concertos, Béla Bartók wrote, I consider my First Piano Concerto a good composition, although its structure is a bit – indeed one might say very — difficult for both audience and orchestra. That is why a few years later…I composed the Piano Concerto No. 2 with fewer difficulties for the orchestra and more pleasing in its thematic material…Most of the themes in the piece are more popular and …

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Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings: Folk Music Meets the Concerto Grosso

Béla Bartók wrote the Divertimento for String Orchestra over the course of fifteen days in August of 1939. The three-movement piece was commissioned by the Swiss conductor and patron Paul Sacher, who provided Bartók with a comfortable chalet in the Alpine village of Saanen, Switzerland. Three years earlier, Sacher had commissioned the composer to write the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra. Now, he requested …

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Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto: A Radiant Farewell Gift

Béla Bartók composed the Third Piano Concerto during the summer of 1945. He was in the final months of his life, battling terminal leukemia and financial hardship. The music which emerged can be heard as a radiant musical “farewell” at a time of personal darkness and defeat. Five years earlier, Bartók and his wife, Ditta Pásztory, fled their native war-torn Hungary and emigrated to the United States. For a while, Bartók found …

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Bartók’s Suite, Op. 14: The Percussive Piano

The piano music of Béla Bartók is filled with the hard edges and exhilarating, swirling motion of Eastern European peasant dances. It strips away Romantic embellishment in favor of something more direct, austere, earthy, and primal. The piano, with its hammer-striking mechanism, becomes a full-fledged percussion instrument. All of this can be heard in Bartók’s solo piano Suite, Op. 14, composed in 1916. In a 1944 radio interview, Bartók said, When this work …

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Bartók’s “Out of Doors”: Ancient Rustic Sounds

The vibrant hum of nature blends with distant, ghostly echoes from ancient Hungarian villages in Béla Bartók’s Out of Doors (Szabadban). Written in 1926, the work is a collection of five brief and atmospheric pieces for solo piano. Taken together, the movements unfold in a symmetrical arch form, a structure Bartók used in multiple pieces, including the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets, Concerto for Orchestra, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and the Second Piano Concerto. Bartók …

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Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto: A Musical Farewell to Hungary

Béla Bartók completed his Second Violin Concerto in 1938 as the storm clouds of fascism gathered in his native Hungary. That year, he wrote to a friend in Switzerland, What is most appalling is the imminent danger that Hungary too will surrender to this system of robbers and murderers… Hungary, where unfortunately the ‘educated’ Christian people are almost exclusively devoted to the Nazi system. I am really ashamed that I come from …

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