I was listening to a performance of Bartok’s first string quartet in A minor. I was supposed to perform this piece at some point soon so i already looked into the piece itself, the score (all the instruments and their parts), and so i knew the gist of the piece. Having not played it myself or heard it live i was interested to see what would happen if i closed my eyes and simply listened to the music and let it “take over me” in a sense. What happened was absolutely mind blowing.
Before I say what happened let me give some background on the piece and Bartok himself for those who have no idea what I’m talking about. Bartok (Béla Viktor János Bartók in full) was a Hungarian composer who lived from 25th of March 1881 to the 26th of September 1945. From a musician stand point, his music has always been referred to as dissonant or atonal, (“Atonal music is a generalizing term used to define music that seems to lack a clear tonal center. Nearly all music in the western classical tradition is considered 'tonal'”). Essentially it is known as “The weird sounding music”. He is famous for creating beauty through atonal music. The first quartet was inspired by his love for violinist Stefi Geyer who basically never married him because she fell in love with someone and married him a year later.
After learning this history came the time to hear the performance. Keep in mind i learned this history and story for the first time and the representation of the concepts just mentioned right before the performance. The piece started with solo first violin with the theme and soon after came a give and take of the same theme passed between the 2 violins in the group (one playing a variety of intervals, but the 4ths and 5th stuck out). Soon after the viola and cello did the same thing with a thicker timbre and so the piece continued, doing this give and take of perfect “uplifting” intervals and soon after going into dissonance. I honestly felt like my heart was being moved and squeezed like a sponge getting soaked in water(emotions being the water in this case). I was so into the moving notes and overall tonal quality that i lost track of time and remembered that i was in a class ONLY after i opened my eyes to give them a round of applause. I found the silence before the clapping so soothing almost as if i was being told “hey man, it’s time to come back to reality, welcome back”. While i was clapping i had no idea of fact that i had tears running down my face. I know it sounds crazy but it was probably the best I’ve felt in a really long time, almost as if i went into this reflective state, by having ideas and concepts being thrown at me from every angle.
When the masterclass continued and the teacher was talking all i could do was sit there and have the word “sorrow” come to mind, it just never left. Then i remembered the Violinist’s explanation of the piece right before he played, he said something like:
“So Bartok was in love with this girl and she never loved him back and ended up marrying someone else like a year later, so he went into a state of deep sorrow…...etc etc…. This piece is sad and so it sounds sad"(crowd laughs).
So he mentioned an emotion or act of feeling an emotion, in this case, sorrow.Or feeling one’s sorrow. What stood out distinctively to me was the concept. While i heard the performance, whenever i heard the 4ths or 5ths it was almost as if i saw a woman being happy, then instantly got brought back into a reality of SORROW, in this case Bartok’s emotional state on the matter. I found it absolutely incredible how i could feel like i was with Bartok himself, feeling his state of mind (to a certain extent) and then feeling almost purified after the round of applause ended.
After this state, the professor said something that struck me.
“Musical character is the portrayal of life expectancy. You have to think about the painting instead of the wall (he meant canvas)”.
So with all this being said, Why do composers compose? Why are composers so important to music?
Here’s what i’ll say. After experiencing that performance my approach to composers has completely changed. The importance of understanding someone or the approach before the actual thing they were intending to do is so important. Composers are masters of using notes and dynamics etc etc to manipulate the performer to believing their statement, and then using their technique to perform their experience or thought. Take the performance for example.
Here is how it works as a visual:
Composer-----> Has an experience-----> He feels something from that experience ------> an emotion or quality of feeling is retained in their minds ------> They portray that feeling through notation and tonal quality etc etc (the music itself) ------> A performer sees the notation ------> Feels their version of the impact of emotion -----> Uses their technique to portray the emotion stated -------> Listener imagines the composers experience through understanding the history behind it ------> And then it’s almost as if the listener went through all ten of those steps in one go!
This all goes back into the idea of intent. Why did the composer do that phrasing? How does that correlate with the feeling you just felt? How on earth is it possible to know what feeling is without us having a definition of what feeling is (according to last blog)? This is the true power of music. Music can be defined as “Giving an intent and expressing it through technique of playing”.
Neat isn’t it? With all this being said, let’s continue to delve into the theory of “Our world” next blog. I’ll leave you with this. Is the feeling one can receive in them-self different when performing compared to listening? If so, which one of the two is more accessible (as far as emotion) and why? Can music change your persona forever? Can it change why you are who you are?
We’ll look into these more as time goes on.
See you soon,