Close Listening

Beautiful music can easily lull us into a state of beatific passivity.  And there's nothing wrong with that; we all can use a little beatific passivity now and then.  Sometimes, though, there's something to be said for staying alert and paying close attention.

On virtually every commercial recording of Bartok's second violin concerto, you'll discover the same anecdote related in the liner notes: in 1936, a Hungarian fiddler named Zoltan Szekely approached Bartok with a commission for a violin concerto. The composer countered the offer with one of his own, suggesting as an alternative a large-scale set of variations for violin and orchestra.  But Szekely was adamant; he wanted a traditional virtuoso concerto constructed along traditional lines.

Bartok couldn't afford to turn down the commission, so instead he ingeniously set about satisfying both violinist and himself. He supplied Szekely with the three-movement concerto the violinist sought (and an extremely exciting and challenging showpiece it is).  But in the course of doing so, he made the second movement a set of variations on an original theme -- thereby sneaking in a set of variations while violating no concerto norms -- and, more astoundingly, he devised a third movement that does everything a finale is supposed to do, but is also, in addition, a gigantic variation of the first movement.

It's a good story, and any writer of liner notes would be derelict to leave it out.  But what does it actually mean to listeners coming to the piece afresh?  Plenty, potentially.

I first became obsessed with the piece in my sophomore year in college.  At first, I just listened to it casually while doing other things, but then it began to seize hold of me.  For several weeks, I found myself listening to it nightly with the score in front of me (Yehudi Menuhin's wonderful performance on Mercury, with Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra), and sometimes more than nightly, often after some herbal intake. (This was Berkeley in the '60s, after all.)  And I can still remember my exhilaration, during the fourth or fifth focused audition, when the structure of the piece suddenly revealed itself to me.  I had loved the music from the beginning, but this time, the hair literally stood up on the back of my neck.

A little bit of understanding made a lot of difference.  To the music's surface beauty was added a new dimension, a dimension of deep (almost unfathomable) intelligence and wit.  Just listen to a few examples of what I mean:

The first movement begins with six bars of introductory vamping on the harp and lower strings (a lovely but apparently inconsequential passage when first heard, but one that later proves to be the primary generating idea of the movement's development section), followed by the soloist's entrance with its passionate, rhapsodic, Magyar-inflected first theme:

The third movement starts with its own introductory bars, abrupt and fierce, followed by an emphatic, peremptory, rondo-like melody from the soloist.  Except, on closer listening, it's evident that, despite substantial rhythmic displacement, this peremptory melody is almost identical to the first theme of the first movement:

Or take this skittish transitional passage from the first movement:

Hear how the same passage is transformed into something slinkier, something more insinuating and seductive, in the third movement:

Or consider the first movement's formal second subject, a weird, wistful melodic musing apparently devoid of tonality, and employing all twelve tones of the chromatic scale (it isn't constructed according to Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, by the way, although Bartok had recently been studying Schoenberg's seminal serial scores, and that study seems to have left some sort of residue):

That's the theme in the first movement.  Here is its more halting incarnation in the third movement:

Or this fabulous passage, leading to the first movement development's final climax before the recapitulation tiptoes in.  The passage is very characteristic of Bartok, unmistakably bearing his musical DNA: a wide-ranging, improvisatory-sounding solo that, seemingly incidentally, introduces a small, ascending three-note figure (itself based on the soloist's very first three notes in the whole piece, the first two of which, oddly, were an after-thought, added by the composer during a rehearsal prior to the piece's premiere), a figure which assumes greater and greater importance in the solo until it is suddenly taken over by the tutti in emphatic, almost monomaniacal fashion:

This passage too has a counterpart in the third movement:

There are many more such discoveries to be made in this piece (and, for the record, you don't need marijuana to unearth them).  It is perfectly possible, of course, to derive great pleasure from great music without listening to it closely or analytically.  Even playing it as background accompaniment to warm the atmosphere in your study is no sin; everybody does it.  But part of what makes great music great is the rigor and inventiveness with which it has been put together.  So sometimes it's worth investing a little effort in attentive listening.  The investment will be amply repaid.

Note:  Audio clips are from DG 289 459 639-2, Gil Shaham, violinist, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez.

Photo Credit: Flickr User jrossol