The Modern Era / Stravinsky and Bartok

          Schoenberg’s break with tonality inspired 20th concert composers to further explore the implications of harmonic freedom from a central musical key. 

Igor Stravinsky

          Like Schoenberg, Stravinsky’s music also changed dramatically over his career. As Schoenberg first absorbed then mastered the late 19th century Romantic idiom, so did Stravinsky. The orchestration of his Firebird ballet fused his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov’s ear for color with the innovations of the French impressionists. Petrushka broke new ground, exploring scale clusters and innovative musical phrasing that mirrored the new cut and splice techniques of picture and film editing. Then with The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky followed Schoenberg’s path a work that brazenly defied tonal traditions. Each of these three ballets built widely different but fully realized musical worlds, each of which could have been explored through a life’s work of any composer. But for Stravinsky, these three ballets were only a beginning…

          At the same time that Schoenberg formalized his atonal desire with the twelve tone method, Stravinsky puzzled listeners with his wind Octet, a work that took an unexpected direction backward that came to be called neoclassicism. This music recalls gestures, motives, and phrases of Baroque and early classic era music, but “dirties” their harmonies with “emancipated dissonance.” Stravinsky could have advantages of both worlds—the structural control of tonality plus the wider and more modern harmonic palette released with atonality. The Octet “feels” like early classical music, but it either resolves to unexpected places, or gets to an expected harmony in a completely “wrong” way. Yet the sense of resonance with older tonal music proved helpful to the wider music audience as well, who clearly preferred Stravinsky to Schoenberg. The largest part of Stravinsky’s output is in this neoclassic vein.

 Bela Bartok

          A powerful implication of Schoenberg and Stravinsky's revolutionary innovations was that now each composer had the obligation to create a unique musical language, as well as a body of well composed music! Bartok created his language by fusing elements of East European folk songs with the new harmonies unleashed by atonality. Like Stravinsky, his music is neoclassic; it has moments that sound tonal and maintains a distant tonal structure, but still emphasizes the harmonies of “emancipated dissonance” pioneered by Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

          And also like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Bartok had to find new solutions for musical structure. The opening movement of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta provides considerable excitement both in its sound and structure. The sound makes use of chromaticism so densely that it produces a unique sonic tapestry that begins to transcend our ability to distinguish individual pitches, an innovation that led to the “sound mass” music of post World War II East European composers. But just as fascinating is the musical structure—a fugue that continues entrances first forwards and then backwards through the entire chromatic circle of 12 fifths. Bartok reinterprets the tonal organization of keys into one of pure pitch, separated from the classical chords that originally created that structure. In this way, he evolves tonal structures to serve the new language of “emancipated dissonance.”