Boating one’s way around the keyboard

Between 1926 and 1939, Bartók wrote the six volumes of Mikrokosmos, an anthology of 153  short piano pieces, progressing from the elementary to the advanced. It is a thorough and comprehensive study of both the keyboard and of the matrixes of music—different modes of harmony and counterpoint. (Bartók arranged some of the works for two pianos, and stated that the works could be played on other instruments, too. Therefore, it isn’t really a study of the piano. Huguette Dreyfus played some movements on the harpsichord). Rather than being dry and didactic, the pieces of the Mikrokosmos are a true musical kaleidoscope: brimming with contrasting textures, humor, and wit. It is quintessentially Bartókian music, not lacking in quality when compared to his fiendishly difficult other works for piano. Significantly, the easy pieces are no less filled with content and quality than the difficult ones, making every tiniest miniature a noteworthy musical work. 

Boating is the fourth piece in Book V. Its aquatic subject matter harks back to the second movement of the Out of Doors suite, Barcarolle, which incidentally or not, shares with it the same tonal center of G. But unlike in the Barcarolle, where the two hands merge together fluidly, in Boating, the two hands are clearly distinct, perhaps separating the water from the boaters. The way in which Bartók separates the two hands is strikingly simple—one plays almost entirely on the white keys and one almost entirely on the black keys. Halfway through the short piece, the hands switch. Not only does this make for a superb aural effect, it is also quite visually satisfying for the pianist. 

But Bartók’s mapping out of the different layers doesn’t end with the color of the keys. The main musical unit of this short piece is the interval of the fourth. At the start of the piece, we hear the same unit played in both hands, with the melody transposed up a minor sixth. Thus Bartók creates the clear perception of the two layers, by having similar material with different tonal centers. The prevalence of fourths and the division between the white and black keys in the beginning make for pentatonic lines being played in the right hand, and pentatonic-sounding yet not actually pentatonic lines being played in the left hand (the left hand’s line uses six notes).

Although having his own distinct and easily recognizable style, Bartók experimented with many then-nascent styles of musical writing. The “raw” implementation of folk music, his most known compositional characteristic, was a relative novelty, as the “folkish” music of the nineteenth century had little to do with true music of the countryside. But on top of that, Bartók also experimented with techniques honed by the composers of the Second Viennese School. Two main attributes of the music of Schönberg found their way into Bartók’s music. The most notable one is the twelve-tone row, which constitutes the second theme of Bartók’s second violin concerto. The other is quartal harmony, which we clearly hear in Boating. But whereas Schönberg uses quartal harmony to create disorder and a sense of murkiness, Bartók’s quartal harmony, in this piece and in others as well, is crystal-clear. The freshness and comity that Bartók brings to techniques that were used to provoke listeners used to post-Wagnerian romanticism is indeed what gives his works their distinct flavor, and Boating is a prime example of that. 

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