Simple yet unusual: Bartók’s implied harmony

In the previous entry, I discussed how different harmonies organically overlap in Bartók’s Boating from Book V of Mikrokosmos. The harmonies are presented in their full richness, and their juxtaposition over the white and black keys of the piano creates a unique and illuminating effect. This week, I discuss another piece from the same volume, Unisons, in which we hear quite the opposite. 

Bartók’s versatility is a key component of the greatness of Mikrokosmos. In the six volumes, we hear an encyclopedia of musical forms and techniques, from every sort of polyphony to varied harmonic writing, from folk to “urbane” music, and so on. As a result, we often get movements in opposite styles of writing. Boating and Unisons are an example thereof. 

As the title implies, the whole short movement is written entirely in unison. Hence, all harmony is strictly implied and not realized. Implied harmony is quite rarely used in piano works, given the piano’s extraordinary ability to convey harmonies. Perhaps the most significant use of implied harmony can be found in Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin and in his cello suites. Many movements from these works contain only single lines, leaving the listeners’ ears the task of reconstructing the implied harmony and hidden polyphony. These aspects of the music are of paramount importance in understanding the instrumental qualities of solo Bach. But in piano music, there is hardly a need to imply harmony and polyphony. This is what makes Unisons so intriguing. The key marking is B minor (two sharps), but the B-minor-ness of the movement isn’t at all clear. Most phrases end not on B but on its dominant, F-sharp, the note is repeated throughout the movement, and the work ends on an F-sharp. But until we get to the ambivalent end, Bartók treats us to a great many twists and turns, with fascinating and evocative chromatic figures traversing the metric layout of the rhythm, giving a slightly more sensuous aspect to an otherwise declamatory and almost imperious-sounding work.  In Boating, we saw how the most basic visual aspect of the layout of the piano—the colors of the keys—was displayed by Bartók in sound. In Unisons, the composer shines a light on a different aspect: registers. At first, we hear the music doubled at the interval of an octave. This expands itself to two octaves, and then to three. In the process, the entire register of the piano is covered, from the high notes to the deep basses. It is the most basic of concepts, yet in this miniature, it acquires so much content and meaning. Once again, Bartók is doing so much with so little, proving that a simple idea is all he needs in order to create tension and anticipation.

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