Mostly About Music
Caryl Houselander: The Dry Wood

Bartok's Quartets; Chesterton and Leisure

One of the composers on that disk of miscellaneous, indeed wildly heterogenous, classical music that I mentioned last week is Bartok. All six of his string quartets are there, and, as I also mentioned, the way the MP3 files are named means that the movements of the quartets are scattered among other pieces of music. The effect can be startling. The first two movements of the first quartet are immediately followed by the first movement of a sinfonia by J.A. Hasse. A more disconcerting sequence would have to involve, say, a bit of Berg's Wozzeck. I had never heard of Hasse before (yes, even though I own the album, Concertos for Two Flutes, on the Tuxedo label)--he was an 18th century composer, one of those well-known in his time but less so afterwards.

The little sinfonia (and I do mean little--it has five movements which all together occupy only a little over twelve minutes) is delightful, simple and very tuneful. Frankly, it was welcome after Bartok. 

I don't really know what to make of Bartok. He's one of those composers whom I think I should like, but have not really warmed to. Back in my college days I acquired this LP of his Piano Concerto #2 and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion:


I don't remember, but I feel pretty safe in saying that the cover image was at least half-responsible for my buying the disk; surely that's a Marc Chagall painting. The other half was probably a general impression that Bartok was weird and modern and probably something I would like. But though I'm sure I listened to it at least half a dozen times back then, I never warmed up to it. And that's about all I can say about it now, as I don't think I've heard it since. And really: two pianos and percussion? Is that not in itself a description of an unpleasant experience? 

I also recall hearing the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta back then, and liking it, but as far as I remember have not heard it since. And I also remember a middle-aged customer in the record shop where I worked at the time telling me that it gave her children nightmares. 

The thing about the quartets, heard in the hodge-podge context of other music, which includes, at the other end of the scale, Schoenberg's twelve-tone Variations for Orchestra, is that they don't sound completely atonal and recklessly dissonant. At times (and remember this is based on hearing them while driving) they catch hold, so to speak, with me. And then they lose me again. I do want to pick one and listen to it attentively. Looking around for information on them, I ran across one person who ranks them with Beethoven's quartets. That's pretty intriguing. I'd be interested in hearing the opinions of others. 


I ran across some remarks from Chesterton the other day in which he responded to a correspondent who advocated communal kitchens:

Would not our women be spared the drudgery of cooking and all its attendant worries, leaving them free for the higher culture?

The Chesterton piece says some things with which any Chesterton reader is familiar, especially the fallacy of supposing that freeing a woman from the drudgery of home so that she can engage in drudgery elsewhere. But what struck me most was the business about freeing her, or anyone, for "higher culture." This is an idea that has long had a great appeal for people who see history as a pretty steady advance in a pretty shallow concept of progress. I don't mean political progressives in particular in the sense of any particular set of political goals, but the utilitarian mindset which sees the advance of technology and personal freedom as good in themselves (which to a large degree they are), but has no concept, indeed actively avoids the question, of what these things are for

I have a vague impression of having encountered those ideas in my youth, probably through science fiction, which in my youth was still dominated, at least as far as I encountered it, by the optimistic Progress Through Science and Reason school. I absorbed a vague picture of masses of people, maybe even all of humanity, freed from drudgery of all sorts, engaged in painting and music and poetry and philosophy, drifting around in a sort of  haze of wise benevolence. (Something like that vision is portrayed in the absurd quasi-hippies of the TV show Moonhaven.)

Well, here we are. In science fiction, dystopia was just around the corner. And in real life the leisure obtained by the reduction of physical labor has given us a toxic sea of anti-culture: pornography, "reality" television, a crazy cult of spectator sports, an inarguable decline in standards of education and culture in general.

It's not all bad by any means, but what is the proportion of good or even not-bad to bad? What is the proportion of people who, having the freedom to do so, have chosen the enlightened life, as pictured in the old dream, over the pursuit of mere entertainment and pleasure? One out of ten? That seems too high. One out of fifty? 

And: communal kitchens, presumably mandated and controlled by the government? I don't see why that would appeal to anyone. Except of course the people who just like mandates and control.


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Funny story about this. I had taken my daughter, who at the time was around 10, to the symphony to hear Dvorak's "New World" Symphony. I had mentioned to a friend that I'd also thought about taking her to hear a different concert which featured something by Brahms, but settled on the Dvorak instead. He said he was surprised by my choice, since Dvorak was so noisy and brash while Brahms was all flowing and melodic. He thought a 10 y.o. would like Brahms better. I was thoroughly confused and didn't really say anything, but later it dawned on me -- he had confused Dvorak with Bartok.

My kids learned some of the 44 duos for violin (Sz. 98). They tend to be very energetic and vigorous. Most of them are quite attractive ("26. Teasing Song"), even if sometimes dissonant; a few are somewhat hard to swallow, although not simply grating. I'm usually not a fan of hyper-chromaticism, but there always seems to be something melodic about them

Funny, on Spotify there are 45 of them!

Dvorak to Bartok is a pretty huge leap!

I haven't heard the violin duos, but I scooped up a 5-disk set of Bartok's solo piano works, which includes a 42-piece set of works for children. Guy was certainly prolific. I may very well never give all of that music a listen. "20th c solo piano music" is not a classification that sets my heart on fire.

"Dvorak to Bartok is a pretty huge leap!"

Yeah, I think it was more a matter of his getting the names confused than the actual composers.

Oh yeah, I understood that. Just remarking on the distance. No wonder he recommended Brahms.

I didn't get it at first, and it really surprised me that anyone would consider Dvorak harsh and noisy (even compared to Brahms). My first thought was, is there some Dvorak I've missed? LOL

Dvorak's little-known late experiments in atonality? :-)

Brahms was an enthusiastic supporter of Dvorak. Also, this: The Catholic Composer Who Gave Us More Than Music.

I may have known at one time that he was Catholic but if I did I'd forgotten it.

Didn't Bruckner comment on Brahms' agnosticism? "All that beauty but no God!" or something like that.

I don't know but it's an acute observation.

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