Counterpoint at the Service of Modern-day Mysticism

Beginning and end. © Charles Thibo

Mysticism. If you are tempted by mystic experiences, Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (BB 114/SZ 106) should enchant you. It certainly did enchant me and the audience in the 1930s. In a time of disenchantment, when frivolity and hate rule, Bartok’s music hints at man’s desire to retrieve a state of internal purity, that does not change over time and that alone allows creativity, the French writer Pierre Jean Jouve once opined. Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is a landmark in the history of 20th-century classical music and one of Bartok’s best known works.

The composer wrote the piece in 1936 upon a commission of the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher and his ensemble, the Basel Orchestra for Chamber Music. Sacher was a promoter of contemporary music, and the commission included a few conditions: The movements should be of equal length and… no winds! The Swiss orchestra would have had to borrow winds from another ensemble, and Sacher saw this as an insurmountable obstacle. Thus Bartok composed a piece in four movements, scored for strings, piano, celesta, harp, xylophone and percussions. A masterpiece!

Bartok himself described it from a technical point: The first movement is a fugue, the different voices being separated by a quint, and the entry points being reversed from its culmination point on. The second movement respects the sonata* form, the theme of the first movement is taken up in the development. It also hints at the theme of the finale. In the third movement, a fragment of the theme of the first movement links the different section while the finale expands the theme of the first movement. The last movement has been described as a “whirlwind of popular dances”.

Counterpoint, as it had been practised by Johann Sebastian Bach and the Vienna masters, was a field that Bartok had studied intensively. His ambition was to forge his own musical language by fusing this heritage with traditional folk elements. This piece demonstrates how he did it. It has a definite modern touch, a definite classical touch, depending on the section you are listening to. And each section harmonizes admirably with the next despite the obvious contrasts. Thematic and tonal coherence, as well as the impressive rhythmic vitality give the piece its overall mystic appearance.

Mysticism. The experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics. The belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight). That’s what the Merriam-Webster says. I looked it up. The experience of direct communion with ultimate reality through music. I think a little mysticism is healthy every now and then. Invariably, reality will catch up with us rather sooner than later.

I recommend the recording by the Saito Kinen Festival Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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2 thoughts on “Counterpoint at the Service of Modern-day Mysticism”

  1. I agree that music is the one art form that makes a mystical experience possible. Perhaps because it appeals to senses that do not require an automatically limiting brain interpretation.

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