Does thinking enhance performance?
Account of a process leading up to the performance of Bartok’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion, and Brahms’ Piano Quintet.
- By Håkon Austbø
The question whether thinking, and in particular analytical thinking, can make musical performances more genuine and unique, is the core matter of The Reflective Musician. To be sure, we are not so much concerned about performances being better, but simply about whether this knowledge does anything to the performer, and therefore to the performance.
To test this, we have set up several processes during the two years of the project. One of them was carried out in the spring of 2014. We set out in the autumn of 2013 to find a group of musicians to rehearse and perform Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion and Brahms’ Piano Quintet in f minor. These pieces were chosen because both composers share a strong intellectual involvement, combined with extraordinary expressive power. The compelling constructive logic of both pieces enhances this expression rather than standing in its way. Therefore it seemed fruitful to investigate whether insight into these constructive principles would enhance the performance of the pieces.
The two groups of musicians had one common performer: myself. Then project group member Ellen Ugelvik was a natural choice to play the other piano part in Bartók, since we had worked together in different settings already. Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen was invited to take one percussion part since he already had played it with me, and Kjell Tore Innervik was asked to join him. For the strings, some of the participants changed during the course of events, and finally the group consisted of:
Terje Tønnesen and Ragnhild Hemsing, violins
Jon Sønstebø, viola and Audun Sandvik, cello.
These are all first class performers who were willing to go into the special process required here, different from the normal procedure of rehearsing and performing a piece. The idea was to confront the performers with some of the analytical thinking and to generate discussion and reflection through doing so. We also intended to make the rehearsals accessible to an audience and to document them on video. This would open up the process, make the participants more vulnerable and thus sharpen the performers’ awareness. All this was made clear to the participants from the beginning, and they all accepted.
The open rehearsals were held at the Norwegian Academy of Music during the month of April, 2014, and the performance took place in Sandvika near Oslo on April 30. All these events were recorded on video, and the edited recordings are accessible on this page.
The Bartók Sonata
Bartók the intellectual
I first analysed Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1938) in Paris, where we had installed an analysis class following the May ’68 évènements. We studied both this piece and the composer’s preceding masterpiece, the Music for strings, percussion and celesta, and I was so fascinated by Bartók’s compositional mastery that I chose the latter for the following year’s exam. This pair of works marks the culmination of Bartók’s integration of intellectual construction, folkloristic elements and basal primary forces. He became for me the prototype of the reflective musician, reaching a synthesis of intellectual and spiritual force achieved by the very great only. It seemed that after having reached this high point of his oeuvre, and then fled Nazism and immigrated to the United States, his creative force dropped ever so slightly, although works like Concerto for Orchestra or Piano Concerto no. 3 are among his most popular works. I think there is reason to state that he never again achieved the sublime mastery shown in the two works from 1937 and -38.
In the Paris analysis class we studied the theories of Ernö Lendvai, then quite new. His standard book was yet to be published , but his theories had started to spread among musicologists. Lendvai sought to prove that much of Bartók’s creative force was centred on two things: the system of axis and the golden section. I will assume in the following that the reader is familiar with these theories, and otherwise refer to Lendvai’s book.
The golden section and Fibonacci, according to Lendvai
Today, it seems that Lendvai carried his conclusions somewhat too far, but the core of his analysis is difficult to ignore. When he refers to the first movement of the Music for strings as entirely based on the series of Fibonacci (where each term is the sum of the two previous ones), it is fascinating. However, it disturbs the joy of the analytical mind to discover that the addition of an empty bar in order to reach the number of 89 bars is necessary to prove his point. True, the climax and the following inversion of the theme come in bar 56, and this is very close to coinciding with the Golden Section (GS), but it doesn’t strengthen the theory when facts need to be twisted to fit it.
It is also true that the total of quavers in the Sonata for two pianos and percussion, divided according to the GS, coincides with the transition between the 1st and 2nd movement. Whether it falls after the last note of the first movement or on the first note of the second movement, however, depends on how you count . Also, the GS of each movement comes very close to an important turn in the form. All this was indeed fascinating to discover, and I still think there is reason to claim that Bartók was seeking a universal constructive principle of proportions. It is therefore one of the elements that I took into the discussions at the open rehearsals.
When it comes to the introduction to the first movement, Lendvai again shows the division according to GS, juxtaposing “positive”(long) and “negative”(short) sections. Some of it fits into Fibonacci numbers, but not all. The quaver count until bar 18 (Un poco più mosso) looks like this: