What started in August 1938 as a casual conversation between József Szigeti and Benny Goodman very quickly turned into a significant chamber work by one of the world's leading composers, Béla Bartók (1881-1945). Szigeti, a pre-eminent violinist of the time, sent the request to Bartók-although, it was the world-renown jazz clarinetist Goodman who officially commissioned (i.e., paid for) the work. In his letter, Szigeti requested a duo for clarinet and violin with piano accompaniment, consisting of two contrasting movements, 6-7 minutes in duration, with cadenzas for both the clarinet and violin.
Szigeti was probably expecting a short, flashy show-tune, in which case, he got much more than he bargained for. Janos Karpati writes (Bartok's Chamber Music, Stuyvesant, NY, Pendragon Press, 1976, p. 476) "Despite the commission, Bartók composed not what is known as a concert piece, but a chamber-music work, a worthy cousin of the string quartets and sonatas, which in both its material and structure follows the laws of chamber-music form."
Contrasts is a three movement work nearly three times the duration of the original request. The music is an amalgam of abstracted Hungarian folk music combined with Rumanian dance melodies, Bulgarian and Greek meters, and a highly personalized, first-class command of 20th century compositional techniques. The second movement was omitted from the first performance. Apparently, Bartók was trying to adhere strictly to the original commission for two movements. However, internal evidence convincingly suggests that the middle movement was conceived along with the other two.
Verbunkos, the first movement, is based on a dance, and characterized by a bouncy rhythmic figure (dotted eight-sixteenth) and passages that alternate between slow determination and medium agitation. The second movement, Piheno (relaxation), is purely atmospheric. Its lack of a strong pulse stands in contrast to the driving beats in both the outer movements. The final movement, Sebes (fast dance), is a frenzied dash, whose only detour is an off-balance, but still quick-moving section in the uncommon meter (8 + 5) / 8.
The beginning of the final movement calls for the use of a violin with several of its strings tuned differently (scordatura). This yields a courser, rougher sound that suggests the playing of a folk musician. The clarinet part requires the use of both B-flat and A clarinets, which is done to more easily facilitate technical passages in different key signatures. While the first movement is scored for A clarinet, some players prefer to play it on B-flat clarinet. The transposition makes certain technical passages easier to play. However, there are several low Es in the movement, which the B-flat clarinet can't play, thus the transposition is somewhat problematic musically.
All three instrumental parts of Contrasts are extremely demanding from the standpoints of technique and ensemble. Compounding the unusual scales and intervals in many of the fast passages are complex rhythms within the individual parts, and almost constant rhythmic counterpoint, or cross-rhythms, between the parts. Thus, the most technically difficult passages also turn out to be the most treacherous in terms of playing together. A combination of individual preparation and rehearsal methods can be used to work out such sections.
The most important method for solving or preventing ensemble issues is to know the other parts well. While most chamber music is such that the other parts can be easily learned while rehearsing, Contrasts is more problematic. One issue arises simply from the physical arrangement of the group. One of the soprano instrumentalists--usually the clarinetist--sits only a few feet in front of the semi- or fully-opened piano lid. From such a vantage point, the sound of the piano can drown out the third player. Consequently, when the piano is playing the clarinetist often has a tough time hearing the (softer) violin at all. Since the two parts have very intricate cross-rhythms, it is vital for each player to know both parts and how they fit together so that they may play off of each other.
A highly effective approach is to have several full-length rehearsals without piano. This permits the clarinetist and violinist to hear and learn each other's part. Having fewer players at the rehearsal is usually more conducive to working out passages at slower tempos and in greater detail. It's also an ideal time to discuss certain interpretive issues including note lengths, style of rhythms (especially dotted-eighth-sixteenth), effects such as vibrato in the clarinet or sans-vibrato in the violin, and balance between the two.
Another tried and true technique is listening to recordings. Be forewarned, though, that even in an outstanding rendition, it can be difficult to isolate individual lines. The high speeds, close counterpoint, and thick orchestrations of certain passages combine to obscure individual voices within the overall texture.
Knowing the other parts helps one's ear to distinguish individual lines during performance. However, it does not completely eliminate the original problem, which is difficulty hearing each part clearly while playing. In several sections, regardless of the preparation, certain lines will simply not be audible to certain players. This is where anchor points become helpful.
An anchor point is a place in the music that is easily audible and clearly indicates location within the music. To be useful, an anchor point must be capable of providing orientation, even in the case where ensemble has been compromised. A prime example can be found in movement III measure 274. The passage consists of loud, fast, frenzied technical playing with a tempo marking of quarter note equals 150. Throughout the section leading up to measure 274, it can be very difficult to hear each part clearly, which makes it impossible to know if the ensemble has remained together. Furthermore, even when lines are distinguishable, the complex cross-rhythms run by so quickly that it can be difficult to make small adjustments (elongating or condensing a figure) that would reestablish synchronized ensemble.
The piano entrance in measure 274 serves as an anchor point which either reassures players that the ensemble is together or, in case the ensemble is not, provides a clear point of orientation. The piano entrance is easy to discern because it stands in contrast to the held notes in measures 272-273. The simple oom-pah pattern provides an intuitive cue that both the violinist and clarinetist can latch onto.
Clear visual cues are an absolute requirement throughout all movements of the work. They help tremendously in passages where individual lines are difficult to distinguish. Visual cues are also needed to coordinate the many tempo changes and unmetered pauses.
The second movement is filled with places where visual cues are needed. Its slow tempos and unison rhythms between clarinet and violin necessitate that most phrase beginnings be indicated visually. Examples are found in measures 1, 6, 11, and 19. The opening tempo is slow enough that additional cues-beyond simply starting a phrase-are helpful. The movement opens, for example, with half notes in the clarinet and violin (piano is silent). A subtle visual cue indicating beats two and three are practically required in order to establish a solid tempo and good ensemble between violin and clarinet for the remainder of the phrase.