The audience in our time finds itself, mostly unknowingly, in a historically unprecedented situation. What the average listener experiences as a loss of communication between the composer and himself is in fact the result of two major musical revolutions which have taken place in our twentieth century, and which have fundamentally changed the face of music. The radical changes that followed in the wake of the Schoenbergian revolution some 60 years ago have long since attained permanence, and will continue to affect the course of music in the foreseeable future. No amount of nostalgia for the nineteenth century past will bring it back, just as surely as the horse and buggy will not replace the automobile.
Although realization of this fact is perhaps the first prerequisite to an understanding of today’s music, it will not of itself provide an insight into the specifics of today’s new musical language. But it will at least prepare one for the further realization that an appreciation of the new language entails new (and perhaps more concentrated) ways of listening. It is, for example, useless to look for a ’tune” with a simple chordal accompaniment in today’s music. It is, in fact, useless to look for a “theme,” certainly in the Beethovian sense. For the most part, contemporary music is non-thematic. This is not to say that it is non-melodic. (Melody, by definition, is simply a linear succession of notes in a particular shape. This definition does note require that music be tonal or immediately hummable!). Having no “themes,” today’s music obviously cannot have constant reference to thematic material, as in a nineteenth century symphony or tone poem. Its forms and structures are cumulative and additive, and for the most part reject repetition. Such formsand this seems to be hard for audiences to acceptrequire more concentrated listening habits. To put it quite simply, if through lack of attention a listener has missed most of the exposition of a classical Rondo theme, let us say, he can rest assured that the same material will reappear at least two or three more times later on in the movement. Thus he can enjoy the security of recognition in familiar territory. In today’s music, by comparison, the listener is constantly confronted by new material, or at least old material restated and reshaped. Thus the listener must be like an explorer, constantly seeking out new territory. He must, in other words, be an adventurer. If he is not prepared to be this in some minimal way, he cannot expect to receive anything at all from contemporary music.
All the elements of musicmelody, harmony, rhythm, tone-color, dynamics, etc. have undergone the aforementioned radical change, and all of them must be experienced in a new way, heard in terms of their new relationships to one another. Far from imposing limitations on music, these changes have freed music in a wondrous and fundamental way. They have made possible an absolutely unprecedented multiplicity of musical expression. They have made us aware of music as a purely acoustical phenomenon, not merely as a means of telling a story (as in the tone poems of the nineteenth century), but something much subtler, much deeper and grandera means of expressing abstract ideas and emotions in the most personal of all creative languages: music. For the twentieth century has liberated the composer to create works which are, in very specific ways, unique unto themselves, works which evolve on their own principles, create their own laws, and in turn their own universe, so to speak. This is the artistic and creative individualism Beethoven dreamed of, and indeed initiated 150 years ago. The twentieth century has now achieved this vision, but its audiences have for the most part rejected it. However, history teaches us that this is normal in periods of transition and change; and there are now numerous signs on the musical horizon that the gap between composer and audience is gradually closing.
The Five bagatelles represent these new musical ideals and conceptions. That is to say, these pieces are abstractions which do not tell stories, but rather create moods, states of mind, and present the ear with a variety of musical ideas and structures which speak for themselves as music. Each movement isolates one of the new problems orchestral players face in the performance of new music. Each movement can be seen as a study in one aspect of contemporary orchestral techniques.
Thus the first Bagatelle is a study in contrasting sonorities, exploiting the rich timbral variety inherent in the modern orchestra.
The second movement is a study in dynamic contrast. Here the player is required to project the element of surprise inherent in sudden, unprepared dynamic changes, without impairing the structural unity of the music.
The third Bagatelle is a study in Klangfarbenmelodie (a term invented by Schoenberg, meaning “tone-color-melody”), in which a long melody is projected as a constant interchange of instrumental colors (timbres), analogous to the interchanges in a relay race, for example. This melody starts in the violins, goes to the clarinet, is taken over by the violas and cello, returns to the violins, and continues in this fashion throughout the movement, often only one or two notes per instrument, until the melody is carried from brass via woodwinds to string sonorities. All this is stated in a lyrical, song-like expression. Here the player can learn how the seemingly isolated fragments of his own part are part of a larger entity and must be expressed as such in order to have an over-all meaning.
The fourth Bagatelle is a study in rhythm. Here a single rhythmic pattern forms the structural basis of the piece. It is heard at various speed levels, sometimes separately, sometimes several levels together, and at one point all seven versions appear simultaneously in a polyrhythmic complex.
The fifth movement is essentially a summation of the previous four. Aside from the opening idea, consisting of only four notes in four contrasting sonorities (this idea returns twice more), there are four other brief “events” in this movement: 1) one is a lyrical phrase (a reference to the third Bagatelle); 2) the next a rhythmic idea (referring to movement four); 3) a highly fragmented structure in contrasting sonorities (movement one); and 4), a short dramatic phrase of great dynamic and regional contrast (movement two).
The term Bagatelle has been used by many composers including Beethoven and, in our own time, Anton Webern. It generally refers to a piece of music brief in duration and light in character, a “moment musicale.”