Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Exploring Complementation in Bartók's Third Quartet

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Exploring Complementation in Bartók's Third Quartet

Article excerpt

[1] Bartók scholarship relevant to the six quartets enjoys a long, illustrious history in Hungary, the Unites States and United Kingdom.(1) Its span extends from writings published soon after Bartók's death (see Abraham 1945 and Seiber 1945), through to those which point up the composer's continuing status in the twenty-first century, especially the fine volume edited by Antokoletz, Fischer, and Suchoff (2000), supplemented by that of Amanda Bayley (2001).(2) Nonetheless, as noted in the comprehensive article by Malcolm Gillies (2001, 808): "The history of Bartók analysis has been one of slow changes in trend: from early postwar concerns with style analysis, mainly in the pitch domain, through to the more structural concerns of the 1950s to 70s ... During the 1980s and 90s, despite an apparently ever-growing divergence of methods, the tendency has again been to concentrate on more 'micro' levels of compositions."

[2] Equally, in furthering approaches to post-tonal music, whilst still questing after an elusive system of the stature and universality of Schenkerian voice-leading within tonal music, analysts have increasingly recognized complementation as a useful concept. Properly embraced, complementation can facilitate a breakaway from restrictive notions of large-scale unity and a corresponding move toward a dynamic, coherent diversity, by elucidating contrasts and discontinuities rather than overstating weak similarities.(3) However, despite on the one hand an ongoing healthy interest in Bartók studies and on the other a growing awareness of complementation, I argue that the concept's full potential and applicability has not been realized in reading Bartók's Third Quartet of 1927, especially its Prima parte. Although I might be accused of furthering research at "more 'micro' levels," it is precisely through this attention to detail that Bartók's special qualities are revealed, in particular the operation of complementary complexes within and beyond the domain of pitch.

I. Charting complementation and Bartók Studies

[3] Complementation involves a process whereby the whole is composed of distinct, yet in some sense matching, parts which co-exist within a dynamic balance.(4) The term is derived from the Latin complere, to fill up, thus to achieve a state of completeness. Each element implies the existence of, and indeed completes the other.(5) Ultimately, there is a contradiction because the elements may be, at the same time, both opposites and yet intricately connected.(6) Since an element may in fact be articulated as powerfully by its absence as by its presence, we may also connect complementation with the post-structuralist thought of Derrida, fulfilling specifically one of the two conditions of his concept of "différance."(7) "Différance" encapsulates a pun since, in its French inflection, the word suggests both difference and deferral, and it is the notion of constant, ultimately infinite, deferral which is germane here. This might further suggest an affinity with the psychoanalytical critical concept of deriving meaning through omission or suppression. In this fulfilling of expectation, there is a parallel, unconnected, evolution in the notion of "implication-realization" propounded by Leonard B. Meyer (1978, 1989). And in just the same way, implied complementations may themselves be fully or only partially realized, resulting in incompletion, instability, and scope for further extension.

[4] The history of complementation in music theory commenced, effectively, with its deployment by Allen Forte (1973, 73-74), specifically in a pc-set-oriented context. In the 1980s, complementation was discussed more widely in a useful volume by Jonathan Dunsby and Arnold Whittall (1988), together with coverage by James Baker (1986), Richard Parks (1989) and Marianne Kielian-Gilbert (1982-83, 1991), focusing mainly on music by Stravinsky, Scriabin and Debussy. …

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