Статья 'Микротональность в условиях жанра фортепианного дуэта' - журнал 'PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal' - NotaBene.ru
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PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal

Microtonality in the Conditions of the Piano Duet Genre

Petrov Vladislav Olegovich

Doctor of Art History

Professor at the Department of Theory and History of Music of Astrakhan State Conservatory

414000, Russia, Astrakhanskaya oblast', g. Astrakhan', ul. Sovetskaya, 23

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Abstract: In the twentieth century, playing two pianos has become one of the leading forms of joint ensemble performance – many duet compositions have appeared all over the world, and the creation of works for such a composition is a separate branch of compositional creativity. The authors, representatives of different artistic trends, preaching various techniques and manners of writing, paid close attention to the piano duet. A special branch of the development of the genre at this time is represented by compositions in which quaternary is used as a unique, original method of creating compositions, suggesting special searches in the field of musical acoustics and aesthetics. They – the opuses of I. Vyshnegradsky, C. Ives, M. Cooper, S. Reich, V. Ekimovsky – for the first time in musicology became the main object of contextual analysis. The importance of such music for the heyday of the piano duet in the twentieth century can hardly be overestimated: it was she who brought into the genre a completely unknown acoustic imbalance of instruments, a dialogue of two personalized parts. The piano duet of the twentieth century is determined not only by its own artistic values expressed by specific duet works, but also by the significant contribution of the genre in question to the overall development of musical art – both composing and performing practice.


art history, musicology, philosophy of music, theory of music, musical art, the content of art, piano duet, microtonal music, 20th century music, modern composition

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The appearance of quarter-tone compositions expressing the basic concept of microtonal music in the field of piano duet has not been surprising for a long time either among performers, listeners, musicologists and critics. The very specificity of the genre (the combination of two one-timbre instruments in a simultaneous sound), provoked the authors to new sound relationships between these instruments. An important achievement of the composers who composed quarter-tone works for two pianos is the innovative vertical ratio of two personified, in connection with the quarter-tone tuning, parts.

In the twentieth century, quarter-tone compositions make up a very large proportion of the repertoire programs of duet compositions, special concerts are organized from music written for two pianos tuned in ? tones relative to each other. The main quarter-tone compositions in the field of piano duet of the twentieth century can be considered the works of C. Ives ("Three Pieces for two Pianos" (1923)), M. Cooper ("Rumba" (1930), "Xanadu" (1930), "Dirge" (1937)), D. Dirks ("Reminiscences" (1971)), B. Meter ("The Eleventh Mode" (1978)), R. Moser (suite "Cabinet in quartertones" (1986-1987)), P. Maritena ("Transmusique II: Par dela le temps, l'espace" (1988)), M. Copelenta ("Romance" (1991)), V. Ekimovsky ("Vers libre" (1999)).

It can be seen from the list that works for two pianos tuned in ? tones relative to each other were composed by different composers throughout the twentieth century. But they are the most numerous in the works of I. Vyshnegradsky. The author once wrote in his diary: "... the need for the fourth tones is justified not so much by the fact that there is nothing to say by the old means ... as by the deep musical and psychological crisis currently prevailing in music and expressed in Scriabin and his successor and finisher Obukhov - a crisis that manifests itself not only in music, but also in all aspects of cultural and social life, looking for new ways. And from this new a new language is born and will be born in music" [1, p. 136]. According to Vyshnegradsky, quarter-tone music contributes to the emergence of extremely avant-garde, characterized by completely new content and linguistic qualities. It was Vyshnegradsky who created the first such composition within the framework of a piano duet – "Seven Variations on a note to" (1920). In this cycle, by means of a specific approach to the interpretation of the ratio of two pianos, the author sought to prove the possibility of timbral, rhythmic, tempo, articulatory and agogic variation of the sound of only one note. The dialogue in this composition does not become the main indicator of the duet game. Vyshnegradsky's idea denied the previously existing dialogical relations between the duet parties. The unusual quarter-tone ratio of the two pianos is not a single innovative technique used in the variations by Vyshnegradsky. This cycle can also be an example of a very unusual interpretation of variations as a form. As a starting element for subsequent variations, the composer took one sound. Since, from his point of view, the quarter-tone scale, like the traditional scale, had to start with the note before, he chose this note for his variations. The theme includes only a long-held (a whole note on the fermat) sound with, after which the First variation immediately arises. Its main feature is the introduction of this sound into the flow of ultracromatic acoustic movements, in which, due to the quarter-tone tuning of two pianos, a septima or a septaccord, an enlarged octave and a tritone predominate. It is these intervals and chords that will dominate throughout the cycle. In addition, the main structural and textural elements of the cycle are presented in the same variation: the c sound, the chord and the arpeggiated passage. Thus, the First variation is a complex of elements of variations as a whole. One can even assume that Vyshnegradsky's work is rather variations on the First Variation, rather than on a theme sparsely represented by one sound. This is confirmed by further development. For example, in the Second variation, the same structural and textural complex operates. In the final three variations (Fifth, Sixth and Seventh), the whole development is also based on the ratio of the sound c, septima intervals, tritone, increased octave and septaccord. It is especially necessary to highlight the sufficiently detailed Third and Fourth variations that stand apart in the cycle. In the Third variation, nothing but sonoristic splitting of the sound with does not occur: it continuously trembles, sometimes dynamically saturated. In this process of consonantal, diatonic calm, the sound des, as well as the sound b des (D-flat), located between the first two, gradually "break through". The gradual expansion of the sound from proceeds to the interval of the tritone. The latter, in combination with the tremolo on the c sound, introduce dissonant instability. It is difficult not to agree with the opinion of E. Poldyaeva, who published the composer's diaries, that the constructive idea of the Third Variation, "stripped to schematism, consists in the gradual expansion of the sonorous field of sound with. Thematism consists of two elements: static trembling sound and rotating, extending the range of figuration" [ibid., p. 161]. The whole movement goes through a symmetrical "path": 12 bars of sound expansion from, 4 bars of tritone dominance and 12 bars of sound narrowing from to unison. A. Vermayer rightly writes that "the concept of the non-identical in the identical here stretches and turns into a unity of opposites. Thus, a separate sound is recognized as a metaphor of the emanating and reintegrated One" [2, p. 159]. The fourth variation continues to texture and dynamically saturate the material of the Third Variation. In such a detailed aspect of the consideration in Vyshnegradsky's "Seven Variations on a Note To" at the level of the formation of the whole, it is possible to identify the regularities of the three-part form: The theme–sound (as a superlaconic introduction) – The first and Second variations built on the same structural and textural elements - The third variation, which brings temporary calm and performs the function of a lyrical digression (middle section) and the Fourth, which is the culmination of the cycle – the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh variations, returning the dominance of the original elements (sound c, three intervals and a seventh chord). Consequently, in Vyshnegradsky's work, the singularity of the interpretation of the cycle of variations lies not only in the appeal to one sound as a theme for further development, but also in the combination of two forms in one composition – the variations themselves and the three-part reprise form.   

Among other compositions by Vyshnegradsky for two pianos tuned in relation to each other, the following can be distinguished: "Dithyramb" (1924), "Prelude and Dance" (1927), "Two concert Etudes" and "Etude in the form of a scherzo" (1931), "Prelude and Fugue" (1932), "24 preludes in all tones of the scale of 13-sonorous diatonized chromatics" and "Two Pieces" (1934), "Poem" (1937), "Two Fugues" (1951), "Etudes sur les densites et les volumes" (1956), "Dialogue a deux" (1958-1973), "Composition II" (1960), "Integrations" (1969). It should be noted that the quaternity is not total in the composer's duet compositions: in some works subdominant or dominant functionality prevails ("Prelude and Fugue"), in others there are traditional harmony ratios ("Two Pieces"), seemingly impossible in the conditions of ultracromatics. However, what should be recognized is that dissonance is being emancipated in all of them.

Vyshnegradsky was repeatedly reproached for the extreme miscalculation of his quaternary works. However, the composer's compositions for two pianos, tuned in ? tones relative to each other, do not become purely rationalistic, as it may seem at first glance due to the combination of quarter-tone with extreme ultramatic ("Dithyramb"), series ("Integrations"), cluster technique ("Etudes sur les densites et les volumes") or rhythmic pluralism ("Two Pieces"). They are deep in content, imaginative fullness. The dominant imaginative mood of the composer's duet compositions is drama - the drama of an individual and the drama of an entire generation, of modern society. In the conditions of a quarter-tone tuning of two pianos, which gives a special dissonance, acoustic disharmony to the sound, the dramatic mood multiplies, becoming more pronounced. The unusual dialogue of two instruments tuned in ? tones in relation to each other becomes an expression of drama. In the "Dithyrambe", another interesting dialogical device of the composer deserves attention – the vertical superimposition of two independent rhythmic complexes inherent in each of the parties. The thematic material of the I piano is calculated by the movement of septoles, and the II piano – by sextoles, which is indicated by the composer remark 7:6. Each of the parties in this work is emancipated.

Vyshnegradsky's compositions for two pianos tuned in a one-quarter tone to each other, despite their obvious orientation towards the musical elite, have always been well received by the public at different historical times, as evidenced by the interpretation of the "Dithyramb" in the Concert of Modern Russian Music (Paris, June 1926) by a piano duet composed by A. Klike-Pleyel and D. Jeanes or the performance of "Integrations" at the Moscow Autumn-2001 Festival (Moscow, November 2001). In 1937, the first concert of Vyshnegradsky, the composer, took place in Paris, in which, mainly, works for two pianos were played. It was called the "Festival of ?-tone Music"[1]. Since then, concerts have been held all over the world, the programs of which consist only of Vyshnegradsky's duet compositions. 

Similarly to the ideas of the Vyshnegradsky "Three Pieces" (1923) by Charles Ives[2] were also a kind of protest of the composer against established traditions, the dominance of romantic aesthetics in musical art. However, this rather technical experiment of Ives had no continuation in his work: "Three Pieces" is the composer's only opus written in a quarter?tone manner. Due to the fact that the main place in the composer's creative search in the 10-20s was given to the formation of a multi-layered form, its acoustic reproduction [3], this cycle is a multi-layered polyform consisting of two independent thematic complexes (two parts) using someone else's material (no wonder this work is considered the forerunner of polystylistics). Ives' cycle opens with a slow (author's remark very slowly) and lyrical Largo, continues with a powerful jazz Allegro and ends with a strict Chorale. Largo sounds within the chromatic base. Allegro is an interaction of different rhythmic complexes with a rather "hard", dissonant, basically melodic development. The chorale – the largest part of the cycle – was composed by the composer for a long time in order to show as much as possible the possibilities of acoustic imbalance resulting from the use of two pianos tuned in ? tones in relation to each other, their dialogue. The Chorale is based on variations on a four–voice melody with the involvement of the main melody of the "Marseillaise" and the theme of the song "America", widely known at that time, as the quoted material.

The different facets of the figurative palette of the cycle in the conditions of the quarter-tone ratio of the two pianos are not accidental: the composer deliberately uses polar imagery in order to prove the heterogeneity of the dialogical combination of differently tuned instruments. A feature of Ives' "Three Pieces" is the juxtaposition in the acoustic imbalance implied by the quarter-tone tuning of two pianos, tonal and functional complexes embedded in the thematism of each of the parts. The parts here, on the one hand, are personalized: if one duet member performed his part separately, the sounding music would seem quite "classical", diatonic, functional in its linguistic parameters. On the other hand, as A. Ivashkin noted, considering the first piece of the cycle, "... the parts of two pianos are correlated in such a way that quarter–tone conjugations are mainly felt as out-of-chord sounds - delays, rises, and the hearing is always based on a stable level of one part, taking the sounds of the other as "non-chord". This is also facilitated by the fact that in both parties we hear sounds written at approximately the same height. The result is a colorfully shimmering palette..." [4, p. 242]. There is an explicit dialogue of parties. However, the superposition of two "classical" complexes into a single dialogical whole led to an unexpected sound imbalance, at first, cutting the ear. I. Severina compared the sound of the music of Ives' "Three Pieces" with an imitation of "an out-of-tune piano in some cafe" [5, p. 21]. It is because of these circumstances that the Ives cycle, after several premieres [3], was not performed by duets for a long time and only at the end of the twentieth century experienced its rebirth. 

The attraction to creative experiment is also distinguished by the quarter-tone works for two pianos by M. Cooper. However, unlike Ives, quarter-tone compositions are used by Cooper in various genres of musical art. In the field of piano duet, the most revealing composition is a rather bright piece called "Xanadu" (1930). It is quite interesting to present the technique of ultracromatics, the emancipation of dissonance, since each of the personified duet parts itself is saturated with extremely dissonant complexes, and the vertical superposition of two such complexes at the same time gives even greater harmonic (rather, agarmonic) sharpness. In his composition "Rumba" (1930), the combination of folklore material used by the composer as a thematic basis (the tendency to mass character) and the quarter-tone ratio between the duet parts, which gives features of extreme dissonance to the overall sound (the tendency to elitism), deserves attention. Despite the fact that these two trends seem to contradict each other, Cooper's "Rumba" is still popular with various audiences and is heard in concert programs of many piano duets.   

But the work "Reminiscences" (1971) by D. Dirks, in contrast to Ives' "Three Pieces" and Cooper's compositions, in which there is a departure from any aesthetics prevailing in their time, is aimed at recreating in the composition an impressionist approach to expressing one's own emotions, which manifests itself in exquisite melodic lines, as if layered with each other on a friend with different strokes. "Reminiscences" can also be likened to the works of S. Reich and T. Riley, since in Dirks' composition the main parameters of minimalist aesthetics clearly declare themselves. First of all, the latter can be attributed to the general meditative movement of the musical fabric used by the composer with all the consequences that follow from this: the slow tempo is emphasized by the absence of sharp dynamic transitions, and the rather scrupulously written out agogical plan in the score is the predominance of a clear gradation of the rhythmic pattern. Thus, impressionist and minimalist tendencies are closely intertwined in the composition with each other. A special feature of the composition, in connection with the quarter-tone tuning of two one-timbre instruments, is the emancipation of dissonance.

The appearance of two significant works at once for two pianos tuned in ? tones in relation to each other is due to the famous Swiss piano duo consisting of G. Schneider and T. Buckley – active propagandists of quarter-tone music. The first of them, the suite "Study in Quartertones" (1986-87) by R. Moser, arouses interest already by its name, in which the number four is exaggerated (four corners in the study, quartertones). The suite itself is musically permeated with ultra-chromatics, denying tonal connections and functionality.

The second work, written at the request of the duo of T. Buckley and G. Schneider, is "Vers libre" ("Composition 80", 1999) by V. Ekimovsky – one of the last quarter–tone compositions in the field of piano duet of the twentieth century. It was created by him for the Swiss festival "Russian music of the twentieth century". Ekimovsky's composition embodies in music the main feature of one of the ways of composing a poetic work (white verse) – the absence of repeated rhythmized phrases, themes, textures. At the very beginning of the composition, Ekimovsky gives an installation for the correct tuning of two instruments: the sound of "la" at the I piano = 440, and at the II piano "la" = 414. Based on the specifics of expressing the features of the white verse by purely musical means, the composition consists of 37 facturotemes (7 main and 30 derivatives), different in structure, investigating which D. Shulgin classifies into 1) discrete facturotemes, 2) "fermentation" type facturotemes, 3) vibrating facturotemes, 4) pedal textures, 5) arpeggiated textures, 6) ostinate textures and 7) gamma-like textures [6, pp. 477-478]. In general, according to the researcher, "Vers libre" is nothing more than a facturotematic eleven-part polyform. In a rather limited list of duet works for two pianos tuned in ? tones relative to each other, this composition appears to be the most difficult for the listener to understand and analyze.   

As a conclusion, the following assumption can be made: quarter-tone compositions in the field of piano duet have a wide range of imaginative palette, written in different stylistic manners (late Romanticism, avant-gardism in Vyshnegradsky, impressionism and minimalism in Dirks, avant-gardism in Ives and Ekimovsky, a combination of avant-gardism with folklore and Cooper). And, despite the fact that microtonal music, according to V. Ekimovsky, "is just one of the branches of the general evolution, one of its directions, moreover, with a rather limited sphere of influence" [5, p. 21], the importance of such music for the heyday of the piano duet in the twentieth century is difficult to overestimate [7, 8]: it was she who brought into the genre a completely unknown acoustic imbalance of two instruments, a dialogue of two personalized parts.


[1] «…The success of both the public and critics," Vyshnegradsky wrote after this concert, "exceeded all my expectations. In general, I must say that I have always had direct contact with the audience, and they, for the most part, understood me, despite the strangeness of the quarter tones for an unusual ear." // Ivan Vyshnegradsky: The Pyramid of Life: Diary, articles, letters, memoirs [1, p. 196].

[2] Originally, a version for one piano was supposed to have two keyboards tuned in a ratio of ? tone to each other.

[3] In February 1925, the premiere of the III part of the cycle took place in the Concert Hall during a lecture by R. Schmitz in the USA by a duet consisting of H. Barth and Z. Klein. Parts I and II were performed by the same musicians a few weeks later in a chamber music concert at the Aeolian Hall (USA), sponsored by the French-American Musical Society. The first recording of the composition on magnetic tape occurred only in 1967.


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The subject of the study, microtonality in the conditions of the piano duet genre, is considered on the example of a set of musical works by composers of the XX century. The author reasonably concludes that "quarter-tone compositions in the field of piano duet have a wide range of imaginative palette, written in different stylistic manners (late romanticism, avant-gardism, impressionism and minimalism, avant-gardism, a combination of avant-gardism with folklore)." Turning to the analysis of empirical material allowed the author to emphasize that "despite the fact that microtonal music, according to V. Ekimovsky, "is just one of the branches of the general evolution, one of its directions, moreover, with a rather limited sphere of influence" [5, p. 21], the meaning of such music It is difficult to overestimate the heyday of the piano duo in the twentieth century." Microtonality, thanks to the creativity of the composers of the works analyzed by the author, has established itself as a stable method of musical expression. Thus, the subject of the study is sufficiently disclosed by the author, the main idea of the article is presented logically and convincingly. The research methodology is based on the synthesis of historical-biographical and musical-stylistic analysis of empirical material. Despite the fact that the research program is not formally outlined in the introduction, the methods used correspond to the tasks: the biographical method allowed us to arrange the analyzed material in a historical sequence, and the stylistic method allowed us to analyze and highlight the common and special in the works, in creative tasks and the specifics of the musical language of the composers. The relevance of the research is due to the achievement by composers who composed quarter-tone works for two pianos of an innovative vertical ratio of two personalized parts, thanks to the quarter-tone tuning. This unique technique has revealed a new palette of colors of piano music, which makes it a fairly stable and widespread expressive technique. The scientific novelty of the article lies in the typology of piano duets undertaken by the author on the basis of the technique of quarter-tone tuning (microtonality) and generalization of the achievements of composers in this genre. The author's style is scientific. The structure of the article is subordinated to the logic of disclosure of the results of scientific research. Although the article would only benefit from expanding the review of the current state of microtonal research in the works of domestic and foreign musicologists. There are no comments on the content of the text. The bibliography, taking into account the author's reliance on the analysis of empirical material, fully reveals the problematic area of research. Without reducing the overall positive assessment of the article, it should be noted that referring to a brief overview of the state of the scientific field of research, especially abroad, significantly enhances the scientific value of any article. The appeal to the opponents in the article is appropriate, correct and quite sufficient. The interest of the readership of the journal "PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal" access to the submitted article is guaranteed.
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