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Béla Bartok's Mikrokosmos - Vol. I is a book of short and simple, yet quirky piano pieces. Piece No. 24. Pastorale is shown below.

A full bar rest (for both hands) ends the piece. This is something I haven't seen before for a solo performer, and I can't make much sense of it.

Béla Bartok's Mikrokosmos - 24. Pastorale, with annotations

Analysing the form/structure:

The piece is in ternary (ABA) form, with each section being 8 (or perhaps 7+1) measures long.

The phrasing slurs generally conform to these sections, but there are anacrusis-type-things (marked in brown) that start the phrases of the second and third section "early".

How are these "extra notes" functioning musically?

I understand that music doesn't have to follow any rules, and usually sounds more interesting when it occasionally doesn't; and this piece does sound "good". But as far as I can tell, it sounds just as good without the final measure.

If the phrasing is not following an 8-measure-per-section structure strictly, then why is the last bar not just omitted?

What is the musical function of the full bar rest at the end of the piece?

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  • A performance is not only heard, but seen. Sep 11, 2022 at 19:24
  • 1
    The phrase marks seem to follow a 7 bar system, not 8. The 8th bar each time seems to be 'joining' the phrases, but not part of them. Except the last phrase, which is 8 bars.
    – Tim
    Sep 12, 2022 at 9:19
  • 1
    For dramatic. Effect!
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 12, 2022 at 19:31

6 Answers 6

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Analysis

The idea that the piece is in ternary form comprising three eight-measure phrases is correct. It just needs to be taken further.

First, note that if one counts from the anacruses to the notes ending their respective phrases, one gets precisely eight bars (i.e., 24 beats). This is one way of reconciling the phrase structure with the bar lines.

Most important, it to notice the internal structure of the phrases. Each has two four-measure halves: the first half creates a sense of irresolution, and the second half, resolution. Each of these halves can be (conceptually) broken down into two two-measure sections: a quarter-note "moving" section, and a dotted half-note "calm" section.

This structure is illustrated below for the first phrase. The two green dotted-half notes added as a second voice at the end of the phrase are there to illustrate the conceptual presence of those found in the prior "calm" section.

"A" section structure (2x2)x(2x2)

The "B" phrase can easily be seen to have this same form.

"Proof"

Since the core question is the presence of an "extra" measure of rest at the end of the piece, let's focus on the ends of each phrase. To do this, let's eliminate the anacruses so that phrase endings aren't confused by overlap with phrase beginnings. In this way, every phrase ends with an "extra" measure of rest. The first phrase is shown below.

First phrase without anacrusis of second phrase

Again, this can easily be replicated for the second phrase.

Now we see that each phrase ends with an "extra" measure of rest. So try playing the piece with those extra measure eliminated. The musical result will clearly be unbalanced — a feeling that the "next" phrase arrives too early. The "extra" measure of rest is necessary to preserve the sense of metrical balance Bartók composed into the piece.

Recomposition with seven-measure phrases

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  • A remaining question is: how do we explain the musical elements that led to @ElementsinSpace to initially doubt the 8-bar structure, these bits that "start early"? I don't have research to back this up, but I wonder whether it has roots in eastern European folk practices. At any rate, I see it all the time in Bartok's 2-violin duos. Take a simple melody with clearly marked phrases, then start "filling the gaps" between phrases by shifting material in time, "starting early" or "ending late." Sep 12, 2022 at 13:20
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I'll answer a more generic question, namely "why would one add empty bars at the end/beginning of a piece?"

Music is not just about the presence of sound, but also about its absence. This is pretty much universally understood in any definition of music; certainly, silence in the middle of a piece (rests) is uncontroversially accepted as a creative and esthetic tool. What then makes silence at the end (or the beginning) seem strange?

I think it's because, prima facie, it might seem that such "absence of sound" is the default way of things, indistinguishable from the natural period of "before the piece" and "after the piece". Then it would seem that every piece can be thought of as being preceded and succeeded by an arbitrary number of empty bars, so why bother marking one explicitly? After playing the last note of a piece, you could rest for a whole bar or more; or immediately start playing another piece.

You could say similar things about repetition marks: you can replay a section, or not, if you want - no one's forcing you. This example feels silly though: repeating a passage seems important, while a final (or initial) pause seems to not matter at all.

But this neglects how music actually manifests, how it ends up being perceived. Let's take two examples of musical manifestation:

  1. A live performance in front of the crowd. At the end of a performance, it is a popular custom for the audience to break out into applause and cheering. A final empty bar delays this "end of performance", delays the tumultuous burst of the appreciating crowd and thus can serve as an expressive tool if, for whatever reason, a composer deems that there should be some silent reflection on the sounds just interpreted. Similarly, the performer herself can adhere to various social norms to signal the end of a performance. A pianist might not press any key after the last note, but they can keep their hands at rest over the piano. Then after a few additional beats, pull their hands back, straighten up, get on their feet and bow etc.

  2. Recorded music. A lot of music today is experienced through recordings, which have clearly delineated beginnings and endings, that don't necessarily relate to the first/last moment a sound is audible. Considered in isolation, perhaps there doesn't seem to be any difference between a recording ending abruptly, or in 10 seconds of silence; but a lot of the times, recordings are played back to back as part of a playlist. Again, silence at the end can be a creative tool for someone, basically "preventing" another piece of manifesting itself for some time.

So "silence padding" on its own can have an artistic effect. Of course, I would agree that it's not very important; that skipping empty bars at the end feels less significant than skipping repetition marks etc. I only want to refute the idea that it is entirely useless.

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  • 3
    Additionally, this being part of a series of very short pieces, it's likely that one would perform the entire set in one sitting. The composer here is perhaps instructing a delay of one measure before starting the next piece. Sep 12, 2022 at 19:03
  • @DarrelHoffman: Additionally, many kinds of music are often performed multiple times in succession (e.g. to sing the verses of a song), and would best be performed with an extra bar's worth of time between the end of one repetition and the start of the next.
    – supercat
    Sep 12, 2022 at 22:50
  • @supercat Also true, though that doesn't seem to be the case in this example. Sep 13, 2022 at 14:18
  • @DarrelHoffman: True, many pieces would more commonly have movements played through consecutively; I was merely seeking to offer another familiar example of a situation people would be familiar with where there should be a certain amount of pause between when the music goes silent at the end of the piece and when music resumes audibility.
    – supercat
    Sep 13, 2022 at 14:44
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To me the structure seems to be built as if two 3/4 bars act as one 6/4 bar. In that case the last bar makes sense, since it completes the last two 3/4 bars as one 6/4 bar.

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Given the brisk tempo I think it's reasonable to expect that we would feel the piece in 6/8, not 3/4 time.

Imagine how it would look notated that way. Every note would be half the length it is now, and there would be half as many measures. Those extra 3 beats you see would be the last half of the last measure.

I wonder whether this was written in 3/4 for easier reading (Mikrokosmos is a pedagogical work after all), and the editor didn't want to break the flow of the 6/8 feel.

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  • Quarter=120 isn't all that brisk. In 1, that's dotted quarter=40.
    – phoog
    Sep 11, 2022 at 19:08
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    Did you mean 6/4 not 6/8? Sep 11, 2022 at 23:35
  • @ToddWilcox Does 6/8 has a different feel than 6/4? 6/8 is often felt as two triplets. I don't know about 6/4. Sep 12, 2022 at 16:15
  • @WayneConrad See the other answer about 6/4 by Lars to understand my comment. Sep 12, 2022 at 17:53
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The phrases are all 4 bars in length.

There are 6 phrases.

Each phrase is a simple melodic idea in the treble of a third filled with a passing tone for the first bar followed by an auxiliary motion for the second bar and a pause on beat one of the third bar and finally the fourth bar being an anacrusis for the next phrase, with these two exceptions:

  • On beat 1 of bar 3 of the second phrase, there isn't a pause on beat one but rather a syncopation pushing the pause to beat 2.
  • The final phrase is the end, there is nothing to lead into, so there is a fourth bar anacrusis.

If you filled in the final bar of rest with something, anything that wasn't an anacrusis, the simplest thing might be this...

enter image description here

But, Bartok didn't do that. I suppose he may have regarded repeating the D in that way redundant. If you look carefully at the left hand part you will see it is all derived from the right hand part with various inversions and differing rhythmic placements. Everything is related to the initial 3 bars of the treble. Nothing superfluous.

By that reckoning, my alternate ending is filler, unrelated to the theme and therefore bad. I suppose it could have been two dotted half notes tied together to fill the final two bars (mm.13-14 in the bass would seem to justify it.) Using an empty bar for the end seems a humorous way to end it without anything superfluous and yet say the final phrase is still actually 4 bars.

The same idea holds true if you look at it as 8 bar phrases and ABA structure. As you point out, each 8 bar phrase ends with an anacrusis. When the A section is repeated, it ends by eliminating the anacrusis. Of course you wouldn't have an anacrusis to nothing. It's the end. You could fill in the vacuum create by removing the anacrusis with some notes or with rests.

There are sequential performance of the Mikrokosmos, but that was not the original intention, so the written out final measure of rest wasn't meant as the opposite of attacca, not a strict duration of silence before the next piece. I think it must have been for reading not listening. Some kind of joke or teachable moment about 4 (or 8) bar phrase lengths.

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  • Great answer, thank you. Unfortunately I can only accept one. Sep 17, 2022 at 5:10
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Play it. I can feel the rhythmic shape extending to the end of that empty bar. Maybe you can't. But I hope you can accept that my (and Bartok's) feel is valid?

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