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I'm trying to wrap my head around the awfully jarring - it hurts my ears so bad, I literally can't bring myself to play it - F natural in m16 of Bartok's "Former Friends" from his Book 1 for Children. The whole piece is in G, has beautiful F#'s all the way until suddenly, out of absolutely nowhere, this F natural pops up and makes my ears bleed.

Is it just me? Or does everybody cringe when they hear it? And if so, why for the love of Apollo did he do this; to torture us? Is there any reasonable answer to be found - except for "ask Bartok!"?

(Also, why are there 2 small vertical lines right before the natural sign?)

Why Béla why did you do this?

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    I wouldn't say it's in G; more like A dorian. At any rate, the main explanation for the F is a melodic one, as a passing tone. A secondary explanation might view it harmonically, as part of a G7 chord, a V of the C that follows. Sep 15 at 18:15
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    That's the highlight of the piece. Bartok lulls you with the same repeating harmonies and then suddenly takes off in a different harmonic direction. Brilliant!
    – PiedPiper
    Sep 15 at 18:58
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    By the way, about your subjective response: I get it; you're trying to understand and appreciate it. But ultimately, if it "makes your ears bleed," give it a break! One explanation for your discomfort might be that F forms a tritone with B (though that's just mansplaining the tension inherent in every dominant 7th chord). Sep 15 at 19:10
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    @Mark Lutton: Are YOU bothered by them? Sep 15 at 23:02
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    @PiedPiper Note the pedal mark under that note - the only pedal marking in the whole piece. He clearly wanted to make sure the listener noticed that. Sep 16 at 14:22

4 Answers 4

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There is a clue in the title: Former Friends — it's a narrative piece.

The piece is given the key signature of A-minor, a minor/sad key. But it is mainly in A-dorian which evokes nostalgia, with all those f-sharps representing the happy memories of the friendship.

At some point and quite suddenly, reality hits hard with that F-natural — something happened, and they weren't able to be friends anymore. The F-natural is the most important note in the piece. It is meant to hurt because it's a sad moment.


The small vertical lines remind me of Bartók's "separating sign" as seen (and explained) in this post. But that is a single line rather than two.

The first track in this youtube clip is apparently a recording of Béla Bartók himself playing the piece. At the point in the score with the small lines, it sounds to me like the tempo slows down here, like a brief fermata on the preceding note, and then picks up again afterwards.

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  • I think you have the correct interpretation. Doesn't make it any better though... :)
    – Creynders
    Sep 16 at 8:05
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    I'm not too convinced about this explanation. 1. The piece does immediately move back to A-dorian. So they're back to being friends after all? Why then is it called “Former Friends”, not “Friends Who Are Still Friends But Had It Rough at Some Point”? 2. As the F♮ is actually part of a G-major resolving to C-major. So if the F♯-s were already happy memories, shouldn't then the C-major be also happy, perhaps even more? Then the F♮ would perhaps act as a painful-yet-necessary catharsis in order to get happy again at last. But then, this doesn't really make sense because of point 1. Sep 16 at 8:16
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    @leftaroundabout The way I hear it is as a nostalgic memory of a friendship, albeit with one bitter moment (the II7-V7-I in C-major sounds very stern; it doesn't have the light hearted feeling that the rest does at all) — but the overarching A-dorian feeling from the memory is nostalgic/pleasant. This feeling is what persist as the memory fades out of focus. Sep 16 at 14:57
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    @leftaroundabout I would argue that the story ends with that long A in the melody. From that point on, the top staff (or friend) never interacts with the bottom staff again.
    – trlkly
    Sep 16 at 23:45
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The piece is mostly quite obviously in A Dorian. It does not feature a lot of G major in the first place.

The F natural there is naught but a G dominant 7 chord, resolving to C. Harmonically this in embedded in a rather natural I - IV# - VII7 - III cadence. So it suppose it’s just you?

About the small lines: I suppose they might indicate a separation between the F# and the F natural.

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    You're correct about the separation. The separation helps make the transition to C major and mitigates the abruptness of the F natural.
    – Aaron
    Sep 15 at 18:58
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    @Aaron But it's an odd way to write it. I actually read it as a natural sign at first. (Natural + sharp is how you go back to sharp from a double-sharp.) A breath mark near the stop of the staff (or possibly a caesura mark) would be the more common way to write that. Based on the recoding, a poco rit. with a breath mark would make the most sense.
    – trlkly
    Sep 16 at 23:50
  • @trlkly A breath mark at the top would be wrong, because it's essential that the melody voice maintain its legato. But a breath mark on the lower staff would be more clear, I agree. I also thought at first that it looked like a natural sign — and then seeing it was followed by a natural sign, made me think it was a sharp sign, which makes even less sense.
    – Aaron
    Sep 17 at 0:35
  • @Aaron I meant at the top of the lower staff. Yes, it would obviously be wrong on the top staff.
    – trlkly
    Sep 17 at 14:53
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All those F♯s would indicate that in fact it's not in C major, as the key signature would show, but A Dorian - the second mode of G major.

So they could have been put into the key signature as is the way some composers indicate a 'key signature'.

Moving from parent G to harmony C major is often heralded by a dominant seventh chord, as it is here. That necessitates use of G7, with its F♮, and does indeed move to said C major.

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  • @Aaron - the key sig. clearly indicates C maj/Am, as in my 1st sentence. However, constant use of F# would indicate G key- or modes thereof.
    – Tim
    Sep 16 at 8:37
  • You just CAN'T trust key signatures in Bartok! Anyway, an open key signature might not indicate anything beyond 'no key signature'.
    – Laurence
    Sep 16 at 22:54
  • @Laurence - true - didn't he have his own 'system' using both sharps and flats together? But for most of us, the key signature is there as a guide. That's its point - except for Bartok, as you say.
    – Tim
    Sep 17 at 7:46
  • For Bartok - and onwards! The next step after 'modes' was to abandon tonality (and key signatures) entirely.
    – Laurence
    Sep 17 at 13:47
  • G7 -> C would be straightforward use of secondary dominant -- it will sound out of place because it is a borrowed chord not in the original mode/key. Sep 18 at 18:25
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As many have said, it's in A Dorian rather than G major. If it WAS G major, I don't think a detour to C major via a G7 chord would upset your ears nearly as much. Maybe we've got a bit used to modal pieces STAYING in the mode? A dominant 7th - tonic progression sounds from a different musical world - aren't leading notes supposed to be flattened on mode-planet?

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  • Staying in the mode: Yes. Mustn't disturb the peace! If Radio 3 is anything to go by, people like their music restful nowadays. I preferred the Sounds of the Seventies. Sep 15 at 20:16
  • Perhaps you mean Classic FM? I just turned on Radio 3 to hear Dieter Ammann's The Piano Concerto (Gran Toccata). Not quite 'squeaky gate' but hardly 'The Lark Ascending'.
    – Laurence
    Sep 15 at 20:25
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    Ammann: Yes, there are exceptions. But listen to the stuff that's playing right now: "Never pass into nothingness", then Glass (yawn) Then later there's a magical sonic journey, followed by ambient sounds to soothe and inspire. :-( There's so little music from the sixties and seventies played. Too much mindful wellbeingness nonsense. Btw, I wonder if I've mentioned my own The Lark Expiring, for solo violin, orchestra and shotgun. It's intended as a small-arms companion piece for the 1812. Sep 15 at 21:09

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