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In the piece Three Pieces for String Quartet by Igor Stravinsky I've noticed something very odd that I cannot explain. There are several places in the piece where eighth notes are beamed across measures. Here is an small excerpt from the piece:

Three Pieces for String Quartet by Igor Stravinsky

I thought the beaming of eighth notes, sixteenth notes, ect. was to help show the beats in the current measure. Why are these notes beamed together across the barline?

  • You can also find many examples like this in Batók's and Carter's and Ligeti's work among several others. An argument could be made that some Brahms passages would be easier to read if he had used this kind of beaming because he consistently has parts that defy the barline. – Pat Muchmore Oct 28 '14 at 9:55
  • The bowing confuses me - it shows a 4 note phrase, but with each note bowed separately. Could they be played with a single downbow? – Tim Oct 28 '14 at 11:53
  • @Tim It isn't the best way to indicate this, but Stravinsky is indicating that you should play all four notes in one bow direction, but with some accent or (possibly) separation between each one. You play it as if you're slurring, but you give a little extra push to the start of each note—downbows in the first and upbows in the second. – Pat Muchmore Oct 28 '14 at 18:13
  • @PatMuchmore - so would you use one split downstroke, or raise the bow for each note ? – Tim Oct 28 '14 at 18:16
  • @Tim "Raise" is too strong of a term, but there might be the slightest of lifts. It would mostly be a bow speed thing however. This is a pretty heavy and visceral piece, I think I would just add weight and speed at the start of each note with either no lift, or barely-perceptible lift between each. – Pat Muchmore Oct 28 '14 at 18:34
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This kind of beaming often indicates that that very passage in Violin II has a displaced accent when compared to the other instruments: while they follow the time signature changes, from 2/4 to 3/4 and back to 3/4, the second violin keeps a metric accent likewise to 3/4 throughout all the selected excerpt. The beaming serves to guide the player through the correct phrasing and articulation (the arco down/up marks are a further hint of the effect desired by the composer), instead of introducing a more complex layer of polyrhythm (once the metric change is temporary, it is more practical to indicate the division in place without changing the overall feeling of the excerpt).

Violin II could be notated as follows:

enter image description here

without loss of meaning, but it would require polyrhythmic notation, which could be more frightening and awkward than it actually is. By simply changing the beaming, you get the same effect without disrupting the overall character.

  • Just a small correction: I think "polymetric" is a better word than "polyrhythmic" for the effect you're discussing in the last paragraph. +1 – Pat Muchmore Oct 28 '14 at 9:52
  • @PatMuchmore, I understand polymeter as simultaneous different meters (simple vs. compound, or the hemiola). Polyrhythm is more comprehensive, as it can also refer to conflicting inner subdivisions and displaced sense of accent, even under similar metric schemes (2/4 and 3/4 are both simple meter, although implying different accentuation) – SeuMenezes Oct 29 '14 at 12:21
  • Interesting, I've never thought of it as needing to be different classes of meter, just different meters period. 2/4 vs. 3/4 (whether explicitly notated or implied via accentuation) seems to fit the bill actually better than 2/4 vs. 6/8 wherein the only difference would be the subdivision. The 3 against 2 of 2/4 vs. 6/8 is what I would just call polyrhythm, while the unaligned metric frames of 2/4 and 3/4 is what I would call polymeter. Still, just a minor terminological difference, I think it's a great answer to the question. – Pat Muchmore Oct 30 '14 at 19:15
  • Yes, no doubt these concepts are confusing; the level of consensus on this topic is actually small and bound to personal views on "rhythm" and "meter". Thanks for the feedback! – SeuMenezes Oct 30 '14 at 19:18
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Sometimes, beaming is used to indicate logical groupings of notes. See fore example, the motivic analysis of the piece asked about in this question: Why is the bass clef indicated twice on the same line in this Bartok piece?

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I thought the beaming of eighth notes, sixteenth notes, ect. was to help show the beats in the current measure. Why are these notes beamed together across the barline?

To help show the beats in the current measure. This kind of beaming is a very strong indicator that the barline is disconnected with the actual rhythmic grouping of the phrase beamed across it and accompanying phrases. So for this particular part, the barline is not relevant for determing "beats in the current measure". This is to be played as two groups of four notes each. The bowing instructions strengthen that effect.

This notation is often used for syncopated phrases and stretti (canon-like echoes coming fractions of a measure after the original). You can find this notation also for writing out hemiole.

  • I'd say it shows "phrasing" more than just "beats" or accents. – Carl Witthoft Oct 28 '14 at 11:49

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