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Post-Tonal Affinities in Piano Works of Bartók, Chen, and Crumb


Monica Kang

The book explores cellular pivots as a new means of progression, functional tonality having disappeared in much of contemporary music. Béla Bartók can be seen as a kind of father figure to the other two composers, Chen Yi and George Crumb, in terms of their stylistic, technical, and even philosophical connections. The musical affinities of all three composers reflect a larger body of post-tonal music. Cell constructions and their pivotal motions span the gamut from traditional/asymmetrical to more abstract/symmetrical formations. This study provides insight into universal principles of the post-tonal era and reveals a broader evolution of the musical language as represented by the three composers.
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In musical contexts of the post-tonal era, the concept of the pitch cell replaces the traditional triadic construction and its harmonic function as the primary means of integrating the large-scale fabric. In serving as anchors for departure and return, cells acquire the burden of pivotal function among various pitch collections.

The intention of this study is to provide new insights into post-tonal music through exploration of pivotal cell functions primarily in the solo piano music of three composers—Béla Bartók (1881–1945), Chen Yi (b. 1953), and George Crumb (b. 1929)—including the most recently published piano works by the latter two composers. Analyses of eleven works provide a microcosmic perspective of the compositional techniques of many other contemporary composers. These range from earlier masters such as Debussy, Scriabin, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, to more recent ones, including Cage, Takemitsu, and Penderecki, among others. In addition to the basic compositional focuses, discussions extend to comparable works by other composers to provide a broader perspective.

Bartók can be seen as a kind of father figure for the other two composers of this study, Chen and Crumb, both of whom explicitly referred to him as influential in their compositional development. In Bartók’s music, cellular pivots occur in compositions heavily influenced by traditional folk material, as exemplified by Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20. While much of Bartók’s style reveals the essence of his Hungarian and other Eastern European sources, Chen’s...

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