Alternate Realities: Bartók Quartet Cycle Introduction

“I set out to put some stories in motion, hoping they’d take me somewhere. Here’s where they led.”

Jorge Luis Borges, describing his short story collection The Garden of Forking Paths

The Borromeo Quartet’s exciting Bartók project offers Guarneri Hall audiences an opportunity to “glimpse into the composer’s mind as it moves through its mysterious creative process.” This is how Leonard Bernstein justified his reason for undertaking a similar experiment with Beethoven for a television special in 1954. Bernstein had the score of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony blown up and painted on the floor of the TV studio.

Leonard Bernstein’s Beethoven 5th Broadcast of 1954.

During the broadcast, he and the orchestra musicians walked about the stage upon it, while Bernstein explained the differences between the final score as we know it and the earlier sketches Beethoven wrote in his struggle to “achieve the right notes, rhythms, climaxes, harmonies, and instrumentation.” Bernstein wanted his listeners to understand that even a musician of Beethoven’s great ability did indeed struggle. Just because the music we are familiar with feels that it “checks throughout and is right,” in Bernstein’s words, does not mean that it flowed easily from the composer’s mind. Beethoven’s mental road map was bumpy and twisting; he rejected dozens of versions until he found the right solution.

A Story about Storytelling

A decade before Bernstein’s experiment and some eighty years before the Borromeo’s, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges unfolded a literary version of the creative process in which we see Beethoven and Bartók engaged. A mystery and a story about storytelling, Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths, appeared in the collection of the same name in 1941. It presents two problems: how the protagonist, a spy, will convey a message to his superiors when he is on the run and about to be arrested, and how the spy will understand a novel written by his grandfather, a “shapeless mass of contradictory rough drafts” involving multiple tangents, conflicting storylines, and characters who live, die, and reappear randomly. The grandfather’s plan to create a labyrinth (a “garden of forking paths”), which the spy thought was never accomplished, is revealed to actually be achieved by his novel, which contains all the possible plot lines and events he could think of and juxtaposes them to illustrate the multiple realities that are available. One of these storylines will provide the solution to the spy’s problem! Borges’s labyrinth symbolizes the twists and turns of Beethoven’s and Bartók’s sketching processes as faced with an array of choices, they seek the most promising paths to their musical destinations.

Pictures of Sounds

It is no easy task to map out pictures of the sounds that one imagines, but that is what composers do to the best of their abilities when they notate their musical ideas and decisions. The musical score stabilizes the composer’s notations in the form of a written text. The notion that the score, rather than any instance of performance, captures the essence of the music has gained credence since the early nineteenth century. In this view, the finished text stands in for the music itself: a permanent object that we vest with the power to tell anyone, anywhere, what to do and how to do it. The score is preserved unchanged for use in performance and study, again and again, and presents no trace of any of its previous stages of existence. Such a view of the score removes the focus on music as a temporal art – a sequence of sounds appearing in the present – and fixes the music in a place outside of time.

Yet the score is only superficially stable. As in Borges’s story, disparate, even conflicting understandings of what is written can and do coexist. Many aspects of sound cannot be objectively notated (for instance, nuances of phrasing, pacing, and dynamics), so decisions must still be made, and different performers will play the same notes in different ways. Further, as musicologist Stanley Boorman points out, the score cannot guarantee that listeners will hear the music as the composer heard it.

The Borromeo Quartet’s approach in these concerts is special because it celebrates this variability, bringing to light the possible paths that Béla Bartók saw as he devised the direction that each quartet might take. By juxtaposing the discovered sketches with the final versions, the players have removed the illusion of stability and given us the chance to imagine what the music might have – or really could have – become. In the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges, the Borromeo Quartet returns Bartók’s music to the realm of experienced time, summoning the creative process that led to its emergence.

Torontál County to the Budapest Academy

Béla Bartók’s creative journey began on March 25, 1881, in Hungary’s Torontál County, an ethnically diverse province that is today part of Romania. His parents encouraged his musical talents; by the age of 4, he had learned to play 40 songs at the piano, began composing at age 6, and debuted as a pianist at age 11. His compositional horizons widened after entering the Budapest Academy of Music in 1898,  through exposure to opera and symphonic music, but still, he aspired to become a concert pianist. Eventually, he joined the piano faculty of the Budapest Academy, where he remained on staff for nearly 30 years. 

Performing remained a mainstay of Bartók’s professional activity throughout his life. Between 1919 and 1931, he played over 300 concerts in 15 different European countries and the U.S. He left a vast archive of gramophone, piano-roll, and live recordings made between 1912 and 1945. Although averse to teaching composition, he published a wealth of pedagogical materials for pianists, singers, and violinists. Most significant of these are the six volumes of Mikrokosmos (1926-1939), a collection of 153 piano pieces progressing in difficulty and designed to develop students’ knowledge of contemporary musical styles (rather than technical proficiency).

Folk-Music Collecting Tours

Bartok and Kodaly in Romania in 1912
Bartók and Kodály in Romania in 1912

Meeting fellow Hungarian Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) in 1905 proved a turning point in Bartók’s life. They began immediately to collaborate on folk music collection and transcription (which Bartók had already begun to pursue in 1904) and published several important anthologies together, continuing their shared efforts until Bartók emigrated to the U.S. in 1940. Bartók himself undertook many folk-music collecting tours between 1906 and 1915 to Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Transylvania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldavia, and Algeria. After World War I, he devoted his energies to analyzing and categorizing his collection of over 10,000 melodies and publishing comparative studies of mainly Eastern European collections. From 1934 to 1940, he worked full-time as an ethnomusicologist at the Budapest Academy of Sciences, where he co-directed with Kodály a Hungarian folk music project while deepening his knowledge of Slavic and Bulgarian musics.

The Rise of Fascism

The rise of nationalistic fascism in Europe in the 1930s proved intolerable to Bartók. His ethnomusicological publications were attacked and suppressed, persecution of ethnic populations spread, and he realized that his homeland was no longer safe. Gradually he began to transfer his manuscripts outside Austria and Hungary and to plan his escape. The Anschluss in 1938 galvanized his efforts to seek relocation, but he did not feel free to leave Hungary until his mother’s death in 1939. After a brief U.S. concert tour in spring 1940, he initiated the process of moving his family to America. It took three months to clear all the hurdles, during which time he began to suffer the first signs of what would prove to be a fatal blood disease.

Life in America

Bartók spent the rest of his life in America. Lonely, ill, and struggling to secure a regular income, he did not compose for two years, though he continued to write about folk musics. Concert engagements were few. Gradually, interest in his ethnomusicological work and his compositions led to short-term residencies at Harvard and Columbia. In 1943 he caught the attention of the Koussevitsky Music Foundation, which commissioned the Concerto for Orchestra. Premiering on December 1, 1944, in Boston, the Concerto proved immediately popular, although by this time Bartók’s health was in serious decline. During the summer of 1945, he worked feverishly on two new concertos for piano and viola but was able to complete only one. In mid-September, he was hospitalized for the last time; he died on September 26, 1945, of complications from leukemia.

Bartók’s Development

The six string quartets of Béla Bartók, which span his creative output from youth to the final years, are regularly considered a cycle, and for good reason. Halsey Stevens, author of a definitive Bartók biography, considered them the best way to understand the composer’s development. Through their successive expressive characters, one can trace the narrative of how Bartók’s musical style changed and evolved, yet at the same time, they all display the musical fascinations that remained constant throughout his life: the folk musics of Eastern Europe, the variation and transformation of themes, and the exploration of symmetry. Thus, in the program notes, each quartet will be placed within the context of Bartok’s life and circumstances at the time of its creation.

It is interesting that the six quartets, seen according to the years of their composition, appear to arrange themselves into the kind of symmetrical “arch” form that Bartók frequently used. The third and fourth quartets, composed within a year, constitute the central point, with quartets 1 and 6 as the outer layers and quartets 2 and 5 as the inner layers, the layers separated from each other and the center by similar intervals of time.

Leaving With a “Full Trunk”

The slow, heartbroken finale of the 6th Quartet also seems to hearken back to the mournful dirge that opens the 1st Quartet, a point of correspondence that ties the beginning of the group to the end, as if closing the circle. However, although it is tempting, it would surely be a mistake to consider the sixth quartet, as some commentators have done, as a retrospective gesture or as Bartók’s farewell to the medium. Nine months prior to his death, Bartók had accepted a commission for a seventh string quartet and, throughout his remaining time, worked on this and several other projects. The last words he spoke before he lapsed into a coma several days before his passing – “What I most regret is having to leave with a full trunk” – serve as a poignant reminder that Bartók’s creative imagination remained strong to the end. He had already set out to explore a new path and was ready to see where it might lead.

Read the notes for December 4, 2023 here.

Read about the Borromeo Quartet here.

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