Alternate Realities: Bartók Quartet Cycle notes for December 4, 2023

String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7 (composed 1908-09)

Those days which I spent in the villages among the peasants were the happiest days of my life. In order to really feel the vitality of this music, one must have lived it… One must have witnessed the peasants’ changes of features when they sing and have taken part in their dances, weddings, Christmas festivities, and funerals. What we had to do was grasp the spirit of this hitherto unknown music and to make this spirit (difficult to describe in words) the basis of our works.”

Béla Bartók, from “The Folk Songs of Hungary” (1928)

The several years preceding the completion of this quartet brought Bartók both new stability and new stimulation. In late 1906 he was appointed as professor of piano at the Budapest Academy of Music. The salary allowed him to settle down in a permanent residence in that city after having spent the previous year traveling all over Europe, concertizing and doing folk music research, staying with friends, or in temporary lodging. While he continued trips from his new home base to collect folk music, he was able to reduce his concert activity and spend more time composing and teaching.

A Strong Folk Influence

Then, in 1907, came twofold excitement. First was his revelatory tour through Transylvania to collect and record folk music, where he first encountered a strain of ancient indigenous Hungarian folk song characterized by the use of a five-note scale, flexible tempo, declamatory speech-like passages, and ornamented melodies. He returned home convinced that he could reinvigorate his own musical language with the melodies, rhythms, and textures that he had learned there. By his own admission (as well as other commentators’ observations), after this point, everything he wrote showed a strong folk influence.

Love and a Violinist

Bartók had played a concert at the Academy of Music in May 1907 with a brilliant young Hungarian violinist, Stefi Geyer, and instantly fell in love with her. For a year and a half, they carried on an intense correspondence (he wrote her 27 letters that we know of during this time) and met several times. He immediately began work on a violin concerto for her, employing themes he wrote to portray her lively spirit. As their relationship deteriorated, however, partly because she could not tolerate his atheism while he could not accept her religious beliefs, he incorporated into the piece other themes that represented his passion and the heaviness of his heart when she rejected his love. The concerto’s dedication “For Stefi: from times still happy, although it was only half happiness…” remained intact, while its themes spilled over into his compositions for the next year: Two Portraits (1907-8), Fourteen Bagatelles (1908), Ten Easy Piano Pieces (1908), Two Elegies (1908-9), and finally the First String Quartet.

A Funeral Dirge

The Quartet opens with a yearning lament, using the theme from the Violin Concerto’s second movement, which Bartók calls his “funeral dirge.” Its three movements are played without pause while the tempo grows faster and faster, culminating in a lively dance that led Kodály to describe the piece as a “return to life.” The overall trajectory from slow to fast is not absolute, however; slow expressive solos or duets appear at critical moments to signal endings and beginnings of sections, heightening the impression of ongoing dialogue. An environment of conversation or communality pervades the piece, enhanced by the near-constant imitation that the instruments engage in among themselves.

String Quartet No. 3, BB93 (composed 1927)

There’s no need for me to stress that the money ‘came in handy’; we are able to breathe more freely now, to say nothing of the publicity we’ve had. You can hardly imagine the sensation this caused in Budapest. Six thousand dollars! [P.S. Meanwhile I have written another string quartet, a much longer one this time; there are 5 movements (would there by any chance be another competition somewhere?!!).]”

Béla Bartók, 29 October 1928 (private correspondence)

An “Ex-Composer”

Heavy immersion in ethnomusicological work and demanding teaching and performing schedules gave Bartók less and less time for composing during the early 1920s. The revival of his concert career after World War I was both a welcome opportunity for additional income and the chance to promote his own works, newly issued by the Vienna publisher Universal Edition. Bartók was in demand as a recitalist, orchestral soloist, and chamber music partner. Meanwhile, between 1923 and 1926, his sole compositional output was Village Scenes, a set of five songs. He began to call himself an “ex-composer” and wrote to his wife in early in 1926 that he felt so “stupid, dazed, and empty-headed” that he doubted he could “write anything new at all anymore.”

That situation would turn around in 1926, which his biographers characterize as his “piano year.” During the last half of 1926, he produced his Piano Sonata, the suite Out of Doors, Nine Little Piano Pieces, and his First Piano Concerto. Motivation for these works is generally ascribed to two factors: his attendance in March of that year at a Budapest concert celebrating Stravinsky, when the Russian composer was piano soloist for his Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, and Bartók’s own four concert tours in Italy between March 1925 and March 1926, where he encountered the brilliant Italian Baroque keyboard repertory.  Bartók finally had a significant portfolio of his own new piano pieces to add to his concert programs, and he took to the road with them in 1927. As his performance activity intensified, with a pending tour to America, he decided at the end of the summer to give up his teaching position.

The Third Quartet (1927)

Though he would return to teaching in a year, this decision happily freed up time for the composition of the Third String Quartet in September 1927. Bartók, who had not written for that medium in a decade, was supposedly inspired by Berg’s Lyric Suite, which he first heard in July 1927. After completing the third quartet, Bartók entered the piece in a competition sponsored by the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia and was gratified that the Society awarded it joint first prize (shared with Alfredo Casella’s Serenata) and presented its first performance in December 1928.

Discovery of the Productivity of Color

This quartet, like No. 1, is one continuous movement. Its slow first part weaves an intricate tapestry through constant variation of its themes; the second part is a brisk dance that builds excitement by transforming the rhythms of its opening melody and employing many special effects: sliding, plucking, striking the strings with the wood of the bow, muting, strumming, vibrato, and harmonics. Next, Bartók reprises the first part but avoids literal restatement, reordering, and merely suggesting what we heard at the outset. The piece’s climax is the coda based on the second part, which races to a triumphant finish through a series of rising scale passages.  Noting the imaginative array of string sounds, Theodor Adorno declared that in this work, “Bartók made his actual discovery of the productivity of color.”

String Quartet No. 5, BB110 (composed 1934)

It is regrettable that the ideological tensions of our time further the spread of morbid one-sidedness instead of promoting an unbiased view. Up till now it seemed that the so-called ‘Bulgarian’ rhythm is a Bulgarian peculiarity. But the most recent researches disclose that it is known also among the Rumanians and the Turkish peoples. Should further researches verify that one can really find its origin in Bulgaria, it might very well happen that the poor discoverer would be stoned (in effigy, of course) by the opposite side; on the other hand, if the researcher arrives at a contrary result the Bulgarians would stone him. International cooperation is desirable in every branch of the science, but perhaps nowhere else is it so urgently needed as in the field of folk music research.”

Béla Bartók, from “The Investigation of Musical Folklore” (1937)

From 1931 to 1934, Bartók again experienced a period of low compositional productivity. His only substantial new work was the Second Piano Concerto (completed in October 1931). During these three years, he concentrated on writing pedagogical materials (principally the Forty-Four Duos for Violin) and arranging four of his early piano and vocal works for orchestra. His performance schedule continued unabated, with tours to Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Great Britain. He also produced a plethora of ethnomusicological essays and reviews.

International Stature

Nevertheless, by this time, he had achieved international stature as a composer. The prominent British music journal The Musical Times commemorated Bartók’s 50th birthday with a four-installment retrospective of his work, concluding the series with high praise: “He is thus a phenomenon of the age, and in his fiftieth year is still a young giant, who is shaking in its foundation the ramshackle edifice of the music culture of a whole continent.” The American premiere of his Fourth String Quartet earned glowing reviews.

The Rise of Fascism

But other developments in the world overshadowed these honors. Bartók was horrified by the rise of fascism in Europe and became an activist for international causes. In 1931, as a member of the New Hungarian Music Society, he drafted a resolution to the International Society for Contemporary Music in defense of Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was under attack by Mussolini’s faction for refusing to perform a fascist anthem. That same year, he joined the League of Nations International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation and in 1933, attended the First International Music Convention in Florence, which sought to “propagate musical culture and international exchanges in a spirit of friendly accord.”

Quartet #5

Happily, in 1934 Bartók was finally able to resign from the Academy of Music to begin an appointment as ethnomusicologist at the Academy of Sciences, a position with a flexible schedule that enabled him to accept the commission from the Library of Congress for a new work, which was to be the five-movement String Quartet No. 5.  Its “kernel,” as he termed the central sections of his pieces in symmetrical arch form, is a lively scherzo and trio in Bulgarian rhythm (unequal groupings of 4 + 2 + 3 or 3 + 2 + 2 + 3) that the English musicologist Gerald Abraham called “delicious.” This is surrounded by two slow movements differing in character but sharing a delicate, hesitant lyricism.  The outer shell of the piece is formed by the fast first and last movements, each of which is symmetrical (ABA and ABCBA). The opening Allegro’s musical ideas are clearly differentiated in personality, rhythm, and texture. In the final movement, the instruments again chase and imitate each other to a raucous finish, along the way evoking various dance figures and even the weird folk style of the “barrel organ” with drones and trills.

Read the notes for December 5, 2023 here.

Read about the Borromeo Quartet here.

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