Alternate Realities: Bartók Quartet Cycle notes for December 5, 2023

String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17 (composed 1914-17)

The Arabs accompany almost all their songs with percussion instruments; sometimes in a very complicated rhythm. This is the most pronounced difference between their singing and ours. Apart from this, there are many primitive melodies (confined to three adjoining notes of the scale) and the compass of a fifth is hardly ever exceeded.”

Béla Bartók, 19 June 1913 (private correspondence)

In 1912, despondent over the ridicule and outright rejection he experienced over his public performances and compositions, especially his only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle (1911-12) – now considered an innovative and masterful theatre piece – as well as difficulty in getting his collection of 400 Slovakian folk songs published, Bartók began to withdraw from public life. “Either these people are right, in which case I am an untalented bungler, or I am right, and it’s they who are the idiots… Since the official world of music has put me to death, you can no longer speak of my ‘prestige’ – therefore, I have resigned myself to write for my writing desk only.”

Yet Bartók remained enriched and energized by his folk music fieldwork and research. In 1913, he completed his first major published collection of Romanian songs and traveled to southern Hungary and throughout the Slovak regions. He had long wished to return to North Africa after visiting in 1906 on a concert tour, so in the summer of 1913, he set off with his wife to Algeria. For a month, they remained, recording singers and instrumentalists in five different cities. These trips revealed to him that both Eastern European and Arab musics shared the feature of “long melody,” described by Malcolm Gillies as strongly instrumental in character, highly ornamented, improvisational, and of variable length and construction. But in Algeria, he was also exposed to music that differed greatly from that of Eastern Europe; these new sounds, described in the epigraph above, found their way into the Second Quartet.

Bartók’s ethnomusicological work would become his professional refuge during the upcoming world war when extended travel was impossible, and performance was curtailed. He produced many folk song arrangements and continued writing comparative analyses. But the cessation of travel also left time for composition, and he began sketching the second quartet, also completing the Piano Suite, Op. 14, and two song cycles. His first public triumph as a composer with his ballet The Wooden Prince in 1916 surely renewed his faith in his creative abilities.

Horrors Engulfing the World

The Second Quartet materialized over several years. Like his first, it has three movements, but they are not continuous, and the narrative arc is also different: a moderately-paced opening, which turns the same melodic fragments over and over as if deep in conversation, leads to a lively multi-sectioned dance movement in which we hear the percussive sounds, relentless rhythms, and narrow-ranged melodies that Bartók remembered from Algeria. The dances gain speed and flamboyance as the movement progresses, with each one’s appearance announced by a slow transitional passage as if one group leaves the dance floor to make room for the next. The final movement is slow, dark, and intensely lyrical. It has been described by various commentators as “reflective,” “pessimistic,” and “desolate.” Despite being exempt from military service by ill health and, therefore, relatively isolated from battle, Bartók would still have felt the horrors of the crisis engulfing his world.

String Quartet No. 4, BB95 (composed 1928)

To be able to work, one must have a zest for life, i.e. a keen interest in the living universe.”

Béla Bartók, 6 September 1907 (private correspondence)

Following the completion of the Third Quartet in the autumn of 1927, Bartók embarked on an intense period of concertizing, with performances in London, Dessau, Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Stuttgart, and Munich. Many of these occasions saw him solo in his Piano Concerto No. 1, whose first performance was in Frankfurt earlier that year. However, the most significant undertaking in this realm was his first American tour, which lasted from December 1927 through February 1928. For more than two months, he traversed the country in solo, chamber, and orchestral engagements, ending in Carnegie Hall, where he premiered his concerto. After returning home in early March, he set off again to perform the concerto in Budapest, Cologne, and Berlin while continuing to perform solo recitals and radio broadcasts through the remainder of the spring. Such a schedule left little time for anything else but travel, rehearsal, and performance, but after June, Bartók was finally able to devote himself to rest and composition. That summer, he produced several works of rather different character: the First and Second Rhapsodies for violin and piano, both of which are overtly derived from Romanian source tunes, and the Fourth String Quartet, whose folk influences are more subtly infused.

Palindromic Symmetry

Bartók seems always to have been interested in symmetry as an organizing force in both melody and rhythm. With the five-movement Fourth Quartet, he takes the concept to an architectural level by creating a palindromic arch form. Here, the first and fifth movements share thematic materials, the second is a scherzo, the fourth is a variation of it, and the third movement is unique. In his own words, the central “kernel” of the piece is the third movement, titled “not too slow.” Its musical imagery locates it in the genre known as “Night Music,” a hallmark of Bartók’s mature style. He had titled one of the pieces in his 1926 piano suite Out of Doors, which inhabits the same sound world as this third movement, “The Night’s Music.” It would later return to this world in the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1930-31), Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1942), the Concerto for Orchestra (1943), and the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945).

In the quartet’s third movement, nature is evoked through quiet dynamics, tiny melodic gestures, registral extremes, dissonant tone clusters, and sustained and sudden brief outbursts that remind us of insects, frogs, trees rustling, and the flurry of nocturnal birds’ wings. A solo cello melody, sounding like a human voice, overlays the night sounds, while the first violin erupts briefly into birdsong in the center of the movement. The mystical atmosphere that Bartók constructs has captivated listeners since the quartet’s premiere and is widely seen as one of his most important contributions to the language of modern music.

Surrounding this kernel is a pair of scherzos. The second movement is extremely fast and played with mutes; the fourth is also quick but with strings plucked instead of muted. Their themes are noticeably similar and share patterns of rapid rise and fall. The outside pair, the first and fifth movements, also share several themes and Bulgarian rhythmic patterns. The finale picks up these melodic cells from the opening, repurposing and expanding them for an energetic, rhythmically emphatic conclusion to this distinctive quartet.

String Quartet No. 6, BB119 (composed 1939)

What I feared the most had finally happened. I had a very sad Christmas. We must accept the unchangeable if we can’t be at peace with it.

Béla Bartók, 10 January 1940 (private correspondence)
Paul Sacher and Bartok

Between the composition of the Fifth and Sixth String Quartets, Bartók enjoyed five years of rich productivity. He reduced his performance schedule to immerse himself in his new Hungarian music research and cataloging project at the Academy of Sciences. He accepted few engagements through the end of 1935 while lecturing and writing on musical topics and composing several choral works. In early 1936, conductor Paul Sacher invited him to compose a new work for the Basle (Switzerland) Chamber Orchestra. Having already begun sketching a piece for string ensemble, he expanded this into a double-string orchestra and added piano, harp, a large percussion section, and celesta.

Music for String Instruments, Percussion, and Celesta, completed in September 1936, would be a major success; afterward, Bartók made his final folk music collecting trip, traveling to Turkey to seek correspondences between Turkish folk music and Hungarian. The years 1937 to 1939 saw continued ethnomusicological publications and the composition of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and the Divertimento for Strings (also written for Paul Sacher); Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano; the second Violin Concerto; and the completion of his six-volume pedagogical series for pianists, Mikrokosmos.

Leaving Hungary for Good

Despite these works’ critical acclaim, financial worries and increasing fears of fascist aggression and war weighed on Bartók. He relied upon his earnings as a performer, but as a citizen of pro-Nazi Hungary, he could no longer travel to northern Europe for concerts. His collection of Slovak music had been slated to appear, but his publisher, in breach of contract, declined to release it. Then, in August 1939, while staying in Switzerland, he received a commission for a new quartet. Work on this Sixth String Quartet began immediately but was halted by the outbreak of World War II following Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1. Bartók left at once for Budapest to put his affairs with his British publisher Boosey and Hawkes in order before communication became impossible. He was unable to return to the quartet until November. Following the death of his mother at the end of that year, he would leave Hungary, never to return.

The Sixth Quartet’s four movements eschew the symmetrical arch form Bartók had used for the two previous quartets. The solo viola introduces the piece; its theme, marked Mesto (sad), returns to open the second and third movements before becoming the substance of the elegiac finale. All of the first three movements are fast and assertive: the first a vivace that employs continuous variation, the second a march of angular rhythmic character and extravagant sound effects including a passage of wailing lament, the third a mocking noisy burletta (burlesque) that strangely holds in its center a tranquil song.

Mourning Song for the Murder of Europe

It appears that Bartók had initially intended a similar structural plan for the finale, envisioning the mesto introduction leading to a fast dance in folk style. Instead, he decided to conclude the quartet with an eloquent lamentation. Brief recollections of the first movement appear as if to remind us of a world now lost, crushed by the relentless and oppressive repetition of the mesto theme. We do not know when he abandoned his original plan. Still, it is not difficult to imagine why, as the late ethnomusicologist Benjamin Suchoff stated, the village dance was replaced by the mourning song for the murder of Europe.

Read about the Borromeo Quartet here.

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