About the Composer
Béla Bartók was born in rural Transylvania in 1881 and died in New York City 64 years later. In a manner of speaking, he was exiled twice—first from his homeland and later from his time. Although Bartók's music is rooted in Central European folk traditions and late–19th century impressionism, it was forged in the harsh crucible of early–20th century modernism. Many of his early works are suffused with the melodies, rhythms, and colors of the Hungarian and Balkan peasant music that he heard and studied as a young man on his travels around the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By contrast, the boldly expressionistic masterpieces of the 1930s and '40s, such as the Violin Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra, express the restless, tormented spirit of W. H. Auden's Age of Anxiety.
At the turn of the 20th century, Bartók's growing fame as a composer was rivaled by his reputation as a pioneering musical ethnographer. Determined "to collect the finest Hungarian folksongs and to raise them, adding the best possible piano accompaniments, to the level of art song," he teamed up with his compatriot Zoltán Kodály to document and preserve their country's rich folk traditions. The scholarly anthology of Hungarian folksongs that they published jointly in 1906 was a landmark in the emerging field of ethnomusicology. The combination of extraverted, peasant-style music and a darker, highly introspective idiom is a salient feature of many of Bartók's works, including the First and Fifth string quartets.
All told, Bartók composed a half-dozen quartets in the three decades between 1908 and 1939. Befitting their status as modern classics, these masterpieces have been subjected to microscopic analysis, touching on every aspect of the composer's musical language, from the finest points of pitch and rhythmic structure to large-scale formal organization. The quartets have exerted a particularly strong pull on theoretically minded composers like Milton Babbitt, George Perle, and Wallace Berry. Representative of this highly technical approach is Berry's article "Symmetrical Interval Sets and Derivative Pitch Materials in Bartók's String Quartet No. 3," which appeared in the journal Perspectives of New Music, a leading forum for postwar modernists.
For the average listener, however, the most immediately striking aspects of Bartók's highly distinctive sound world may well be his prodigious inventiveness in the rhythmic sphere, his richly imaginative use of folk and folk-like melodies, and the captivating sonorities he coaxes from the four instruments. All of these qualities are evident in the three works on this evening's program.
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7
About the Work
Few of Bartók's works are as transparently autobiographical as his First String Quartet, written in Budapest in 1908–1909. Indeed, this poignant and luminous work might almost be described as confessional, suffused as it is with the 27-year-old composer's unrequited passion for violinist Stefi Geyer. A former child prodigy who would shortly leave Hungary to seek fame in Vienna, Geyer eventually settled in Zurich, where she became a renowned teacher and performer. In the course of her lengthy career, she served as muse to several composers, but none was more hopelessly infatuated than Bartók. He inscribed his First Violin Concerto of 1907–1908 with a musical motif based on Geyer's name and was cruelly disappointed by her refusal to play the work in public. By the time he began sketching his Op. 7 Quartet in 1908, the violinist had broken off their relationship, prompting Bartók to retaliate in a short, sardonic piano piece titled "Elle est morte" ("She is dead").
A Closer Listen
Geyer nonetheless continued to haunt Bartok, her four-note "signature" embedded in a series of compositions, including the First Quartet's plaintive opening theme, which Bartók bitterly described as his "funeral dirge." The work's three movements flow into each other without breaks, producing the effect of a continuously unfolding musical scroll. The somberly contrapuntal opening Lento, with its mournful motif of a falling sixth, is steeped in late-Romantic harmonies redolent of Wagner and Strauss. A short bridge passage leads to an energetic Allegretto that features a typically terse Bartókian theme—two half-steps separated by a leap—and marked by sharp contrasts of register and volume. A second interlude, a cadenza-like cello solo based on a Hungarian folk melody, gives way to the final Allegro vivace, whose rhythmic exuberance expresses what composer Zoltán Kodály aptly called a "return to life."
String Quartet No. 3
About the Work
Bartók's fondness for special tonal effects—swooping glissandos and exotic strummings, ghostly muted passages, screeching tremolos played with the bow almost on top of the bridge—is evident throughout the short but substantial Quartet No. 3. The score dates from the summer of 1927, shortly after Bartók, an internationally renowned concert pianist, unveiled his formidably complex Piano Sonata at a contemporary music festival in Baden-Baden. On the same concert, the Kolisch Quartet played Alban Berg's Lyric Suite; Bartók seems to have fallen under the spell of its richly coloristic atmosphere. Indeed, these "special" effects are so deeply embedded in his music as to be intrinsic to its very meaning and expressive power. The same might be said of the gestural quality that gives Bartók's work so much of its irrepressible kinetic vitality.
A Closer Listen
It is to these elements of timbre, texture, rhythm, and gesture, as much as to its unconventional formal design, that the Third Quartet owes its concentrated intensity and cohesiveness. Its single, uninterrupted span is divided into two parts: the first knotty and densely contrapuntal, the second a set of variations on a vigorous, folk-like theme. These are followed by a "recapitulation" of the first part, so free as to be virtually unrecognizable, and topped off with a coda that combines elements of both sections. Although the quartet flies by at a helter-skelter pace that makes it all but impossible to take in much of its detail on a single hearing, Bartók helpfully provides signposts for the listener in the form of clearly defined sections, transitions, repetitions, and allusions to traditional tonality. With a little effort, and a willing ear, it is not difficult to penetrate the work's bristling chromatic surface and savor the somber lyricism at its core.
String Quartet No. 5
About the Work
Composed in 1934 at the instigation of the venturesome American patron of the arts Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Bartók's Fifth Quartet received its premiere in Washington, DC, the following year on a program with two other uncommonly challenging works: Beethoven's Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, and Berg's Lyric Suite of 1926. Bartók's music has much in common with Beethoven's late-period quartets, not least its intricate contrapuntal texture and searing emotional introspection. Yet Bartók, like Berg, had a deep-seated conservative streak, and for all its angularity and dissonance, the Fifth Quartet is neither particularly obscure nor difficult to listen to.
A Closer Listen
The quartet's five movements are constructed like an arch, with the central Scherzo bridging a pair of somberly spectral slow movements, which in turn rest on two thematically related outer movements of a predominantly urgent and somewhat frenetic character. (Bartók had used a similar arch form in his Fourth Quartet, but there the slow movements frame the fast ones.) Perhaps the music's most immediately striking and accessible feature is its rhythmic vitality. Bartók's inventiveness in the rhythmic sphere was matched, in the 20th century, only by a handful of composers such as Stravinsky and the great jazz masters. Indeed, the shifting, irregular metrical patterns of the "Bulgarian-style" Scherzo have an almost jazzy swing. Similarly, the overpowering intensity of the first and last movements arises largely from the insistently propulsive rhythms and the characteristically Bartókian repetition of small metric cells that cascade over one another in a relentless torrent of notes.
Bartók's palette of timbres and textures is almost as inexhaustible as his rhythmic invention. Now and then a snatch of diatonic melody emerges from the music's bustling chromatic surface. Just before the end of the quartet, the inner voices break into what sounds like a simple nursery tune. But this half-remembered song of innocence fades quickly, and the music resumes its helter-skelter course toward its unforeseen goal: a startling unison B-flat.