Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was a child prodigy, taking piano lessons as a young child with his mother and making his public debut at age 11 with one of his own small compositions on the recital. Subsequently, he studied with a pupil of Franz Liszt at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. His first orchestral work was a tone poem in the vein of those by Richard Strauss (whom Bartók met in 1902), but he was also influenced by the music of Claude Debussy and Johannes Brahms. Beginning around 1908, however, his music reveals a new attraction to Hungarian folk songs. That year he traveled with friend and fellow academy alumnus Zoltán Kodály through the countryside, collecting folk melodies. Bartók integrated these into his own works, not only simply by quoting folk tunes but also by adapting traditional harmonies and dance rhythms.
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Béla Bartók’s six
string quartets are iconic works, articulating the divide between Romanticism
and Modernism, East and West, emotional expression and rational conception. It
took music theorists years to crack the code on how the scores were put
together, the result being a trove of publications that try to explain Bartók’s
obsession with palindromic, mirror-like musical forms, symmetrical pitch
arrays, and unusual scales.
The paradox, if
not perversion, of the analyses is their disregard for the kinetic dimension of
Bartók’s music—that is to say, how it moves the body. The quartets range in
reference from keening laments to rustic round dances to the eerie rustling of
critters in the night.
It’s often noted that Stanley Kubrick relied on Bartók for
the soundtrack to his horror film The
Shining. Violence is
enacted upon the strings. In other words, Bartók’s catalog of effects is not
for classical music’s faint of heart.
The First String
Quartet of 1909 is the tamest of the set, and can be appreciated outside the
matrix of technical diagrams. It’s a personal work, a musical tribute of sorts
to violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom Bartok fell desperately in love in 1907. He
even composed a special musical gesture for her: a stack of thirds—two major,
one minor—nicknamed the “Stefi” motif. It is heard using the pitches D–F-sharp–A–C-sharp
in his Violin Concerto of 1908. The two movements of that piece were intended
to represent the hot and cold sides of Stefi’s personality, which perhaps
explains why she ended her relationship with the composer at the time of his
completion of the First String Quartet.
In one of his
letters, Bartók described the first movement of the quartet as funereal. For
Malcolm Gillies, the music bears the influence of Beethoven, specifically the
opening fugue of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14. But Wagner is also in the
mix. Bartók’s first movement recalls the bitter, dissatisfied longing of the
title characters in Wagner’s Tristan
und Isolde. Listen closely, however, and the comparisons fall away. Bartók’s
dense corkscrew of notes cannot be likened to the slacker constructions of his
From this tense
state, the second and third movements progress to a more lighthearted ending.
Much has been made of the influence of different folksong traditions in Bartók’s
mature works, and the First String Quartet is seen as a transition into the
folkloric syncretism and abstraction of his later years. The third movement
offers a simple example of this influence in the emphasis on five-note,
“pentatonic” gestures. Other passages suggest the rhythmic flex, or rubato, of
folk singing. Gillies reminds us, however, that even here—in the bustling
village of the third movement—Bartók’s affair with Stefi Geyer left its mark.
The cello mocks a popular Budapest song titled, in translation, “Just a Fair
Jeremy Geffen introduces Bartok's String Quartet No. 1, revealing the young composer's indebtedness to Strauss, Debussy, Wagner, and Beethoven, while he also displayed the simplicity he derived from his study of Hungarian folk music.
The Parker Quartet performs the third movement from Bartók's String Quartet No. 1.
Juilliard String Quartet | Sony
See the Brentano String Quartet perform Bartók's String Quartet No. 1 at Carnegie Hall on March 21.
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