• Golden Age Composer Portrait Bartok
  • Béla Bartók

    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.

    In 1940, with Hungary an Axis power allied with Nazi Germany, Bartok fled to the United States, where he struggled personally and professionally. In 1944, after years of ill health, he was diagnosed with leukemia. His last work was a commission from Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra: the Concerto for Orchestra, premiered in December 1944. That same year, he finished the Violin Sonata and his Third Piano Concerto. A Viola Concerto was left unfinished at his death.
  • Notes on the Piece

    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 Romantic predecessors.

    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 Girl.”

  • Watch


    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.

  • Watch


    The Parker Quartet performs the third movement from Bartók's String Quartet No. 1.

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