Bartók’s First String quartet is closely related to the First Violin Concerto (op. posth.) written in 1907–8 and its sister work Two Portraits, op. 5. These compositions, as Bartók’s letters show, have a semi-programmatic nature: in them, the composer limns a picture of the various aspects of his beloved Stefi Geyer’s character. But he was disappointed in his love for the violin-playing Stefi, and the intimate, ethereal ideal shown in the first movement becomes a “song of death” in the corresponding movement of the quartet.
Bartók’s words point to a painful personal experience, the rejection of his beloved. But they also arouse – as was Bartók’s intention – a musical association. The work in which the motives of death and love are combined is Wagner’s Tristan. Love and suffering are expressed in it in tension filled chromatics, which blur the impression of a clear key. This tonal ambiguity created by an ever-present leading tone is also characteristic of Bartók’s First Quartet. Its style represents a stage in development which was known at the time as “die Moderne”, but which a couple of decades later was labelled “late romanticism”.
Each type of music has its own tradition, which dictates what kinds of problems arise and how they are solved. Beethoven progressed in his last five string quartets to an area to which the quartet composers of the 19th century were unable to follow him. Their point of departure was the quartets of Beethoven’s middle period. Bartók was the first one to take up the challenge of Beethoven’s late quartets in his very first quartet opus. His main model was the quartet in C sharp minor, op. 131, whose opening fugue is reflected in Bartók’s Lento. The quartet’s form, which breaks down all the borders of a classic quartet, is especially Beethovenian in nature. The slow opening movement leads attacca into the second movement, whose Allegretto tempo is not established until after a score of introductory bars. The third movement is preceded by an Introduzione, mostly based on a monophonic recitative, and its vivace expression is broken off by a weighty, intensively cantabile Adagio section. The movement also contains a very Beethovian fugue.
The bold, seemingly unbalanced basic pattern is solidified as it was in Beethoven’s music – by an unflagging, underlying effort to create a unity of the themes in the different –movements using “substance relationships” of varying degrees.
Bartók’s musical language in his First Quartet is still in a fluid state, with the different elements seeking their proper combinations. In addition to being influenced by Beethoven and Wagner, Bartók was also influenced by Debussy, as shown in certain parallel triad progressions and in the whole-tone scale of the final beats of the finale. The effect of folk music – Bartók had studied folk music only a few years before – was still external and limited in scope. It can be heard most clearly in the declamatory rubato melody of the middle section of the first movement, accompanied by a folkloristic open fifth in the sforzato cello.