“I have even had time – and the ability – to compose a bit; it seems as if the muses are not silent even during a modern war,” wrote Bartók in 1915 to his friend János Busitia. The Second String Quartet, on which Bartók began work that same year, was not, however, completed until October, 1917; difficult, restless times during the war and the oppressive atmosphere, in addition to a great deal of other work in progress at the same time, the most important of which was the ballet pantomime the Wooden Prince, permitted Bartók to concentrate on his quartet only from time to time. Are these interruptions in his work also reflected in the form of the piece? Zoltán Kodály has characterized its movements as “episodes”: 1. Calm, 2. Joy, 3. Sadness. But even though the movements are highly different in nature, they do form a solid entity whose foundations lie far below the surface. The brief, meditative themes in the last movement, and the fine, lyrical, freely evolving themes of the first are based on the same combinations of intervals, especially the second, fourth and tritone. References to combining thematics of this kind can be found also in the tranquillo section in the middle of the second movement.
The work begins like an early Haydn quartet with a peaceful Moderato sonata movement with almost no internal conflicts. All three of the movement’s themes are tranquil in nature. The last two emerge, almost unnoticed, from the material in the first. Skilful changeovers and a uniform tempo create the effect of perfect continuity, as the work progresses like a concise little story. The development is based mostly on the thematic material of the first motif. The most surprising moment in the recapitulation is the appearance of the third theme, with naive simplicity, like a folk song, in octaves in the violins against a pizzicato accompaniment in the cello. This section presages the famous “hurdy-gurdy episode” at the end of Bartók’s Fifth Quartet.
Allegro molto capriccioso is the complete opposite of the first movement, a burlesque game, which contains a great many sudden turns: sudden changes of tempo, fluctuations in the musical emphasis from melody to rhythm and tonal colour, marked dynamic emphases, glissandos, pizzicatos, etc. The word “capriccioso” describes its nature succinctly. The movement has a rondo form with a development-type section in the middle. The effect of folk music is more open, more direct in this movement than that found in the other movements of the quartet. The development motif, made up to two interwoven tritones, is followed right at the beginning of the movement by a melody like an Arabic folk tune on which its burlesque tone largely relies. The movement ends in a humming prestissimo section, played con sordino, which has no equal except the finale of Chopin’s B minor piano sonata.
Lento represents the highly ascetic slow movement found here and there in Bartók’s work. The composer ends a multisectional piece for the first time with this kind of movement in his Suite for piano, opus 14. This same idea was a significant part of the three-movement form of the quartet, in which peaceful sections surround a fast rondo. The Lento has an expanded A B A form.