Bartók’s String Quartets

Bartók’s six string quartets constitute one of the greatest cycles in the genre in the history of music. In terms of volume, he falls far short of the Viennese Classics Haydn with 80 quartets, Mozart with 26 and Beethoven with 17. However, in terms of substance Bartók’s quartets rank alongside Beethoven’s five last ones.

The decreasing number of quartets in the output of these composers reflects the relaxation of the norms of the genre and the development towards each work being an individual. At the end of the 18th century, it was customary to publish string quartets in batches of six. Even Beethoven’s op. 18 follows this practice; and his op. 59, which contains three quartets, is a half-hearted nod in that direction. However, from op. 74 onwards each quartet is considered as a work in its own right instead of an interchangeable representative of its genre. Expression had become so important and the norms of the genre so familiar that they no longer needed to be underlined or observed.

The Romantics had a problem with this ‘classical’ genre. Their best approaches to this problem involved augmenting or changing the ensemble. Mendelssohn’s most impressive chamber-music work is the Octet he wrote at the age of sixteen, for double string quartet. Schumann’s best approach was replacing one member of the string quartet with a piano, while Brahms added a clarinet. In the field of the string quartet itself, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms trailed far behind their predecessors. The late quartets of Beethoven were an insoluble enigma for them.

Bartók took up the challenge. His lifelong struggle with the problem of the string quartet resulted in six masterpieces. Many of his contemporaries (Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel, Berg) were content with writing a single quartet. The quartets of Schönberg (5), Hindemith (6) and Shostakovich (14) do not quite make the premier league.

If one had to single out one work to serve as the predecessor to Bartók’s quartets, the present writer would opt for Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor op. 131. Consider the opening fugue of Bartók’s First String Quartet op. 7 (1909) and recall the corresponding movement in Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet. This is an abundantly clear case of a composer paying homage to an admired master yet retaining his own personal voice. There are further parallels. The seven numbered movements of the C sharp minor quartet can be seen as a five‑part structure, since the third and the sixth movements are brief intermezzos leading into the following longer movements. This highlights the symmetry of the design. The core of the work, the melodic Andante prefaced with an Allegro introduction, is flanked by two scherzos, which in turn are surrounded by the expressive Adagio and the dynamic Allegro finale, which opens with an Adagio introduction.

This is the scheme that Bartók came to grips with.

1. The First String Quartet (1909) has three movements. Lento (I) moves on after twenty‑odd bars of introduction into Allegretto (II), and a page and a half of Introduzione leads into Allegro vivace (III). The symmetrical structure and the use of introductions are clearly derived from Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet. This is Bartók testing his wings in solving the difficult problem of form in a string quartet.

2. The three‑movement shape recurs in the Second String Quartet (1915–17), but now with a capricious burlesque as the middle movement, Allegro molto capriccioso (II), preceded by a tranquil Moderato (I) and followed by a slow Lento (III). Zoltán Kodály described these movements as ‘episodes’: I Quietness, II Joy, III Grief. The symmetry of the whole is more balanced than in the First String Quartet. The short meditative motifs of the Lento and the exquisitely lyrical, freely evolving themes of the Moderato are based essentially on the same combinations of seconds, fourths and tritones. These combinations also appear in the tranquillo section of the middle movement, akin to the traditional trio section in a scherzo.

3. The symmetry comes further together in the Third String Quartet (1927), where all three movements and the extensive coda are played without a break. Here, too, there is a scherzo (Seconda parte) in the middle, surrounded by two Moderato movements (Prima parte and Ricapitulazione della prima parte). The coda is not a coda to the last movement but to the entire quartet, a reshuffling of the whole pack of cards.

4. In the Fourth String Quartet (1928), Bartók implemented for the first time the formal scheme he called the ‘bridge form’. This is a manifestation in its full bloom of the model derived from Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet. The core of the five‑movement work is Non troppo lento (III), which is surrounded by two scherzos based on the same thematic material, Prestissimo con sordino (II) and Allegretto pizzicato (IV) – the first, obviously, played with mutes and the second by plucking the strings. The outermost layer is formed by two fast movements that likewise share the same thematic material, Allegro (I) and Allegro molto (V). The balance is worthy of a Greek temple. This is music from the neo-classical period, albeit expressionism is not wholly forgotten.

The key to the bridge form lies in the story underlying the Cantata profana (1930), based on Romanian Christmas carols. In this poem, nine young men pursuing a mythical elk turn into elks themselves as they cross a bridge; a metamorphosis occurs in which the substance remains the same but its form changes. This is what happens in the Fourth String Quartet: when the middle movement, the bridge, is crossed, the material is recast in a new character and meaning yet remains essentially the same.

5. Another variation of the bridge form can be found in the Fifth String Quartet (1934). Here, the order of movements is slightly different in that the middle movement is a scherzo (Alla bulgarese), surrounded by two slow movements, Adagio molto (II) and Andante (IV). The outer movements are fast here, too: Allegro (I) and Allegro vivace (V). The greatest surprise of the work is the ‘barrel organ’ episode that interrupts the tight counterpoint towards the end of the finale, a banal tune first in A major and then in B flat major over an A major harmony. This enigmatic episode is the key to the material of the whole work: consider an inverted set of variations where the theme is not presented until the very end.

6. In his Sixth String Quartet (1939), Bartók takes a wholly original approach to form. The introductory motif that opens the first movement is played by the viola alone; this motif reappears scored for two parts at the beginning of the second movement; for three parts at the beginning of the third; and in the fourth movement it fills the entire movement in four-part form. This Mesto motif envelops a classical sonata allegro (I) and the two middle movements labelled by the composer as Marcia (II) and Burletta (III). They are character pieces from the world of the rhapsody, with tinges of the enlisting dance (verbunkos) popular in Hungary in the 19th century. Bartók had previously used dance tunes reminiscent of this tradition in his both Violin Rhapsodies (1928) and in Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano (1938).

There is folklore material elsewhere in Bartók’s quartets too, both on the surface and underneath. We may note the quasi-Arabian dance melody in the second movement of the Second String Quartet and the Bulgarian scherzo (III) of the Fifth String Quartet with its slightly lopsided 4+2+3/8 rhythm. However, never before had Bartók based two movements of a quartet on dances from the verbunkos tradition. In the case of the Sixth String Quartet, this design has a particular significance that extends beyond the music itself.

The Marcia is a slow dance (lassù) styled as a march. Its main theme is a Romanian-type dance tune in 2/4 time, with a martial ‘heroic’ character provided by the severe dotted rhythm, as Bartók pointed out in his study on Romanian folk music. However, the Marcia in this quartet is no heroic march – on the contrary, it is brutal, grotesque and ironic, and leaves no doubt as to what Bartók felt about the looming threat of war in August 1939, which is when he was working on the quartet in Saanen in Switzerland. The foreboding of a major calamity is also present in the anguished lament of the violins rising from under the persistent dotted rhythm. This is related to the slow movement of the Divertimento, also written in Saanen during that oppressive August. The Burletta resembles a fast dance (friss) in the verbunkos style. Its gruesome blaring is created through hammered repeated notes and glissandi whose beginning and concluding notes are a quarter-tone out of tune.

Bartók’s cycle of six string quartets is not only a magnificent body of music but an impressive depiction of the world in the four first decades of the 20th century. Autobiography and world history entwine with each other in them as they do in reality.

The First String Quartet is the most clearly autobiographical. It is closely related to the First Violin Concerto op. posth. (1907–08) and its sister work Two Portraits op. 5 (1907–11). The subject of the portraits is the violinist Stefi Geyer, whom Bartók was unhappily in love with. In all these works, the first movement is a lyrical idyll, albeit not an unbroken one: the tonal instability caused by the ever-present leading note reflects the fatal bond between love and a premonition of death. Tristan and Isolde. Bartók bids farewell to the languidly erotic, flowery Art Nouveau mental landscape of the turn of the century.

The second portrait (the third movement in the quartet) is a grotesque caricature. All illusions have been dispelled. The beloved is not beautiful and wonderful but ugly and deceitful. In the Sixth String Quartet, the object of disillusionment and cause of disappointment is not a woman but culture. Marcia and Burletta are an image of a civilization that trod all the values of Humanism underfoot in two world wars. Mesto is a melancholy lament on how beautiful the world could have been.

Helsinki Festival 21.8.1998

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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