Bartók String Quartet Cycle Concert - a brief note by Nicholas Kitchen (Spring 2008)

One of the great musical experiences possible to have in one concert is the experience of listening to the six string quartets of Béla Bartók. The Borromeo String Quartet looks forward to the opportunity to share this experience with you.

The concert will take you through the six string quartets in the order in which they were written, and these span a remarkable set of years in human history - 1908 through 1939.

Bartók was 27 when he wrote the first string quartet. The opening four notes of the first quartet are notes Bartók associated with a violinist he had fallen in love with, Stefi Geyer. Their relationship never developed, much to Bartok's disappointment. He wrote to her that the first movement of the quartet was "a funeral dirge" in some reference to their relationship. In keeping with the funereal theme, in the middle of the first movement the viola imitates directly the Hungarian tradition of mourning where a wailing singer vocalises at the wake of a deceased person. This 27-minute work is constructed in a form of constant accelerando. The three movements are played without pause and the slow first movement leads towards a second movement that toys with improvisatory ideas in moderate tempos. This second movement in turn leads to the final movement where great speed and intensity combine to create a thrilling conclusion to the quartet. In this quartet Bartók already has a harmonic character of his own, but one can definitely sense that Bartók is coming directly from the harmonic tradition of the late 19th century.

The second quartet retains much of this romantic sense of harmony. The first movement is has an overtly expressive and romantic character of expression. The second movement is marked "capriccioso" and is certainly playful, but at the same time it is dark. It has a scurrying and wicked character. This quartet might have been given a four movement structure that would end with a faster movement, but Bartók chose to end the piece after three movements. It was 1917 when the piece was completed and the world Bartók had grown up in as an artist was disintegrating in the horrific events of World War One. The first movement of the second quartet conveys a very personal sense of emotional outpouring. The last movement conveys a sense of abject despair. Instead of continuing to a last movement that might provide relief, the second string quartet ends with a beautiful but truly bleak musical character. It is easy to imagine that in the context of the First World War, Bartók may not have felt that he could end this piece any other way.

The third and fourth string quartets were written almost simultaneously in 1927 and 1928. In this time period, Bartók made countless trips into the countryside in an effort to preserve as much as he could of the folk music of the multiple communities of his native Roumania and Hungary. His travels ranged as far as Turkey where he compiled a hand-written dictionary to help him in the countryside. He would travel with an Edison recorder and collect samples of singers and instrumentalists. He would then transcribe the particular pieces of music from the recordings. Bartók did not set out to make quotes of the folk music he had transcribed, but the knowledge of these musical modes of expression turned out to shape his imagination, causing him to create a whole new musical mode of composition. This mode of expression was paradoxical: It was un-intellectual in that it used folk musical elements, but it inspired some of Bartók's most intellectual music in that the short and interestingly-shaped motives inspired Bartók to create some of his most awesomely complex scores. This thrilling complexity is definitely characteristic of the third and fourth string quartet.

The third string quartet is played without interruption through four short movements. The first and third movements have a real emotional effect but are not perceived as melodic. Movement two and four take the whirling dance energy of folk music and combine it with dizzyingly complex canons and fughettas. The climax of the piece in the end of the second movement uses dramatic glissandi in all four parts.

The fourth quartet shares much in common with #3. But now an arch form of five distinct movements replaces the uninterrupted progress of the four movements of quartet #3. The first movement seems to throw blocks of sound at the listener in its loud sections. Its soft sections are a complex layered texture of folk-type melodies. The second movement is muted and incredibly fast and soft. Bartók had a fascination with what he saw as the miraculous interweaving of the natural world, and he lamented that people wished they could turn away from the central role of insects in that balance. Bartók himself was extremely curious about the insect world and in the second movement of the fourth quartet one hears an image of the meticulous scurrying so much part of the natural world. The third movement is said to evoke the sound of a clarinet-like instrument called the Taragotto. It builds greater and greater intensity around a texture that is basically three or two accompanying players and one or two freely ornamenting soloists. This movement is the center of the arch from and the expressive heart of the quartet. Continuing to movements four and five, the "back side" of the arch, the fourth movement becomes a pair with the second movement. But it's special sonority is created by using only plucking of the strings for the entire movement. The fifth movement is a pair with the first and again uses these riotous blocks of loud sound. What had been the soft folk tune is now furious and loud and this movement is one of the most exciting ever conceived for string quartet.

The fifth quartet shares much with the fourth in the technical complexity of the writing and the use of a five movement arch form. What has changed is something about the way Bartók approaches the characters he wants to create. Without becoming any less vigorous in his interweaving of complex textures, he has allowed the individual ideas to become more spacious. Even the aggressive ideas of the opening repeated notes are painted with a larger brush than similar textures in the fourth quartet. The contrasting soft sections are now more song-like as they create dialogues between the instruments. Whereas the middle three movements of the fourth quartet are fast-slow-fast, the firth string quartet is now slow-fast-slow. The second and fourth movements of the fifth quartet share the same harmonic structure as each other, but the second movement is a real Adagio where chord progressions are allowed to unfold slowly with lots of space in the sound. In fact this movement and the fourth come into a category of music that was called Bartok's "night music." The music has a noticeable emptiness and an unforgettable spooky quality. The center of the arch in the fifth string quartet is a lithe dance in a "limping" uneven meter. Its center and therefore the center of the whole piece is an folk them in the viola and cello which seems to almost fly with the special rapid-moving texture which Bartók uses to accompany it. Though the fourth movement shares the harmonic form and some of the night character of the second music it has a furious wind-like texture that is one of the more harrowing I can think of in the quartet literature. The last movement is a pair with the first movement in the arch but the last movement of the fifth quartet moves to a whole new tempo and brings canonic imitation to a virtuoso extreme. In this wild texture one of the most striking moments is near the end where the quartet stops and a simple child's theme takes center stage. It turns out that this theme was the theme of the whole movement but we might not have known it because of the unusual scale forms used in the majority of this theme's appearances. From this moment of stasis the coda hurls itself to the end of the piece.

Bartók's sixth string quartet is an totally different kind of statement. It seems unavoidable to come to the conclusion that the bleak last movement of the second quartet was a response to World War One. It seems similarly unavoidable to come to the conclusion that Bartók wrote the sixth string quartet in response to the tide of prejudice and brutality that overwhelmed Europe during the 1930s. Bartók wrote the sixth string quartet in 1939 on the eve of the catastrophes of the Second World War. The most visible feature of the quartet's construction is the use of Mesto (Sad) at the opening of each of the movements. In the fourth movement is it not just the opening but is the entire movement. What is so beautiful about this work is that is conveys this profound sadness but it is not in the slightest way a morose work. In fact, this piece covers the widest range of emotion, and some of these emotions are completely joyful. The ease with which Bartók could compose at this point is evident in that the sixth string quartet has a very rich, layered sound throughout the piece, but this harmonic complexity seems to come with less effort. In the first movement in particular, the dialogue of the instruments has a carefree sense of exchange that belies the complexity of the way the textures are put together - the richness of the harmonic layers. The second movement seems to parody the military marches but doesn't spend much effort in sarcasm, but rather creates a richly colorful quartet sound full of rhythmic vigor. The middle of this movement is almost literally a folk music setting with impassioned solos for cello and first violin. The third movement is a "Burletta" and is as ingenious and rich as any movement Bartók wrote in all the string quartets. The last movement is the Mesto which sums up the sixth string quartet and also becomes a beautiful summation of the all six of the string quartets. In the first movement the Mesto theme is the viola alone. In the second movement it is the cello that plays the theme with a second voice added. In the third movement the first violin leads and there are three voices. By the Mesto movement that concludes the quartet, the theme is being accompanied with all of the instruments. The texture is rich but eloquent. I find the profundity of the harmonic meaning of each tone chosen in this Mesto can only be compared to the most moving musical slow movements of Bach. This is music that communicates tremendous sadness, but music that has dignity and unforgettable beauty.

When we arrive at this Mesto at the end of the sixth string quartet we will have taken a musical journey which not only charts many of the imaginative achievements twentieth century music but forms a reaction to a tumultuous history that all humanity lived through in the not too distant past. This music gives voice to the ambitions that lead us to brilliance and allows a musical channel for many of the strong emotions we all feel. It is a privilege to have this music and to share it together on this concert.