Bartók’s quartets represent an astonishing body of work; six breathtaking pieces, each a masterpiece; along with the Beethoven cycle they represent a priceless gift to humanity. As brilliant as the Beethovens are, practically speaking they often don’t sit comfortably under the hands like the Bartóks. Although fiendishly difficult, Bartók knew how to write for quartet. I always feel he trusts me, saying “I know this is hard but I’m not asking you to do anything you can’t do.” Not that Beethoven didn’t understand strings - he just didn’t care. When the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh complained about the difficulty of one of his quartets, Beethoven responded: “Do you suppose I care about your lousy fiddle when the spirit moves me?”
While no one writes a quartet without the specter of Beethoven looking over one’s shoulder, what Bartók brought new to the table was a passion for the folk music of his region, an area that today encompasses Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia. With his friend Zoltan Kodály he recorded and hand-transcribed ten thousand folk melodies. His heart resided with the infectious, pulsating rhythms of the people and the land where they lived. Critic Philip Kennicot put it succinctly:
The influence of folk music, processed in Bartók at a level far deeper than quotation or pastiche, is everywhere present in these quartets, Bartók turned to folk music for reasons quite different than, say,Vaughan Williams or Dvořák, who sought engaging, ready-made melodic material.The folk music of Eastern Europe was disruptive, dissonant, and dizzyingly complicated on the rhythmic level. The turn to folk music was not, for Bartók,nostalgic, but rather a way forward. What he found there wasn’t simplicity, but density, and in that density was a modernity as vital as anything hatched in he musical systems of Paris and Vienna.
If Bartók’s music seems to spring directly from the soil, it is also firmly grounded in structure. Map the movements of the fourth quartet and you’ll see they comprise a kind of arch. Bartók wrote:
The slow movement is the nucleus of the piece, the other movements are, as it were,bedded around it: the fourth movement is a free variation of the second, and the first and fifth movements are of the identical thematic material.Metaphorically speaking, the third movement is the kernel, movements I and V the outer shell and II and IV, as it were, the inner shell.
The arch pervades the entire piece down to the smallest detail. The first movement is based on a melody that the cello plays in the 5th measure containing an arch-like theme which goes up and then down.
It doesn’t take long for Bartók,like a cat toying with a mouse, to run with the idea, turning it upside down,backwards, breaking it into fragments and reassembling them, Frankenstein-like.
This worrying over thematic material pervades the piece. Here is the opening of the 2nd movement: that arch again….
Or this section of the 4th movement with all four musicians in staggered formation making an arch.
The quartet is anchored by the eerie 3rd movement, the “kernel,” that begins with a plaintive melody. Here is the beginning of the cello solo for anyone who would like to follow along.
The 5th (last) movement begins with a version of the second theme from the 1st movement.Gradually, the first theme from the 1st movement infects the 5th movement so completely that the quartet ends the exact way it began: the last two measures of the first and last movements are nearly identical.
Thus the arch is brought, breathlessly, to a close.
David Yang, Artistic Director