Bartók, String Quartet No. 3

January 29, 2006

Béla Bartók, 1881-1945

String Quartet No. 3, 1927

Belá BartókMost commentaries summarize the chamber music of Béla Bartók as follows: Bartók made the most significant contribution to the string quartet since Beethoven and his quartet cycle is the most important of the 20th century. These are powerful words. How has this conclusion been reached and what does it really mean? It is quite possible that a lover of Beethoven is, at least initially, confounded by the music of Bartók. How are the two composers related? It is worth exploring this generally universal summary in greater detail.

Like Beethoven, Bartók's relationship to the string quartet was an intimate, life-long preoccupation. Bartók wrote his first, unpublished quartet at the age of eighteen. His six mature published quartets span a period of thirty years. Bartók began preliminary sketches for yet another quartet shortly before his death in 1945 at the age of sixty-three. As with Beethoven, Bartók's music shows a dramatic stylistic evolution with each quartet exploring a new terrain of musical thought. Like Beethoven, Bartók radically expanded the notion of the string quartet in nearly every dimension: form, technical means, tonality, rhythm and essential musical content. Finally, as with Beethoven, Bartók's quartet cycle is regarded as an intimate personal journal of a brilliant creative spirit, uncompromising and unrelenting in a search for new musical expression. Despite using what might first appear to be an unrecognizable modern language, Bartók's quartets fit perfectly within a continuous trajectory of exploration in the quartet medium, true to the principles of quartet writing including its most essential properties.

Bartók recording folk musicThere is not enough space here to properly explore the unique properties of Bartók's music nor the influences and events that contributed to their formation. Aside from his historical context, education and significant musical gifts, the single most important influence on Bartók was his extensive exploration of Hungarian folk music. One of the first important and highly academic ethnomusicologists, Bartók regarded this folk music as a perfected art equal in significance to Western art music. His eventual resolve was to achieve a fusion of both forms in a daunting synthesis that some have called the meeting of East and West. From his native folk music, Bartók absorbed the essence of melodic and rhythmic patterns but also more abstract organizing principles such as concision and constant variation. Rarely quoting the original folk sources, at least in his major works, Bartók reworked their spirit through the most lofty aspects of classical music achieving a blend that is strikingly original, fascinating, curiously approachable and unutterably profound.

Bartók transcribing folk musicBartók's six quartets trace a sort of arc of development beginning with the influences of late Romanticism and ending with a quartet in four movements in a relatively tonal language, though distinctively Bartók's own. The middle quartets are more radical with the third quartet representing Bartók's most "difficult" music, the farthest extreme of his explorations. The shortest of the cycle, String Quartet No. 3 has only one movement divided into four parts with readily perceivable boundaries. The core of the quartet comprises two parts. The first part is slow, poignant and generally fragmentary, built from a few short motives introduced within the first several measures. The second part is fast, lively, more continuous and based on longer themes, most of which are closely related permutations of a single idea. This part is driven through a dramatic intensification by the acceleration of tempo, pungent rhythms, the tension of fugue and a kaleidoscope of coloristic effects, one of the most distinctive aspects of Bartók's quartet writing. The third part is a compact recapitulation of first part, explicitly named as such, though, typical of Bartók, hardly literal. The final part is a brief coda that recalls the second part in a compressed resurgence of driving motion that builds to a conclusion of enormous power. The music is dense and complicated but astonishingly ordered. If not apparent to the ear, a reading of score reveals an extraordinary wealth of counterpoint featuring canons, two different fugues (in the second part), and many of the learned devices found in Bach and Beethoven including inversion, augmentation, stretto, etc. Like all truly great music, the quartet works on many levels from the surface sensations to the deepest details of construction. Its richest musical meanings require repeated listening, if not a lifetime of contemplation.

More Bartók: Kodály and Bartók: 2 Short Chamber Pieces

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.