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Bartók, Béla

Bartók, Béla (1881-1945)

Quartet n° 1, opus 7 (1908-1909)

This first Quartet by Bartók was premiered on March 19, 1910, by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet, an ensemble that would also give the first performances of his three subsequent ventures in that field. This work initiated what is considered as the most significant contribution to the string quartet repertoire since Beethoven. It is the first major opus by the young composer, who was 29 at the time. The music actually evokes Beethoven in several respects: the fugato writing of the first piece is similar to the initial Adagio from opus 131, its gradually accelerating tempis (Lento - Allegretto - Allegro Vivace) also recalling Beethoven's in opus 131. Although it momentarily evokes other composers, such as Debussy (cello solo in the Lento) and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (the thirds  in Act III's Prelude are quoted in the same Lento), one must acknowledge the totally distinctive and genuine nature of this Quartet n° 1, opus 7, with its introspective character and yearning for musical  evolution. The autobiographical references contained in that first quartet also make it a true intimate journal. One should know that at the time, Bartók was also composing a (posthumous) violin concerto for violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom he had had a liaison before experiencing a painful separation. The first quartet is reminiscent of this turn of events: "This is my dirge", Bartók would write to the young woman in his last letter to her. He was referring to the initial Lento, its resigned and somber tone in accordance with the harmonies from Tristan which are heard at the end, symbolizing the lovers' death. The Lento features austere and linear writing, with its canons and twelve-tone chromatic scales, as well as a deliberate lack of harmonic definition. The second piece, linked to the first one by a short transition, outlines both a two-theme sonata form and a distorted waltz undergoing a series of subtly modulating tempos. The Allegro Vivace actuates a "return to life"  (thus also recalling Berlioz's Lelio), in the words used by Kodály to characterize this finale, with its syncopated popular Hungarian themes, fugato writing and fluctuating colors and accentuations. The listener might also want to focus on the extensive psychological journey at play in this work as a whole: from the depths of its beginnings, the music ultimately transforms into pure joy, expressing a renewed faith in life. Here again, one might recall this was also the underlying program to Beethoven's Opus 131. As they have manifested themselves a posteriori, such analogies hold great promise for Bartók's five subsequent quartets, which the Molinari Quartet will have the pleasure of sharing with us in the course of the next two years, as it performs the composer's six quartets and before the presentation in a single concert of the entire corpus during its 2003-2004 season. -

Jean Portugais


Quartet n° 2, opus 17, Szöllösy 67 (1915-1917)

This Second Quartet, written during World War One, in 1915-1917, at Rákoskerezstúr, in the Eastern suburb of Budapest, was premièred on March 3, 1918, in the Hungarian capital by the Hungarian Quartet (Waldbauer-Kerpely). A dramatic work of moving lyricism, this second quartet is imbued with intimacy, sadness and rage. The score’s autobiographical undertones shed light on Bartók’s pessimistic and somber nature, a side of him which will only be heard again in his sixth quartet. As it happened, Western Europe was to discover Bartók through this second quartet, when it was performed in Paris in 1919 on the occasion of a programme of works by the Groupe des Six. The Quartet op. 17 was composed during one of Bartók’s highly creative periods, where he also wrote his single opera, Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), The Wooden Prince (1914-16), and the Suite opus 14 , for piano (1916). The overall form of the second quartet is tripartite  : 1st part : moderate and lyrical , 2nd part : fast with harsch rhythms, and a 3rd part Lento filled with longing and sadness. Bartók’s friend Zoltán Kodály nicknamed this work "Episodes" and its three movements as follows : " 1. The Quiet Life, 2. Joy, 3. Suffering". The 1st movement, rich in dark brooding tones and typically Bartókian melodic contours, begins with the outer movements’ generating motif : two ascending fourths followed by a descending second. The movement recalls musical moods from works of youth dedicated to Stefi Geyer (Violin Concerto, "Portrait of a Young Girl") and exudes some of the melancholy that was found in his 1st quartet, composed ten years earlier. The 2nd movement, inspired by the composer’s research on Algerian folk music, integrates elements from the coarse dances originating from Biskra. The piece is striking in its barbaric intensity, its ferociousness, its pounding rhythms and majestic dissonance. A variation on the rondo form, this Allegro features a wealth of instrumental techniques such as marcato, staccato,pizzicati, percussive effects, etc., and has come to typify the Bartókian style. The last movement, marked Lento, unveils a gloomy funeral march, expressing lament and grief over a world where death and destruction have prevailed. According to Halbreich, its harmonies are "somber and lunar, with hieratic and glacial sentiment". The work is quite sparse and its intense sadness obviously bears witness to the period of World War One. It closes on suspended pizzicattis from the viola and the cello, like a question without an answer… -

Jean Portugais, May 12, 2003


Quartet n° 3 (1927)

Written in 1927, Bartók's 3rd Quartet is the most concentrated and expressionist of the six quartets by the Hungarian composer. It distinguishes itself by a great expressive tension and by an absolute mastery of contrapunctal writing. Its first part is slow and assumes strict sonata-form, while the second is fast and comprises a theme and variations, ground-breaking through its extremely concentrated form. Both parts get tangled as the second starts before the first ends. Besides this contrast in tempo, an opposition also exists between thematic and melodic materials: the first section brings great intervals into play, while the second reveals a consecutive-notes thematic. Expressive intensity peaks as new colors are obtained by applying such technical effects as ponticellos (bowing the bridge), glissandos, pizzicatos, martellatos (hammering sounds), harmonic sounds, col legnos (with the wood of the bow), playing to the tip and frog of the bow. The innovative variety of the Bartókian colors won a following as none of the quartets composed afterwards eluded them. -

Olga Ranzenhofer


Quartet n° 4 in C major (1928)

Bartók's Fourth Quartet was written from July to September 1928. Three characteristics stand out from this masterful quartet in a striking manner : the wild beauty of its starkly violent dissonances, the development of new sonorities brought to new limits and a concentric structure comprising five movements. Let us briefly outline each one of them. Clashing, frenetic and sometimes dark in spirit, this opus is riveting on a number of levels. The expression is tense and unrelenting, sharp contrasts are designed with colors and climates, major and minor intervals create continuous friction, along with unbridled rhythms and an underlying tone that is now bitter, now fierce. The Hungarian folk themes are also greatly distorted, if not altogether ruthlessly hacked up. As for the variety of timbres, here are some examples : the dynamics form a wide spectrum ranging from ppp to fff, the four instruments produce simultaneous runs in glissandis (a bold gesture at the time), an entire movement is written in pizziccatis, and a series of effects are to be produced by the musicians, like the ponticello (play near the bridge), the col legno (striking the string with the wood of the bow), or the violent pizziccatis where the string snaps as it is plucked with great force against the fingerboard (this technique is now referred to as the pizzicati alla Bartók). Such innovations have had a deep and lasting stylistic influence on the music written for quartet ever since. Finally, the concentric structure of the Fourth Quartet is remarkable in its articulation around the core third movement, marked Non troppo lento. Shadows, airs and bird songs infuse this movement, which is nestled between two scherzis, themselves framed by two ambitious outer movements in sonata form. In this manner, Bartók put together a structure in the shape of an arch, ABCB'A'. The first scherzo is to be played prestissimo, with mutes suggesting a relentless and frightful escape forward. The second scherzo, written entirely in pizziccatis, provides the sardonic vision of a distorted serenade, produced notably with the technique alla chitarra. But the most potent musical substance lies in the outer movements. The first movement introduces the generating motifs for the whole work while the fifth proves to be the most striking in its ecstatic rage, shifting accents and raging fierceness, still unheard of some seventy-five years later. -

Jean Portugais and Olga Ranzenhofer


Quartet n° 5 (1934)

Composed in Budapest from August 6 through September 6, 1934, Bartók’s Quartet n° 5 was commissioned by the American patroness Elizabeth Sprague-Coolidge. It resembles the Quartet n° 4 in C major in the adoption of an arch form, but this time with a scherzo as the central element. Often cited as Bartók`s most important quartet, this work stands alone in its purely thematic writing, which here replaces the use of generative motifs characteristic of the earlier quartets. Musicologist Pierre Citron describes the utterly unforgettable beginning of this quartet thus: "If the announcement of the Last Judgement were to be made by strings instead of brass instruments, the task of awakening the dead would be entrusted to the strains of the first five bars of Bartók’s Fifth Quartet." The formal design of this opus is particularly interesting: the overall arch form of the work as a whole is echoed in the form of the movement and the themes create a micro-structure that is also an arch. Written in sonata-form, the first movement, Allegro, introduces three themes. The first, in its strikingly orchestral scope, alternates binary and ternary rhythms and is developed in canon by two groups of instruments. The second theme, more folkloric in its syncopated rhythms and large intervals, is every bit as energetic. Only with the pizzicato ostinatos of the third theme, lyrical and chromatic, does a sense of calm enter into the work. The development builds on the tritone. The reexposition presents the themes in the opposite order from the exposition with an additional inversed presentation to further highlight the arch form. The Adagio molto is highly intimate and sober. A chorale in the low registers underlines a melody uttered by the violin. Harry Halbreich sees this movement as "the peaceful vision of a garden bathed in moonlight". The captivating central movement, a Scherzo alla bulgarese, takes its irregular meter from Bulgarian folklore. This rhythm allows the theme, still arch-shaped, to express itself with great fluidity at a very rapid tempo. The pizzicatos of the cello provide an echo of Western jazz. The second slow movement, Andante, revisits the ideas developed in the first. Here, trills are replaced by pizzicatos and groups of eight measured notes. The central theme is far more elaborate, and is played in canon with the cello. In the passionate climax the Hungarian theme is presented by the two violins in the high registers, above a storm of sixteenth notes in the lower voices. The furious fifth movement of over 800 bars, Presto final, has a perpetual motion feel about it, punctuated by contrasting episodes, at times full of humour, at times dramatic. The material of the first movement is revisited in a simplified form in tempos ranging from 132 to 160 the quarter note. There is abundant originality of colour and texture: glissandos, ponticellos, col legnos, barrel organ-like sounds, accents and contrasts. Strettos and even a breathless fugue bring this quartet to a flamboyant conclusion. -

Jean Portugais and Olga Ranzenhofer

(Translation: Marc Hyland)


Quartet n° 6 (1939)

Bartók’s Quartet n° 6 is a mournful and harrowing confession he wrote toward the end of 1939 in his despair over the war. Nazi occupation of Hungary had begun and would leave him with no choice but to flee to the United States a few months later. Although it displays the expected four movements, the work does not abide by classical structure. Each movement opens with an extended melody marked Mesto (sad), which takes on greater prominence as it is repeated. The successive repetitions of the sad theme feature the addition of one instrument, expanding this polyphony from 12, to 15 and to 20 bars, before ultimately filling up the duration of an entire movement, the last one. Bartók derived the work’s entire thematic content from this sad lullaby played by the solo viola, at the work’s beginning. Each movement explores a fragment of this melody in ever-slowing tempis, with an expression deepening with gloom and despair. The first movement, Vivace, with its theme to be played pesante, recalls the theme from Beethoven’s Great Fugue. This fast and elusive movement in 6/8 is a two-theme sonata-form, the second theme featuring a rhythmic rather than melodic personality, with its typically Bartókian choriambic rhythm. The Mesto, played by the cello now surrounded by the three other instruments, is followed by a slightly grimacing Marcia with dotted rhythms, recalling the irony of Mahler. The march and its unrelenting accelerandis give the impression the music is going to break apart. The central trio is full of contrasts, notably in its rubato section, where the cello sings out a Hungarian melody beaming with passion and glissandis. The repeat of the march brings back swirls of irony through countless double stops, harmonics and trills. The Burletta follows a third presentation of the Mesto, played this time by the first violin. This movement borders on the grotesque with its snarling repeated notes, syncopated rhythms, quarter-tone frictions and sudden movements bouncing forward. This is the music of an embittered and disheartened Bartók, a man forced into exile, with everything collapsing before his eyes. In the fourth movement, the grotesque character of the pervasive Mesto is gradually left out. This music constitutes one of the composer’s most personal testimony in sound. The score requests that the theme be played successively in a poignant manner, senza colore (without color, unpolished), lontano (distant). The music desintegrates. All hope has vanished. Questions remain unanswered. No ending seems possible. The theme, now almost lifeless, stumbles and eventually dissolves into nothingness. From that point on, only exile was to save Bartók from desolation. -

Jean Portugais and Olga Ranzenhofer

(Translation: Marc Hyland)



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