Bartok String Quartet No. 1 in A minor

performed by the Emerson String Quartet

Beethoven left his mark on just about everything.

If you want to talk about ‘cycles’ of piano sonatas, Beethoven has a killer one. Symphony cycle? One of the best. Piano concertos? Five of them. String quartets? You better believe it.

So since Beethoven, it could be that it’s been difficult for a composer to get out from under his shadow as far as looking at an entire body of output in one genre. Since then, though, there have been other composers (obviously) who’ve given us good if not incredible things in those genres. I was talking with a friend the other day about how Brahms’ output in just about any category is dwarfed by Beethoven when it comes to quantity, but obviously his works are of their own incredible quality.

What I’m getting at is that I think there are few composers (after Beethoven) whose compositional outputs could compare with his contributions to music. For a powerful cycle of piano sonatas, I’d suggest Scriabin. For symphonies, there’s Bruckner, Mahler and Shostakovich (among many others). String quartets? Also Shostakovich.

And Bartok.

We haven’t given him much of any attention lately (or really just in general. Only his Concerto for Orchestra has made it to the blog and I’m not proud of that article). He has his own set of piano concertos, too, and no symphonies, but what I’m getting at is that his cycle of (six, still like a third of Beethoven’s) string quartets is one of the most remarkable certainly of the 20th century if not more. Others that come to mind are Schoenberg’s four, as well as Shostakovich’s, obviously, seven from Hindemith, and the five of Milton Babbitt. Those are the ones that come to mind at the moment, and we haven’t touched on most of them yet. So we’re slowly fixing that.

Also, this means Bartok is the next installment in our August set of composers who’ve written violin/chamber stuff, so let’s get started with a work that represents an early important point in his career. We’ll have a chance, rather unlike last week, to see a certain evolution in Bartok’s style, from his (not very earliest but still quite) early output, through to his more mature works, which I’m excited about.

What do you know of Bartok? What qualities could you say his music is most well-known for? Like many composers (but not all), his work did jump out of his Hungarian head and onto paper in a fully-formed mature state. Wikipedia says that his earliest works for orchestra showed clear resemblances to Brahms and Richard Strauss, but this would change. How? Why?

While studying at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, Bartok met Zoltán Kodály,”who influenced him greatly and became his lifelong friend and colleague.” Wiki also says that the composer met Strauss at the Budapest premiere of Also Sprach Zarathustra, but this influence was soon to be overshadowed by greater ones, and both of these factors largely came from Kodály. They were the music of Claude Debussy, and the music of the people, folk music.

That’s what I had in mind earlier when I asked what qualities or style his music is well-known for. I often think of it as pungent, strong, extremely rhythmic, energetic. But we’re not quite there yet. Kodály brought some of Debussy’s compositions back from Paris in 1907, when Bartok was still a more conservative composer. The article then says “The first piece to show clear signs of this new interest is the String Quartet No. 1 in A minor (1908), which contains folk-like elements.”

I would argue that the more obvious, noticeable influence is of Debussy. Brahms loved the earliest work of Zemlinsky and Schoenberg, but I think he would have a hard time swallowing Bartok’s first quartet. Thankfully, though, we recently discussed Debussy’s own quartet from 1893, a decade and a half before Bartok’s first. Let’s go.

It’s in three movements, and labeled as being in A minor. The three movements are played without break, coming in at a bit under 30 mins. The work is related to the at-the-time unpublished “first” violin concerto, written for violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom the young composer had an apparently serious infatuation. Apparently that didn’t go over too well, and it was  “suppressed by Bartok for many years.” Spoiler alert: we won’t be discussing that first (posthumous) concerto this coming week, but some of the content for this first movement of the quartet comes from that earlier work.

The movement begins with two violins, laying out a very melancholy “funeral dirge” as described by the composer. While mournful and very, almost painfully, slow, it’s rich and full and highly contrapuntal. I do wonder what someone like Brahms would have thought of this, because it is at once soft and expressive, pained, even almost mildly grating, but still delicate, lyrical, and very musical. I don’t have any other word to use than that. The impression is that it is almost like a fugue, a very slow one, with each of the four instruments singing the opening gesture before we move on. The music swells and subsides, reaching rich, painful heights, like the rich, dense, moving expressiveness found in Schoenberg’s op. 4.

It’s that kind of music that comes to mind as a clear influence, and I can almost swear I hear near-direct quotes of Verklärte Nacht in little passages of the first movement. It’s an expressive movement, with some very nervous passages, one of which starts here, where the viola practically moans in pain over growls from the cello, the viola later joined by second violin. It’s powerful, rich music, and almost instantly after that passage is light and lyrical again. The movement ends with satisfying, effective echoes of the opening passage.

But without pause, after an A minor chord, we’re into the second movement, marked  Allegretto. There’s a ‘sweetly’ marking at the beginning of this movement, and as soon as the violins enter over the cello and viola, there’s a bit of relief. The mood has lightened, and while it seems an obvious, logical progression from the first movement, it’s noticeably brighter, even almost playful. There’s a buoyancy to the music even if it isn’t bouncy and full of sunshine. Right about here there begins a little whiff of a motif from the violin that unfurls into the first real thing that grabs your attention. In retrospect, the opening felt more like an introduction, a bridge between movements. It’s ear-catching, but also the slightest bit nervous. There are subtly exciting things going on in, like the plucked heartbeat the cello plays shortly thereafter, and it’s these little statements that always lead to bigger things, or connect things we’ve already heard. The impression at the moment seems like it might be that Bartok is just writing music that is meant to sound nice, but upon closer inspection, looking back at everything, one sees that the composer appears to have an end already in mind, that every gesture, every line, every expression is full of purpose, even if it might not be very apparent at first.

The liveliness and occasional bursts of energy in the second movement show a bit more of the folksiness that would later become more apparent in Bartok’s career, but they become immediately more apparent in the third movement, also played without pause from the second. It’s marked allegro for tempo marking, but has a title of Introduzione. We’re actually not to the third movement yet.

This 32-bar passage goes from an almost hectic, bouncy thing to a sudden, slowed down molto adagio much more like the first movement, and only after that are we finally at what is marked as III. for the third movement. There’s a special thing that happens for me in the fifth bar of this third movement, and I think it happened only having heard the piece a few times, and it’s that in that bar, when viola and cello enter (in unison) with that melodic line, I get the impression that this is what the entire quartet up to this point, all 18-ish minutes of it, have all led up to this moment, that this now finally is the focal point of the entire work. It’s exciting, powerful, breathtaking, and the pause-free three-movement form makes the work feel like one long line of increasing energy to culminate in this final movement, more rustically folksy than anything else so far, but not emptily so; it’s full of spirit and forward motion, of meaning and energy. I hear Debussy, I hear Schoenberg, I hear the beginnings of Bartok’s love of folk music, but it’s not a derivative pieced-together composite of disparate styles and ideas, but an assimilation of them into a strong, unique identity.

Bartok was already in his late twenties when he wrote this, so maybe it shouldn’t be shocking that he is writing music this mature, but to have recently come across such a rich variety of musical influences and to digest them and put them to use in this way I think is an indication of real genius.

I’m sure there’s much more to talk about here, like the composer’s use of all his motifs, how that opening falling interval from the very first two notes of the piece seems to reappear, or at least be hinted at, here and there, how themes are developed, how the piece is structured, but I’m actually perfectly content to see it as I’ve shared above, as an exciting trajectory not only within the piece itself (three movements leading away from sorrow and grief into a brighter, more mature-sounding confidence) but also as a turning point in the composer’s output, one that appears to be free of any hesitation or doubt.

We won’t be addressing any of the composer’s other five quartets this time around; I feel like we should cherish them and take it slowly. If the first was of such quality, there are even greater things to come, to be sure. Instead, as with last week, we’ll focus on a few of his works for violin, so stay tuned for those.


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