Bartók String Quartet no. 2, Sz. 76

performed by the Emerson String Quartet, or below by the Takács Quartet

Bartók’s second quartet was written between 1915 and 1917, in Rákoskeresztúr, Hungary (or Gerersdorf in German, for those of you who don’t like consonants as much). What you may or may not think of when you see years like 1915 or 1917 is the First World War.

Rákoskeresztúr was and likely still is a rather remote place, and Mark Satola at AllMusic does state that “Bartók was living in seclusion outside Budapest during the years of the First World War,” and that some of this solitude might be part of the very fabric of this second quartet. He also mentions its “classical detachment and Apollonian poise” that set it apart from the pre-war works and their “intense emotionality.” I’d still say this work is emotionally charged, but in an intimate, very personal, maybe even almost uncomfortable way.

The second quartet, like the first and third, is in three movements. It’s essentially a central rondo bookended by two slow movements, an interesting layout that kind of… insulates the intensity of the middle movement, making for that intimate, secluded feel that this work has.

It was dedicated to the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet, who gave the premiere performance of the piece on 3 March, 1918 in Budapest. Zoltán Kodály, fellow Hungarian composer, expressed his thoughts this way, per Wikipedia:

[He] thought of the three movements of this quartet as “life episodes,” heard “peaceful life” in the first movement, and for all its roiling emotions, the movement does indeed leave an impression of tranquility at the end.

Program notes from the Brentano Quartet website, written by Mark Steinberg, discuss the composer’s pursuits in ethnomusicology and his relationship to folk music, being not just “an exotic accent” in his musical language, “but rather a chosen language in which he could directly express himself.” He also discusses the piece as begin “a classical tragedy, Shakespearean in scope and weight,” even paralleling it quite directly to King Lear. That may be a bit of a stretch, but he says that in this “motion is preordained, present in germinal form from the very first moment.” He also gives a more complete version of the Kodály quote that Wiki provides, stating:

What emerges from the successive movements is not a series of different moods, but the continual evolution of a single, coherent,  spiritual process. The impression conveyed by the work as a whole, though it is from the musical point of view formally perfect, is that of a spontaneous experience.

The first movement presents the building blocks of this work. Many say major and minor seconds are they key intervals; Howard Posner for the L.A. Philharmonic says “The first movement opens with a leaping motif based on the interval of a seventh – a quintessentially atonal figure.” That may sound intimidating to some listeners, words like atonal or dissonant, but it’s interwoven into a fabric of tonality, giving some sense of familiarity and tenderness to the movement, rather than just acrid dissonances. They accent each other, bringing out each other’s contrasting flavors. But aside from simply enjoying this interesting landscape growing around us, the seeds of the rest of the work are already sprouting.

If you didn’t hear some kind of exotic fragrance in the first act of this drama, it certainly jumps out at us in the opening of the second movement. The music explodes into activity, an almost violent contrast against the first movement, and in these opening bars, we hear an almost gypsy-like line, breathtaking, a wild splash of entirely new colors. Posner says “Serious Bartókians will tell you that the melodic material owes much to the Arabic music the composer studied on his North African trip” but that his Hungarian heritage isn’t entirely absent. This movement may be the heart of the work, the central part, but like a heart, it wouldn’t be much without the stuff that surrounds it.

The final movement is made up of, well, very little. It might be what air sounds like, or the evaporating away of something. I said at the beginning that this work is a central rondo bookended by two slower movements, but coming to this third and final movement, it is of such sparse substance that it is perhaps more suitable to think of it as a postlude to the contrasts and argument made by the first two movements. Kodály apparently heard it as “suffering,” but perhaps you’ll hear it as resignation, as exhausted, defeated exhalations. What do you hear, in these distant foggy echoes of the major and minor seconds that played a key role in the first movement? Do you hear the tragedy Steinberg speaks of? It’s important to hear the major and minor seconds as a main feature of this work to appreciate the “continual evolution” of which Kodály speaks. The entire piece finishes with two plucks, like a final heartbeat.

While this evolution, the return of the main theme in the finale, weathered and aged, may not be immediately recognizable, the three segments of the journey should be clear and relatable in some form or fashion. It’s not your typical slow-fast-slow layout, but neither is Bartók’s harmonic language. While clearly not 12-tone, nor atonal, nor whole-tone, he is much more comfortable with dissonance and harmonies than many who came before, these elements, like the use of folks themes, makes for a language that is distinctly Bartók.

I don’t want to give the impression that everything I have said about this work is everything there is to say. Far from it. I feel that this is a piece, like many, that grows with the listener, means something different to everyone, but at a very basic level, could perhaps be a good warm-up, or a primer, for more modern music.

As I said earlier, words like ‘atonal’ or ‘dissonant’ or whatever else might be used (that doesn’t apply here) to describe music of a more modern, challenging idiom, can be intimidating to listeners, especially if they’re not inclined to be more adventurous with their listening.

However, there are a few great things about this work. For one, the context is sort of something that people have at least some concept of, the effects of World War I on Europe, and the world, but on a personal level, Bartók’s personality, his relationship with his country and its music. History and context aside, though, it’s a powerful work, with an intoxicating middle movement incorporating folk-like melodies, and then an almost spectral, discarnate final movement. It might not be something that convinces on first listen, but at least intrigues, then eventually spellbinds.

This is mature Bartók, as he was already in his 30s, but not the most mature Bartók. It’s only his second string quartet of six. We’ll be seeing somewhat more of him in the coming week, so do stay tuned, but for now, if you haven’t already (and even if you have, I guess) go give this wonderful quartet a(nother) listen, and we’ll chat again soon, and as always, thank you for reading. Viszontlátásra. 

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