Bartók String Quartet no. 3

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

Bartók’s third string quartet was written in Budapest in 1927, putting it just after the first piano concerto in his output. Remember, despite the low numbers, these are not early compositions. It is the composer’s shortest quartet, coming in at less than a quarter of an hour.

Wikipedia says of the work that:

The piece is widely considered to be the most tightly constructed of Bartók’s six string quartets, the whole deriving from a relatively small amount of thematic material integrated into a single continuous structure.

And that certainly seems to be the case. The work, as they say, is in “one continuous stretch with no breaks,” with the score showing divisions into four separate sections, as follows:

  1. Prima parte: Moderato
  2. Seconda parte: Allegro
  3. Recapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato
  4. Coda: Allegro molto

The Emerson Quartet’s recording puts the second and third sections together in one track that is still only five minutes in length. As you’ll notice from the above markings in Italian, it seems what we’re working with is a single sonata-form movement.

Despite these straightforward labels, though, Wikipedia tells us that the ‘recapitulation’ isn’t literal, but a sort of “varied and simplified” restatement, and that the coda isn’t the ‘tail’ added on section that the name would suggest, but actually “a telescoped recapitulation of the seconda parte.

It’s a tightly-organized single piece of music. The reason I’ve placed it at a slight remove from Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle in our layout is because it has been suggested by some that Bartók may have taken inspiration for this work from Berg’s Lyric Suite, which we just discussed yesterday, so it seemed only fitting to put them in the right (chronological) order. It came only a year after Berg’s work, quick on its heels, and uses extended technique for strings, like sul ponticello and col legno (playing with the wood of the bow rather than the hair, usually by tapping the strings). Overall, it’s a more mature work in its complexity, harmonic vocabulary, and structure.

The prima parte is marked moderato, and may seem similar to the second quartet in its bleakness. Mark Satola’s writeup at AllMusic is worth a read, as he discusses some of the political and historical influences that may have inspired or precipitated some of the content of the movement. In any case, the work begins, I said ‘bleakly’ earlier, but it kind of slowly builds momentum until a first theme appears. Satola says “The mood is desolate, though the folk-like themes are clear and immediately comprehensible.” They give spirit to the work, and even though it’s not a carefree dance like in Contrasts, the folk nature is readily apparent.

Actually, on second thought, I really don’t want to spend much time analyzing this work play-by-play. You can read Satola’s relatively detailed description of the work, but I’d ask that you do so after having given this work at least a few listens. It’s such a tightly-structured work, so brilliantly conceived, that to discuss its secrets and parts is to spoil it, like knowing before you go visit the Colosseum in Rome that there’s a separate world under the main arena, of rooms and mazes and doors. The excitement of finding that out in person, on location, is incredible (or I imagine it would be; I knew about it before I went), to experience it for yourself, and I feel like even an amateur listener can give a few dedicated listens to this work and start to see what makes it so special.

If you’re going to do that, think of it like some magical forest, a whole population of trees, perhaps only barely visible from a distance, blanketed in a fog, with only an enormous, unending swathe of green visible from your vantage point. However, once you get down there, on the ground level, the fog isn’t so thick. Did it go somewhere or are we just in it? And now the trees, we can see not only each tree, but its individual details, maybe even paths of others who’ve been here before.

And, certainly, Beethoven has been here before, among others, not least of which is Liszt, for the “structural integration” of the work. As modern and foreign and folk-song as this piece clearly is, we are constantly hearing counterpoint and development, and even those beginning groans from the first movement reveal themselves to be related to the content we hear later. Angular intervals and shifts give shape to the lines, making them recognizable as they reappear and morph, what Satola calls an “increasingly arduous rhetoric.”

In both contrast and continuation of those ideas, the seconda parte begins, with a violently plucked string, and this indeed introduces a feature that stands out in this work, the ‘Bartók pizzicato’, such a forceful pluck that it slaps back against the fingerboard with a sharp snapping sound. As Satola mentions, these aren’t just for added color or texture, which they certainly provide, but to underline a real important quality of this piece, and perhaps of Bartók’s music overall: percussive rhythms and the importance of folk-like qualities in his work, both of which we could hear in the piano concertos and other chamber works we discussed last month. This work is no different, and these qualities create a greater contrast with the first part of the quartet, while still continuing to use its source material.

For me, the result this gives is one of nearing a singularity, a point of no return. As you may or may not know, a body orbiting the sun from an uncanny distance, perhaps near or beyond Pluto’s orbit, not only has farther to go in its trip around the sun, but tends to travel more slowly, as it sits at the far(ther) reaches of the sun’s gravitational reach. Objects in the (still theoretical but probable) Oort Cloud, then, would travel around our life-giving sun in what Bill Bryson calls a “stately” orbit, maybe only a few hundred miles an hour, and it’s rare that some gravitational perturbation would send one of them careening toward the inner Solar System, but such a thing does happen, as comets glimmeringly attest.

But back to this work. Overall, the trajectory gears up, as the energy reaches nervous highs in the second part, but we’re still in the same ‘system’, as it were. I could be in error in stating that the material of the ‘second part’ is actually derived from that in the first, as they are contrasting ideas, but they at least sort of begin from the same place, as Satola mentions that “A return of the initial parlando motif, now on the cello, launches the ‘Seconda parte’…”

But what about this recapitulation? Well, Wikipedia has described it as being more “varied and simplified.” Satola describes it as “even more desolate than the original,” and if I were pressed to continue the orbiting illustration, we’re now flung past the sun, on the outbound side of our orbit, flying away but also slowing down. Things are blisteringly hot throughout the recapitulation, but the cello’s line carries over into the coda, which melts into a languid lament.

By the time we reach the coda, once you’ve heard the piece a few times, we know we’re on the downward side of the hill, out the other side of the forest (how many illustrations need there be here, really?), and the coda is the final echoes of the powerful, densely-packed emotional landscape we just got through.

This is an outstanding example of how something as academic sounding as ‘structure’ and ‘form’ can really enrich the appreciation of the work, how exciting it can be, and also how a work of such apparently small stature can truly be epic in the scope of what it presents. I know I said I didn’t want to describe it in too much detail, but it’s an emotionally charged journey that you can enjoy with zero knowledge of the piece, full of color and passion, and once you’ve listened a few times, you can begin to hear how important the structure is in this work, what gives this 15 minutes its power and density, and even if I haven’t discussed it in complete detail, we can still be thrilled at having something at which to marvel, and I do, every time I listen.

Maybe this is a great first quartet for someone who hasn’t gotten around to Bartók yet, or just to more modern music in general. It is certainly a standout to me. We’ve had quite a bit of Bartók lately, centering around his piano concertos and his opera, with a handful of chamber pieces around them, but it’s made me more interested in appreciating more of his work, so do (eventually) expect to see more of him on the blog. There’s a piece of his that needs a revisit article anyway, so that may happen sooner than later.

We have only a few more weeks of opera left, only two more pieces, really to discuss, but the whole thing is pretty intimidating, so I haven’t planned much else around them. Thank you so much for reading, and please do stay tuned for more.

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