Bartók String Quartet no. 4, Sz. 91

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

(cover image by Patrick Hendry)

We’re going on a little journey. Come with me.

Back to Bartók, and now in the second half of his output of six string quartets. The fourth was composed between July and September of 1928 in Budapest, just a year after the third quartet, with which it shares a similar language and style.

There are a few ideas in classical music, structures or forms or whatever, that really fascinate me. One is the passacaglia, or chaconne; another is the palindrome (e.g. Webern or Simpson, and even Haydn), as well as ‘reverse variation’ form, but the one that we’ll be discussing here is one that Bartók makes at least semi-regular use of is the arch form.

That can’t be too difficult to comprehend, huh? It’s especially clear when there are five movements, giving the quartet a real ‘center’. The work has a duration of about 21 minutes, and is organized as follows:

  1. Allegro
  2. Prestissimo, con sordino
  3. Non troppo lento
  4. Allegretto pizzicato
  5. Allegro molto

On the most superficial level, we’d guess that the first and fifth movements are a pair, bookending the entire piece, that the even-numbered movements complement each other, and the center, or heart, of the work is the third movement, and you’d be right.

This is so much the case, though, to the point that the Brentano Quartet’s fantastic program notes written by Misha Amory actually discuss the piece in this manner, with 1 and 5 discussed before 2 and 4 and finally 3, reflecting the relations across the work as a whole.

In a sort of programmatic or illustrative way, I’d explain the overall effect of this work somewhat like walking into a cave or a forest, a new unfamiliar place, and finding yourself somewhere secluded, spending a little time there in isolated silence, before walking back out. This to me is the journey we’re taking in Bartók’s fourth. Obviously each individual movement has its own merits, as we shall see, but we go out the way we came in, but it’s somehow different.

Wiki tells us about the first movement: “Though not traditionally tonal, it is centered on ‘C’.” That’s not really relevant to the average listener, but what you may more easily hear develop is tension in the movement, building as we move toward the second movement. This is part of our journey, and we could discuss how the movement “gradually progresses from cluster-like elements to full chords,” but what you’ll notice more readily is the thematic material, these figures used over and over again.

It has what I’ve in the past been able to describe only as a “sticky” quality, being easily identifiable, memorable in the neutral sense of easy to remember rather than pleasing or surprising. The first movement, with its building tension and focus around a mass of ideas, feels like picking away at a difficult knot, turning it over and over, trying to loose it and get inside. In any case, this ‘stickiness’ of the first movement’s themes will be important later.

The second movement, paired with the fourth as the two shortest movements in the work, is like a whispered scherzo, like children trying to play quietly after they know they’re supposed to have gone to bed. It’s a quiet but intense perpetuum mobile, but it fades here and there, like a fog has rolled in and obscured something, but it doesn’t last. The scurrying continues until the game ends.

The central movement, referring back to that earlier illustration I haven’t forgotten, is like the quiet place we find at the end of our hike, except it’s not the end, just the climax, so we’re actually only halfway. Cello takes over here in a much mellower movement, almost sage-like, in kind of an aria with the angelic glow of the other string players in the background. They eventually join, or interrupt, a violin stuttering before daring to join in. But seeming to have said nothing and everything, the work ends much like one of those conversations we agree never to speak about again.

After this, we’re now reflecting back, sort of retracing our steps on the way out, so the fourth movement mirrors the second, and in one sense it’s even more hushed in that there’s not a bow to be seen. The entire movement is plucked, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s quiet or serenade-like. It doesn’t have the whir that the second movement did, but we get some of the famous fingerboard-slapping ‘Bartók pizzicato’ and there’s a rustic dace-like feel, like an aside, passing by a celebration that wasn’t there earlier maybe.

And then here we are at the finale. Remember the first movement’s stickiness, those themes that seemed to stand out so easily, like shapes carved out of clay? They’re back! What we have in this finale is the counterpart to the first movement, obviously, but also a continuation of the dance-like elements of the fourth movement. This movement is propulsive and kind of raw in the way that Stravinsky’s Rite is, which I recently heard the NY Phil play on the last stop of their Asian tour. It’s positively barbaric, that work, but exhilarating. The conflict we heard in the first movement seems to return, or else continue, here, and sparks fly in the duel that finishes the piece.

I don’t mean to graft arbitrary programmatic elements onto this work, but it does in some sense make it easy to grasp. Otherwise it can be like watching Game of Thrones, where you can’t remember who’s who or where or related to who, and the farther you move along in the story, the less meaning it has. That’s not so good.

We don’t need to know every single detail about the characters, like how they met, when they had which kid, why they chose his or her name, etc., unless it’s relevant to the plot, and the same is true here. There may very well be some nuts-and-bolts details about this piece that could fascinate a more dedicated listener. In fact, the Brentano notes, linked above, discuss Bartók’s fascination with mirroring phrases in inversion or retrograde, even in specific phrases, where there’s a question-and-answer or mirror image reflection in phrases in the first movement, but without a score, that may take some more focused listening.

The takeaway is that this work has real depth to it, viewing it as a mirror of itself, the arch form, or as a linear progression, and each of those angles and qualities and facets of the work lends it credibility and interest far beyond just a quartet with loud and soft parts, like the composer’s ‘night music’ that some critics say makes up the central movement. But you can enjoy it any way you like. It’s a very interesting work.

That’s all for Bartók for now, but we do have a few more B- composers coming up, and then a few more additions to our Editor’s Choice series, so do stay tuned, and thank you so much for reading.

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