Bela Bartok - String Quartets Alban Berg
Alban Berg Quartett
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BARTOK: STRING QUARTETS Nos. 1-6
To write string quartets in the twentieth century must be to pay one's respects to history, and Bartok's six are fully aware that they stand on the shoulders of Beethoven (not only late Beethoven) particularly. But where they emulate Beethoven most profoundly is in effecting a sea change, as he did, in the quartet's sound and substance. This is partly a matter of new materials, of the glissandos. pizzicatos, mutings and fierce multiple stops that abound in the Third and Fourth Quartets especially. More deeply it is a matter of a new distance and objectivity in quartet writing. Bartok's quartet textures are rarely conversational: the medium has lost its friendliness. Quite what it has become will be for listeners to discover, as those listeners who have been later quartet writers - Shostakovich Britten, Carter, Babbitt, Boulez - have themselves had to discover in dealing with works that have marked the twentieth-century quartet as forcefully as Beethoven's marked that of the nineteenth.
Bartok wrote three quartets while he was at school, the last of them, in F major (1898), bearing the signature "Bela von Bartok" and showing the composer was pointing himself in the Brahmsian direction suggested by his friend Dohnanyi. During the next decade, however, his musical world was drastically altered by his absorption in Liszt. Wagner, Strauss. Debussy and Magyar folksong, and his published First Quartet (1907-9) marks the arrival of a new personality after that battering of influences. It was first performed by the Waldbauer Quartet (who also gave the first performances of his next three quartets) at an all-Bartok concert in Budapest on 19 March 1910.
The work is in three movements which grow increasingly fast, vigorous and decisive, as if they charted indeed the arrival of a new voice. There are even motivic connections to emphasise the point, for the falling semitone of the first movement's middle section is extended successively to make the main theme of the Allegretto and then that of the A//egro vivace. Most of the first movement, though, is concerned with imitative polyphony emerging from a violin duet that itself emerges from paired falling sixths: F -A flat, C -E. These together make up a minor version of a motif that Bartok had associated with Stefi Geyer in the concerto written for her, and the whole movement, which he described as a funeral dirge, might be understood in the light of their relationship - though it marks the
passing,.too, of Bartok as a late Romantic composer. The second movement is still confused, most notably by the presence of the whole-tone scale, presented quite straightforwardly as a scale: like Schoenberg. Berg. Webern and Stravinsky at the same time (though he would hardly have been aware of them), Bartok uses ostinatos to stabilise music in which the sense of key has become weak.
Ostinatos become still more vivid a presence in the finale, which, like the Allegretto, is a sort of sonata movement, prefaced by an introduction made up of chordal summonses separating recitatives from cello and first violin. However, the movement is also galvanised by an element of variation so intense that it sometimes amounts to parody. Much of the "development section", for instance, is a/ugato whose abrupt principal theme is teased into a playful grazioso subject; and before this passage the theme has taken on another mask, as the melody to a banal quasi-operatic accompaniment in G sharp minor. This is very Bartokian. So too is the recasting of the driving second theme to make an impassioned adagio lament, or the quick replacement of this same idea by its inversion. But just as characteristic as the violent variation is the rhythmic energy of this music: its fast
pulsations and its vigorous syncopations of the common time that is the prevailing metre. Not for the last time, Bartok is most insistently himself in a folkdance scherzo.
The Second Quartet (1915-17) has its scherzo in the middle. The first movement is a sonata form very vaguely in A, with F sharp minor as secondary key: this tonality, together with the moderate tempo, the abundance of material, the corresponding length of the exposition and the constant motivic alteration, suggests a kinship with Schoenberg's Second Quartet. The principal theme, though subject to seemingly endless variation (and here for once the mode of Bartok s argument is conversational), makes a point of fourths and minor seconds, which intervals are responsible not only for the movement's harmonic uncertainty but also for its flavour of Hungarian folk music.
That flavour is inevitably sharper in the central scherzo, even though its background may also include the music Bartok had recently heard in Algeria. It is, like several of Bartok's scherzos, an ingenious rondo of dances: it is also exactingly quick and colourful for the performers. Bartok savours in particular the frenzy of a pizzicato note thrown into quick bowed music, as in the main theme, though the strangest sound in the whole quartet is the final prestissimo of this movement, taking a pace of ten notes per second and cinsuming the basic material in a shimmering haze.
After the decisive D-centredness of this movement, the final Lento moves around and toward the half A minor of the opening, surveying, from its aerial, adrift location, the melodic subject matter of that first movement too. There are the outlines of sonata form, but they are, like everything in this movement, uncertain and inconclusive. If the scherzo of the First Quartet was a homecoming. that of the Second is an unavoidable but disruptive experience destroying even the tentative security that had been pieced together in the work's opening movement.
Then the Third Quartet (1927) combines both these types of scherzo in its furious compactness. Playing continuously, it has four sections in a slow-fast-slow-fast pattern. The "Prima parte" is a joined sequence of meditations on several small motivic cells, of which the most important is formed from a rising fourth and falling minor third. The "Seconda parte" is a 2/4 scherzo like the middle movement of the Second Quartet and a sonata form like the finale of the First, but on both counts the similarity is only partial: there is a constant tension between overlapping, abutting and simultaneous duple and triple metres, and the larger structure is obscured from view by the stridency of the harmony and the condensation of the material into tiny, highly active particles of a few notes. Also, the energy of the music keeps it going into a substantial coda after the relatively straightforward recapitulation (the development is once more a fugato). Once this coda has at last abated, a "Ricapitolazione della prima parte" steals in, though what one hears is not so much a recapitulation as a revisiting of certain ideas from the first part, seen in a new context. After this comes a "Coda", which is effectively a second coda to the second part. But far from wrapping up the argument, this final section ends on an upbeat. so that one might imagine the dialogue of contemplative fantasia and vital sonata continuing indefinitely.
The Fourth Quartet (1928). though it followed so soon, is quite different in form, if similar in its range of special effects (these Bartok possibly took from Berg's Lyric Suite, which he had heard two months before writing his Third Quartet; his experience of folk fiddlers is also likely to have been useful). A complex single movement gives way to a system of five quite distinct movements, arranged in a mirror symmetry (ABCBA) so tight it makes the superficially analogous patterns of the First Orchestral Suite and First Piano Concerto look lax and coincidental. The finale has many motivic connections with the first movement, and gathers such a number of correspondences that at the end it runs into the tracks taken by its predecessor and concludes with the same music. Moving inwards, the second and fourth movements are both scherzos, again related in terms of motif and also in speciality of colour: the former is a Prestissimo, con sordino, the latter an Allegretto pizzicato. Moreover, while the outer movements both end firmly on C. these scherzos reach a major third above (second movement) and below (fourth movement), so that the quartet as a whole outlines an augmented triad. The central slow movement lies outside this scheme, being based on a pile of fifths on D; it is also distinguished, within so urgently polyphonic a work, by its texture of solo murmurings that grow into melody against static harmonic support. The twin scherzos include not only the muting and pizzicatos indicated by their markings but also a deeper penetration of glissandos than had come in the Third Quartet (second movement) and a new kind of pizzicato, often called a "Bartok pizzicato", in which the string is pulled so hard it snaps against the fingerboard (fourth movement). There are also relationships of speed and timing, the second movement being roughly twice as fast as the fourth and twice as long in rhythmic units, so that the two movements have very similar durations. Still more striking are the analogies of theme and form. Both movements are based on rising and falling scale patterns, but where in the second movement the scale is chromatic and its range a fifth, the fourth movement uses Bartok's favourite diatonic scale, one found in Romanian folk music (as played by the viola near the start of this movement it is A flat-B flat-C-D-E flat-F-G flat-A flat), and expands the range to an octave. Both movements, too, have an ABA form complicated by the fact that the return of the A material is disguised by development incorporating aspects of the B music, which in both movements is based on a three-note chromatic motif. Such structural complication is also a feature of the basically sonata-form first movement and the ternary finale, whose main theme is a diatonic version of the six-note chromatic motif that gradually invades the first movement. Yet another aspect of the work's taut consistency is the frequency of canon and imitation by inversion, not least in the finale.
Strict counterpoint also abounds in the Fifth Quartet (1934), which again is a palindrome in five movements. In style, though, it is quite different, belonging not with the abrasive Third and Fourth Quartets but rather with the more self-assured and diatonic Second Piano Concerto that had intervened. As in that concerto, the formal symmetry is centred on a scherzo, flanked by parallel slow movements (in the concerto they are parts of the same movement) and framed by a sonata and a rondo. But, significantly, the scherzo is not bounding or intensive like its predecessors among Bartok's quartets; it is, rather, playful, being a game of cadences in shifting Bulgarian metre (4 + 2 + 3/8), with a trio in dissolved polyphony. Around it. the slow movements are nocturnes, thematically related, particularly as they start, but different in atmosphere: entomological and human, perhaps.
The outer movements are more elaborate. The first is built on an ascending whole-tone scale, with a first subject anchored to B flat, a second that strives to get away from C. and a third, smoother than either, in D. The development then takes place within the sphere of E (the augmented fourth functions as dominant, as so often in Bartok). after which the three subjects are recapitulated in reverse order and inverted: the third is in F sharp, the second digs down towards A flat, and the first is again chained to B flat. All of them duly appear in new variants in the exuberant 2/4 finale, which, repeating a gambit from the Fourth Quartet, links hands with the first movement as it ends. But it remembers other movements too, most explicitly in one extraordinary passage where a theme from the Adagio molto is given a degrading barrel-organ treatment, and so the work s exhaustive variation of itself spills over into parody.
There is parody again in the Sixth Quartet (1939). and variation. Indeed, each of the four movements begins with a different treatment of the same music, heard as a viola solo in the first and then presented in progressively longer and richer forms until in the finale it occupies the whole substance. It is as if each movement were an answer to the same question, that answer first taking the shape of a sonata allegro based on two themes: a curling cadence like the principal theme of the Fifth Quartet's scherzo (but now eschewing Bulgarian exoticism for standard 6/8). the other a tune in a variety of C minor. Both return, much decelerated, in the finale, suggesting less the symmetry of the Fourth and Fifth Quartets than the catastrophic alteration of the Second.
If the connection is just, then the agents of the catastrophe this time are the distortions offered in the middle movements, Marcia and Burletta. Both are in plain scherzo-plus-trio form, as if their deep irony had robbed them of any potential for the usual structural ingenuity. The march theme is a bald simplification of a phrase from the slow introductory material: still more grotesque is its trio, where the cello sings that material in an appallingly cheapened form, accompanied by violin tremolandos and banjo strumming from the viola. Then the Burletta exposes the work's repeated question to further abuse, this time more clownish in style, with the dry discords, ostinatos and special effects of Stravinsky's quartet pieces. The finale does not. of course, bring the work to a satisfactory answer but rather pursues the question into silence, the last silence of these quartets.
- Paul Griffiths, 1987