Béla Bartók, 1881-1945
Today, Béla Bartók is considered one of the great, modern musical innovators of early 20th Century. In a span of some forty years from the end of the 19th century into in the years before WWII, European “classical” music underwent not just one but several revolutions with new, divergent directions established by Debussy, Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, and, “in secret”, the American composer Charles Ives. Perhaps somewhere along a spectrum between Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Bartók forged his own path starting from late Romanticism, adding some Debussy, and then a deep infusion of Eastern European folk music from his field studies, yielding a distinctive, complex, high art that is uniquely his own. While Bartók composed music in all the standard genres, his chamber music occupies a central place in his life and oeuvre. His six, mature, complete string quartets composed over a span of thirty years comprise a probing cycle of intense and profound exploration and innovation second only to Beethoven. With a distinctively new musical language cast in a variety of novel forms, enriched by a fresh technical means and sonorities, Bartók’s six quartets boldly establish a new chapter in the history of the genre such that, even today, they sound modern, strange, even, like late Beethoven, imponderable. But they are always striking, rich and deep.
Bartók composed his sixth and last string quartet in the late summer and winter of 1939 during an extraordinary time of turmoil and trouble. In the march towards war WWII, Hungary proved conciliatory towards Hitler’s Reich with a sharp rise in fascism. Bartók became bitterly disillusioned and was soon threatened for his anti-fascist sentiments and, artistically, what became regarded as his “formalist” tendencies. It was clear he and his family would have to flee to safety to the United States where Bartók had sent his latest manuscripts for safekeeping. During this same time, Bartók’s mother was dying, a tragic parallel between mother and motherland. This is the context in which he composed the sixth quartet, his last music written on native soil, nearly his last important composition altogether. It stands as well as a final masterpiece in a span of Bartók’s greatest artistic creativity, the epic years of 1934-1940. The quartet would not receive it’s premier until 1941 in New York City by the Kolisch Quartet to whom Bartók ultimately dedicated the work. At the time, Bartók was essentially poor, sickening with the onset of Leukemia that would kill him by 1945, and, as yet, practically unknown in the New World. Following his death and the end of WWI, Bartók’s star would rise as the significance of his musical legacy eventually became apparent.
Bartók’s first five quartets, innovative in nearly every aspect, bore little to no resemblance to the traditional four-movement plan. It is not until his sixth that he finally casts a string quartet in what appears to be a four-movement design but even here Bartók pursues a novel conception. The first three movements begin with a slow, somber section marked “mesto” (sad or sadly), each time changing instrumental scoring and growing in length until the final movement gives over completely to the soulful, unresolved lament effectively ending with quartet with a slow movement. As if to temporarily forestall the permanent onset of sorrow, the first three movements arise out of their partial, mesto introductions with vigorous, fully-fledged forms: a first movement sonata, a second movement march and a third movement “burletta” or burlesque. The two inner movements clearly follow a ternary, three-part design like a scherzo but Bartók’s characteristic drive towards constant variation finds the reprises quite different than their originals, returning almost as colorful, sardonic parodies of themselves with a powerful affect that is both musically astonishing and disturbing. The second movement march reflects the strong folk influence of the Hungarian Verbunkos or recruiting dance with a pompous and no doubt hubristic confidence portending the onset of war. A kind of wailing trio evokes a strong Gypsy tinge while the eerie whistling of the reprise unsettles. The third movement burlesque also evinces a strong peasant dance flavor with a rustic, off kilter character made by vivid by intoxicated slides and Bartók’s instructions for one of the fiddles to play a half-step out of tune. It’s reprise in Bartók’s elaborate vocabulary for pizzicato effects is a startling deconstruction.
The mesto finale banishes all real or sarcastic feints of vitality as the thrice-stated theme of mysterious sorrow saturates the movement amidst mournful recollections of the first movement’s two sonata themes. Here, various writers have heard suggestions of Beethoven’s “Must it be?” question theme, as well as ghostly evocation of Webern’s Langsamer satz. Bartók completes his stunning quartet cycle not with a bang, but a whisper, an unresolved despair refusing to answer because it is imponderable or unspeakable. Amidst Bartók’s objective musical originally one finds here a highly subjective and personal expression, always a hallmark of the string quartet through history.