The Kennedy Center

String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 17

About the Work

Béla Bartók Composer: Béla Bartók
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

During the early years of the 20th century, Béla Bartók became obsessed with the folk music of his native Hungary. He and his friend and colleague in composition Zoltán Kodály trooped the hinterlands with, at first, pen and paper, and, later, a primitive phonograph to record the indigenous songs and dances that differed substantially from the four-square melodies that had been passed off for decades as authentic. What they found was music whose rhythms exhibited an invigorating irregularity, whose modes eschewed conformity to the commonly accepted scale patterns in favor of a dizzying variety of pitch organizations, and whose method of performance allowed for inflections and expressions which not only enhanced the basic song but also displayed the individuality of the singer. With the dedication of a religious zealot, Bartók spent forty years collecting, transcribing and codifying Central European and North African folksongs, always mindful that these ages-old but fragile remnants of evolving cultures might vanish forever before he could preserve them.

Bartók's own music absorbed the impact of his research, and by the time of the First World War, the influence of folk idioms on the rhythms, melodies and moods of his works had become pervasive. "The question is, what are the ways in which peasant music is taken over and becomes transmuted into modern music?" he asked in a 1920 article. "We may, for instance, take over a peasant melody unchanged or only slightly varied, write an accompaniment to it and possibly some opening and concluding phrases.... Another method by which peasant music becomes transmuted into modern music is the following: The composer does not make use of a real peasant melody but invents his own imitation of such melodies.... There is yet a third way in which the influence of peasant music can be traced in a composer's work. Neither peasant melodies nor imitations of peasant melodies can be found in his music, but it is pervaded by the atmosphere of peasant music." The String Quartet No. 2 is among the earliest examples of this last method of incorporating folk influences into concert music. The work was composed in the Budapest suburb of Rákoskeresztúr between 1915 and 1917, the war years when Bartók largely withdrew from public concert life. Unable to travel to continue his research in folk music, he spent much of that time organizing the mountain of information on the subject that he had collected during the previous decade, and composed little. His only important original works of that time were the ballet The Wooden Prince and the Second Quartet, but the Quartet marked a significant advance in his creative language through its permeation by subtilized folk idioms. "The whole direction of Bartók's later writing might be deduced from this one work," wrote Halsey Stevens in his biography of the composer. The Second was the first of Bartók's six quartets to be recorded (in 1925 by the Amar Quartet, with Paul Hindemith as violist), and has probably enjoyed more performances than any other composition in the set.

Kodály said that the three strongly profiled movements of the Second Quartet represent: "1. A quiet life. 2. Joy. 3. Sorrow." The sonata form of the opening movement is worked out with Bartók's characteristic rigor. The main theme, given by the first violin, begins with a quick leap upward followed by a long note and a phrase descending through chromatically inflected melodic leadings. The other instruments are drawn into the discussion of this subject, and lead directly to the second theme, a melody in smoother motion in which is imbedded a little turn figure in triplet rhythm. The development section is largely occupied with tightly reasoned permutations of the principal theme. The recapitulation returns the earlier material, though the second theme is truncated to just a brief reminiscence, with the balance of the movement devoted to a developmental coda grown from the main subject.

The Allegro that occupies the center of the Quartet bears the immediate imprint of folk music: its form is a chain of continuous sections arranged as a loose rondo, like a peasant dance with a returning refrain; its rhythm is ferocious (the Allegro barbaro was composed only four years before; the Rumanian Dances of 1915 include a Stamping Dance); its melodic material is contained within a limited range and circles around a few central pitches; its phrasing consists of small repeated units. The movement ends with an extraordinary coda that plays a quiet transformation of the main theme at such breakneck pace that the music becomes a buzzing murmur.

The finale is bleak and sorrowful, music of intense expression that may reflect the grief of the time of its composition. Though the movement seems to unfold freely, pausing occasionally for a thoughtful breath, it is carefully generated from a small cache of melodic gestures: tiny, two-note motives, given by the second violin, that use the intervals of a third (in its conflicting minor and major versions) and a fourth; a brief arching phrase, posited by the first violin, that recalls the principal theme of the first movement; and a falling figure of two short notes followed by a longer note.