The Kennedy Center

String Quartet No. 5, Sz 102

About the Work

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

The movements of the Quartet No. 5, like those comprising the Fourth Quartet, the Second Piano Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra, are arranged according to a broad, symmetrical plan, a so-called "arch form," in which the central movement is flanked, mirror-fashion, by parallel balancing movements: fast-slow-scherzo-slow-fast. The integrity of this structure is enhanced by having a theme from the first movement reappear in the finale, and by making the fourth movement a free variation of the second. Symmetrical procedures extend as well to the internal working-out of individual movements. The opening sonata-form movement is based on three themes: a motive of hammered repeated notes; a brusque rhythmic figure upon which are superimposed short, winding melodic phrases; and a smoothly flowing strain in triplet rhythms. Following the development section, the three motives are recapitulated in reverse order and in inversion, and the movement is capped by a vigorous coda: A-B-C-development-C-B-A coda. The Adagio, a fine example of the rustling "night music" that Bartók favored for many of his slow movements, follows a similar plan, though with different proportions and expressive effect: A (trills and two-note atoms)-B (chorale)-C (pizzicato glissandos, tremolos and evanescent scale fragments)-B (abbreviated)-A (abbreviated). The conventional form of the Scherzo and Trio is already symmetrical (A-B-A), and Bartók drew the symmetry into the smallest levels of the movement by echoing the upward-arching, one-measure theme with its descending inversion. The central Trio is distinguished by its quicker tempo, incessant ribbon of violin notes, and rustic folk dance in limping rhythms. The Andante posits three thematic ideas that transform motives from the Adagio (repeated pizzicato; bouncing bows; murmured scales and canonic treatment of the Adagio's third theme) and their truncated returns to round out the movement. At the center stands a new snapping theme which is developed and woven with the movement's other ideas. The finale is a free rondo with sonata elements based on a fiery dance melody constructed from small, twisting intervals. Just as the movement reaches its climax (in a passage whose ferocious rhythms recall Beethoven's Fifth Symphony), the music stops for a grotesque, barrel-organ transformation of the first episode's theme before a blazing epilogue closes the Quartet.