The Kennedy Center

String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91

About the Work

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

Folk influence pervades the Fourth Quartet, composed during the summer of 1928, soon after Bartók returned from his first tour of America as pianist and composer. It is evident in the smallinterval melodic leadings, gapped scales and snapping rhythms of the first movement; in the whirling motion and fiery syncopations of the two scherzos; in the florid, chromatic melody of the central movement, which evokes the melancholy pastorales of the tárogató, a Hungarian single-reed woodwind instrument (the composer's biographer Halsey Stevens wrote that it was "somewhat like a straight wooden saxophone") that Bartók encountered during his field researches. The tendency of themes constructed from these tiny folk gestures when subjected to the developmental and harmonic pressures applied by Bartók is, however, to fragment and fly apart. To counterbalance this problem, Bartók used for this Quartet a rigorous overall formal structure that describes an arch shape centered upon the third of its five movements: fast-scherzo-slow-scherzo-fast. The first and fifth movements are paired in their mood, tempo and thematic material, an association further enhanced by sharing the same music in their closing pages. The second and fourth movements, both scherzos, are related in their themes, their head-long rhythmic propulsion and their use of novel effects from the strings: the second movement is played throughout with mutes, while the fourth movement requires a continuous pizzicato, including the percussive snapping of the strings against the fingerboard that Bartók was among the first composers to use. The slow movement, the mid-point of the structure, is itself organized symmetrically in three parts (A-B-A) around the twittering "night music" of its central section.