The Kennedy Center

String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 7/Sz 40

About the Work

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

The year 1907, when he was 26, was a crucial time both personally and professionally for Béla Bartók. In January, he was appointed to the faculty of the Budapest Academy of Music as teacher of piano, and he soon became recognized as one of Hungary's most talented keyboard virtuosos and pedagogues. By 1907 he had begun to establish himself as a composer and a folk music researcher, though his original works to that time, largely under the sway of late German Romanticism, had not yet revealed his distinctive creative personality. He was then also much occupied with thoughts of Hungarian nationalism (he even eschewed business suits for a short period in favor of traditional peasant dress), and the manner in which the music he was documenting on his research trips through the Transylvanian countryside could be most effectively incorporated into his original works.

The String Quartet No. 1, Bartók's first published chamber work and his earliest generally recognized masterpiece, is an important document of that formative time in his life. Though certainly touched by elements of programmatic autobiography (Ernö Lendvai found in it "first descent-then ascent. The entire work possesses a dramatic [progression] because the ‘return to life' [Kodály's description of the finale] is brought about by catharsis, a purifying fever"), the Quartet is, above all, a purely musical record of the profound evolution of Bartók's stylistic language from its Germanic, Romantic origins to its mature basis in the quintessential elements of Hungarian folk song. Elliott Antokoletz paired it with Strauss' Elektra, also completed in 1909, as "epitomizing late Romantic music on the threshold of a new chromatic idiom."

The first movement is a darkly emotional essay grown from the harmonic richness of Wagner's Tristan, and not unrelated to the ripe Expressionism of Schoenberg's 1899 Verklärte Nacht. The Quartet begins with a close canon in slow tempo on a lamenting theme, whose imitative technique was probably influenced by the fugue that opens Beethoven's C-sharp minor Quartet, Op. 131. Formal contrast is provided by the movement's central section, based on a descending theme in worried rhythms (marked "very impassioned") initiated by the viola above a drone in the cello. (As a means of unifying the overall structure of the Quartet, the opening interval of this melody-a falling half-step-serves as the germ from which the themes of the two later movements grow.) A return of the opening canon, floating high in the violins, rounds out the movement's form. An inconclusive harmony leads without pause to the next movement.

The form of the spectral Allegretto is related to Classical sonata-allegro with three themes: a falling melody of short phrases introduced by the second violin after a hesitant introduction; a flowing waltz-like strain given by the inner strings above an ostinato murmur from the cello and first violin; and a quiet, subdued motive accompanied by pizzicato notes from the cello. After a tightly woven development section, however, the themes are recapitulated not in their expected order, but in reverse, a technique that creates a structural symmetry (1-2-3-development- 3-2-1) for which Bartók showed great fondness in many of his later compositions.

It is in the finale that Bartók moved beyond the extended Romantic style of the earlier movements toward the characteristic compositional idiom, grown from the distinctive melodic leadings and fiery dance rhythms of Hungarian folk music, that informs his greatest works. The movement is introduced by a preludial paragraph in which the cello makes bardic pronouncements that are separated by excited punctuations from the upper strings. The main part of the movement is a sort of modern sonata-rondo whose structural demarcations are often blurred by the continuous thematic working-out. The movement's second theme, however, a folkish tune similar to the one on which Kodály based his "Peacock" Variations of 1939, is placed in high relief by its slow tempo and Impressionistic trilled accompaniment. (Bartók was much interested in the music of the new French composers during the work's composition. He purchased a copy of Debussy's String Quartet in October 1907.) Though the First String Quartet is among the earliest of Bartók's works to exhibit the stylistic gestures that were to place him among the great composers of the modern era, it is music of undeniable personality and remarkable artistic vision and craftsmanship.