The Kennedy Center

String Quartet No. 3, Sz 85

About the Work

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

After the fiendish winds of the First World War had finally blown themselves out in 1918, there came into music a new invigoration and an eagerness by composers to stretch the forms and language of the ancient art. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland and other of the most important modern masters challenged listeners and colleagues throughout the 1920s with their daring visions and their brilliant iconoclasms. It was the most exciting decade in the entire history of music. Béla Bartók, whose folksong researches were severely limited geographically by the loss of Hungarian territories through the treaties following the war, was not immune to the spirit of experimentation, and he shifted his professional concentration at that time from ethnomusicology to composition and his career as a pianist. He was particularly interested in the music of Stravinsky, notably the mosaic structures and advanced harmonies of the Diaghilev ballets, and in the recent Viennese developments in atonality and motivic generation posited by Arnold Schoenberg and his friend/disciple Alban Berg. A decided modernism entered Bartók's music with his searing 1919 ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, and his works of the years immediately following-the two Violin Sonatas, the piano suite Out of Doors, the First Piano Concerto and the String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4-are the most daring that he ever wrote. He was reluctant to program them for any but the most sophisticated audiences.

Bartók wrote the Third Quartet quickly in Budapest at the end of the summer of 1927, immediately following a concert tour of Germany during which he performed his new Piano Concerto No. 1 with Furtwängler in Frankfurt and his Piano Sonata in Baden-Baden. In December 1927, Bartók began his first visit to the United States, concertizing from coast-to-coast for three months after making his American debut with the New York Philharmonic and Willem Mengelberg in Carnegie Hall on December 22nd in his own Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra. (It was one of the ironies of Bartók's life that both his last home and the hospital in which he died in 1945 were just across the street from the famed auditorium that hosted his introduction to this country.) Before returning to Hungary in February 1928, Bartók learned of a lucrative competition for new chamber works sponsored by the Musical Fund of Philadelphia, and submitted his Third Quartet for consideration after he arrived home. He heard nothing for some time, however, and so sent a copy of the Quartet to Universal Edition in Vienna, inquiring if that firm would be willing to publish the score and help promote its first performance. Then on October 2nd, news arrived that Bartók's piece and a string quartet by the Italian composer Alfredo Casella had been chosen by a panel (which included Mengelberg, Fritz Reiner and Frederick Stock) from more than 600 entries to share the considerable first prize of $6,000. In view of the international recognition accorded the work, Universal agreed to issue the score immediately; the piece was premiered at London's Wigmore Hall by the Waldbauer Quartet on February 19, 1929.

Bartók's Third Quartet is among the great masterworks of modern music-brilliant, challenging, cathartic, one of the most difficult yet rewarding pieces in the entire chamber literature. Though the music is Bartók's furthest adventure into modernity, it is founded solidly on the confluence of two traditional but seemingly opposed musical streams-the folk music of Eastern Europe, a subject on which Bartók was a scholar of the highest accomplishment, and the elaborate contrapuntal constructions of Sebastian Bach and other Baroque composers. By 1927, the time of the Third Quartet, Bartók had so thoroughly absorbed the quirky intervals, tightly circling motivic phrases, snapping rhythms and ornate decorations of indigenous Hungarian music into his original work that his themes constitute of virtual apotheosis of native folksong. "The melodic world of my string quartets does not essentially differ from that of folksong," he said, "only the framework is stricter." For the working-out of his folk-derived thematic materials (Bartók never quoted existing melodies unless specifically noting that they were arrangements), he turned to the highly organized models of canon and fugue postulated by Bach and his contemporaries.

The Third Quartet therefore represents a marvelous synthesis of West and East-the structural integrity and emotional range of Bach wedded to the melodic and rhythmic exoticisms of Slavic folksong.

The Third Quartet, one of Bartók's most tightly constructed works, is disposed as a large single span divided into four sections. Part I opens with a mysterious harmonic curtain which serves as an introduction to the work's germinal theme-a tiny fragment comprising a rising fourth and a falling minor third initiated by the violin in measure six, at the point where the lower strings remove their mutes. The first section is largely based on the extensive permutations of this pregnant thematic kernel through imitation, inversion, augmentation, diminution and other processes that Bartók learned from Bach. Part II, which follows without pause, is a free, continuously unfolding variation of an arch-shaped folk-dance melody presented in pizzicato multiple stops by the cello. A passage of dizzying slides and almost brutal dissonance bridges to Part III, which is a thoroughly reworked version of Part I (Bartók marked this section "Ricapitulazione della prima parte," but also noted, "I do not like to repeat a musical idea without change"), a distillation of the essence of the Quartet's earlier material. The concluding Coda starts as a vague, bow-tip buzzing, but soon develops into a furious altered restatement of the folk dance of Part II. The Quartet culminates in a powerful, viscerally compelling cadence.