Bartók, Béla

1881 - 1945

String Quartet No. 5

Bartók composed this work in the space of a month, between August 6 and September 6, 1934. The premiere, by the Kolisch Quartet, was in Washington DC, on April 8, 1935. Duration 31:00.

The early 1930s were hard times for Bartók, the Great Depression hit Hungary hard, and though he had gained prestigious awards and a certain amount of fame, there were few opportunities to perform and fewer commissions. He composed no major works between 1931 and 1934, producing mainly educational piano pieces and arrangements of some of his earlier works. Things began to change in 1934, as he took a secure new academic position as an ethnomusicologist with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, where he worked on a project he and Zoltan Kodály had proposed some 20 years earlier—an enormous edition and study of some 14,000 Hungarian folk songs they had gathered in decades of work. Another pleasant surprise that year was a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation for a new chamber work. Coolidge was a Chicago heiress who established a foundation to support chamber music performances in the United States. Working in conjunction with the Library of Congress, she also began to commission major composers to write works to be performed in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium, which she funded in 1925, and which remains one of America’s most prestigious chamber music venues. Her commissions include many of the most important composers of the early 20th century: in addition to Bartók, she funded works by Poulenc, Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky, Copland (for the famous ballet score Appalachian Spring), Ravel, Britten, and many others.

Many of Bartók’s late works of the 1930s and 1940s display a fascination with symmetry and even musical palindromes. This is reflected in the entire structure of the fifth quartet, which is a large musical arch: with similarities between the first and fifth movements, and further similarities between the slower second and fourth movements, the scherzo serving as a kind of keystone. The opening movement (Allegro) is in sonata form, a traditional form for an opening movement, but hardly traditional in the way Bartók uses it. There are three primary ideas laid out in quick succession: a ferocious unison rhythm, a wandering melody, and an angular idea with double stops in all four instruments. The central development is dominated by a dissonant fugue. In the manner of a palindrome, he brings the thematic ideas back in reverse order, so that the movement ends with a repeat of the opening rhythm.

The first slow movement (Adagio molto) begins with tentative trills, before expanding to a sonorous, Hungarian-flavored passage. There is a quietly mysterious middle section before the opening music returns, again in reverse order: first the Hungarian hymn, now transformed into something menacing, and then the opening trills. The cello ends the movement with a rather rude gesture. The central scherzo is marked “Alla bulgarese” and is dominated by a pair of themes inspired by the irregular meter of Bulgarian folk style: a wild dance melody and a more subdued tune played by the viola and cello. The scherzo ends with a resounding thwack, and Bartók follows this with a second slow movement (Andante). Like the Adagio, this movement begins quietly, with quirky pizzicato glissandos. A lyrical main theme is constantly interrupted as the movement works its way to a rather strident climax. The movement ends with crystalline chords from the ensemble and a return of the opening texture.
The finale (Allegro vivace) returns to the bold style of the opening movement, and in fact makes subtle references to the opening movement’s themes. The unrelenting drive and seriousness of this movement is finally broken in the middle of the development by a flash of humor: a tipsy episode with glissandi from all instruments. The previous mood gradually reestablishes itself, but Bartók breaks this forward motion once more before the end, this time with a deliberately insipid little folk tune he indicates is to be played “with indifference.” He then wraps the movement up with a furious coda.