Tuesday, May 12, 2009

S.Q. Daily #2: Bartók No. 4 in C Major

S.Q. Daily: A Composer's Listening Journal

Day #2: Béla Bartók
String Quartet No. 4 in C Major, Sz. 91

Written in 1927, this quartet is a major monument in the broad history of the genre. Wikipedia has a quite succinct descriptive analysis of each movement.

But that's not why we're here. S.Q. Daily isn't about musical analysis - though it may pop up now and again. It's about what I find awesome in a given work and want to share with you.

So put on your aesthetic seat belts. This is a wild ride.
(See below for information on purchasing the audio and score.)

Bartók was way into musical symmetry, rhythmic vitality, and extended string techniques, and this quartet has each of these attributes in spades.

The five movements are thematically related in an arc pattern (I-V, II-IV, III); individual movements also feature symmetry. Symmetry is cool for composers and theorists, but it's even cooler when the audience can grasp it on first hearing, like in Movement III. To start, notes enter one at a time until a complete A major scale is sounding. The final two measures feature the same A scale being stripped, one pitch at a time, until there is silence. What happens in between is a wonderful mystery that includes soaring cello lines and a new appreciation for vibrato. Go discover it.

Much of Bartók's music features an inevitable rhythmic propulsion that pairs well with certain strains of American music, as well as that of 1910s through '30s Stravinsky - only one year younger than Bartók. Even if you can't spare 21 minutes to hear the entire quartet, I guarantee that the kinetic energy of Movement II will knock your socks off, wash and dry them, and place them neatly in your drawer, all in under three minutes.

This movement is among the most difficult pieces of "awesome-sounding music" I've ever heard. (For me, the jury's still out on Carter's awesomeness, for example.) The sporadic passages of fast, dissonant, steady eighth note polychords are reminiscent of the famous Rite of Spring chords of fourteen years earlier (minus the off-kilter accentuation). Bartók also foreshadows the disjunct interruptions of texture seen three years later in Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms e minor chords (minus the emphasis on rare orchestral voicings).

The bold figures and breakneck speed of the movement unfold through a surprisingly natural evolution of texture, with individual rhythmic and textural figures rarely holding sway for longer than twenty seconds. The result is a constant, organic outpouring of quite complex music.

Finally, I simply must mention all the weird things that Bartók asks these poor string players to do: dovetailing of wide glissani effects, large and sudden register shifts, non vibrato double stop chords (in select moments of the relatively placid third movement no less), an entire movement of pizzicati (IV), sul ponticello pizzicati even (also IV), and the use of open strings for timbral effect.

Who does Béla Bartók think he is? Well, Bartók, actually. That's why he can get away with all this trickery - because each of the above techniques (some more "extended" than others), like the formal contrivances and driving rhythmic figures, is applied with such compositional skill and care that their execution by the players sounds spontaneous, albeit most impressive.

Experience this work for yourself ASAP. Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 4: It's definitely one to remember.

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The brilliant Emerson String Quartet has an excellent 2-disc recording of all six Bartók quartets on Amazon:
MP3 album ($18)
CD ($20 new, $6.55 used)

Find the complete sheet music set in miniature score at compumusic ($39) or at the trusty sheetmusicplus ($44).

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