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31. Bartók's Original 4th String Quartet



In the autumn of 1927, immediately after completing his 3rd String Quartet, Bartók was overcome by a fit of remorse and self-doubt. His most recent works were so harsh, so uncompromisingly dissonant: was this all there was to life, all that he could offer the world? Where were all the tunes, all the carefree music of his youth? To console himself he began leafing through some childhood manuscripts -- pieces he had written to perform with his sister in their home-made puppet plays at Pozsony -- when, suddenly, he had a flash of inspiration: he would write a new string quartet incorporating these themes! The resultant music is childlike and innocent, but even so, many elements of his mature style are in evidence. The five movements form an arc-like structure and each one has a descriptive title:

  1. 'Fairy Frolics': a deft scherzo featuring pizzicato in the outer sections and a captivating melody for muted viola in the central trio.
  2. 'Whimsical Waltz': 'whimsical' in that the waltz metre is ironically broken into in several places by a perky march rhythm.
  3. 'Sad Siciliana': this is the keystone of the structure and the emotional heart of the piece; a long lament using an ancient Hungarian folk-song, 'The Peacock'. The long downward glissandi are used to harrowing effect.
  4. 'Merry March': a direct reflection of the waltz; here, the march rhythm is ironically interrupted by a waltz measure.
  5. 'Jovial Jig': using the same basic material as 'Fairy Frolics', the finale is a compendium of colour effects -- snap pizzicato, col legno, sul ponticello, guitar-like strumming. At one point, the cellist is required to play a passage involving all four colour effects simultaneously.

But this period of vacillation and self-doubt was only brief and Bartók was soon back amongst the dissonances and working on what we now know as his 'official' 4th String Quartet. Worried that his temporary aberration might give the wrong impression and compromise his 'tough' modern persona, Bartók hid the pieces away, with the following note: 'On no account must this String Quartet ever be performed'.


Copyright © 14 December 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK



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