string quartet

In Haydn’s day, as Járos Kárpáti has observed, six string quartets were generally needed to form an opus. Bartók’s six numbered quartets (he had written several early ones that were lost or remained unpublished) were, on the other hand, substantial enough to form nothing less than “the backbone of his entire output,” as Mátyás Seiber has put it. The Third Quartet was composed in the summer of 1927. In December of that year, Bartók traveled to America for the first time, and while there entered his new composition in a competition sponsored by the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia. Bartók shared first prize—the very considerable sum of $6000—with the influential Italian composer Alfredo Casella.

The work follows a principle of design that reaches back to Schoenberg’s D-minor Quartet, Strauss’s tone poems, and earlier nineteenth-century compositions by Liszt and Schubert, where four movements are fused into a single continuous whole. The Third Quartet is the shortest and most compressed of Bartók’s six. It is also the most harmonically acerbic, “perhaps the least ingratiating thing Bartók ever wrote in terms of sonority,” in the words of Paul Griffiths. The quartet’s astringency and motivic taughtness appealed to the famous musicologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno, who in 1929 judged it Bartók’s finest composition to date: “The themes from which the work [is] formed with stern economy are more pliable than ever before in Bartók, more strongly formed and more reliably heard; the harmonies are developed with a bold looseness out of lines and crossings of lines… What is decisive is the formative power of the work—the iron concentration, the wholly original tectonics… Hungarian types and German sonata are fused together in the white heat of impatient compositional effort; from them a truly contemporary form is created.”

A Deruchie [ii-07]