About this work
Bartók's String Quartet No. 4 was written in the summer of 1928 and premiered that fall by the Kolisch Quartet, led by Arnold Schoenberg's brother-in-law, Rudolf Kolisch. The work represents both an intensification and relaxation of elements present in Bartók's previous quartet, completed a year before the fourth. While the radically dissonant harmonic language and rigorous motivic development found in the third string quartet are intensified in the fourth quartet, the third's tightly interwoven single-movement structure is, in the fourth, "opened out" into a more easily comprehended, five-movement span arranged in Bartók's characteristic "arch" form. The composer did point out, however, that the five movements functioned collectively according to the template of sonata form.
Earlier commentators suggested that Bartók had ventured into a personal style of serialism or even complete atonality with this work, a conclusion that while not entirely accurate is understandable. The first movement presents in rapid succession three motive-groupings, small melodic cells that are expanded and embellished. The first is a dissonant giusto phrase in counterpoint, the second an emphatic, six-note declamation that twists upward a minor third and brusquely drops back down, and the third a longer, lyrical phrase that is related in shape to the second. These Ur-melodies are intervallically related to primitive Magyar folk music, but their setting is more dissonant, abstract and expressionistic. Bartók makes effective use of such effects as insistent glissandi and the noisy Bartók pizzicato. A dark, nocturnal mood is established here and prevails through the entire work.
The second movement is a ghostly scherzo, played almost entirely with mutes. The players must execute fast shifts from arco to pizzicato throughout as they negotiate compressed and fragmented themes that are derived primarily from the second motivic cell of the first movement. The movement disappears in a series of fast, rising glissandi.
The keystone of the "arch" is the third movement, "Non troppo lento," a night-song. Over a quiet, tightly-voiced chord suggesting the drone of bagpipes, the cello sings a rhapsodic Magyar-style melody which is answered by the violin in a lengthy variation. The central portion is limned with high, squeaking notes from the upper instruments, suggesting the sounds of nocturnal insects, before the cello and violin return in counterpoint with the parlando melody. The movement closes with a fragmented reprise of the curious middle section, very quiet and with mutes on.
The second scherzo is entirely pizzicato, and the dissonant harmonies are relaxed. A modal theme, again related to the second, scalar "cell" and its more consonant accompaniment, is treated in a subtly burlesque manner. There is the suggestion of Arabian music in the sinuous nature of the theme, as well as the drumming and strumming effects in the accompaniments, liberally punctuated by the snapping "Bartók" pizzicato.
Shrill, double-stopped chords and driving motoric rhythms launch the finale, whose intense main theme refers to the opening giusto cell of the first movement. The other thematic cells are also evoked in this furious Allegro molto, the third lyrical cell expanded to a long-breathed arching melody. The second, brusque cell is inverted in the middle section, and grows in importance until it brings the work to an angry conclusion.