String Quartet No.5

Béla Bartók

String Quartet No.5

Sz. 102, BB110

About this work

In the six years separating the fourth and fifth string quartets, Bartók wrote comparatively little music, but the works he did complete pointed to his mature style of the 1930s and 1940s, in which directness of compositional technique is coupled with a new concern for clear communication. The Cantata Profana (1930) and Piano Concerto No. 2 (1931) demonstrated a new linear style that incorporated elements of unabashed triadic harmony; while the 44 Duos for 2 violins, Sz. 98 (1931), were pivotal to a number of artistic roads Bartók would shortly travel. As teaching pieces they rekindled Bartók's interest in creating learning material based on Eastern European folk music, and as explorations of string technique, they paved the way for the String Quartet No. 5, easily Bartók's most virtuosic essay in the form.

For his fifth string quartet, Bartók again used the five-movement arch form, this time employing a more distinctive variation technique in which the first and fifth movements, and the second and fourth, closely mirror each other. The opening movement presents its three ideas in rapid succession: the first is a series of unison repeated notes from which rockets a querulous, chromatic melody, the second features a trilling figuration, and the third is rhythmically irregular with many double-stops. The development is introduced by a quiet, sinuous passage based on the first theme in imitative counterpoint, after which the theme turns into a Fugue. A dance-like passage emerges as the third theme, which then becomes an accompaniment for the second theme. The structure of the movement is loosely palindromic, and the themes are subjected to numerous variations. The inverted first theme brings the movement to an emphatic close.

The second movement begins in "night music" mode, with evanescent trills leading to a prayerful chorale in simple triadic harmony, and short-breathed sighs in unrelated keys from the violin. The nocturnal atmosphere takes over in the middle section, extending the sense of unease from the movement's introduction, with trills and pizzicati evoking the sounds of unseen birds and strange insects. After a restrained climax, the chorale resumes, but the triads are now chromatically tinged and anxious.

The keystone of the quartet's arch form is the middle movement, a scherzo in which 10 eighth notes per bar are subdivided according to the formula 5+2+3. A short arpeggiated theme is answered by a lively, irregular dance melody. In the middle section, the arpeggiated theme is intervallically compressed to become a high, skirling ostinato on the violin, against which a simple tune is sounded alternately by the other instruments. The dance tune returns with even higher spirits, though the ending is quiet and droll.

The fourth movement harks back to the second, and varies its material expressively. Desolate night music elements are now laced with a touch of humor, glissando pizzicati and short tremolando chords filling in for the second movement's prayerful sighs. The movement rises to an angry climax before closing with a series of glissando pizzicato chords from the cello that rise like question marks.

The finale, a variant of the first movement, modifies the original themes and sets them to a vigorous dance rhythm of serious intensity. The demands on the players are great, and the movement's propulsion is interrupted only by a short, satiric episode in which the violin plays a banal scale a half-tone higher than its accompaniment. A fast coda abruptly ends the work.