Work: Quartet for Strings no 1 in A minor, Op. 7/Sz 40
About This Work
In a letter to violinist Stefi Geyer, Bartók described the opening movement of this quartet as his "funeral dirge." The quartet's first four notes -- two descending minor sixths played imitatively by the first and second violins --
are nearly identical to the opening motif of the second, giocoso, movement of the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1908), Bartók's musical portrait of Geyer, with whom he was unrequitedly in love. Bartók dealt with the rejection of his love in a series of autobiographical works, of which this quartet is the culmination. Kodály called this quartet a "return to life," and its three accelerating movements (Lento, Allegretto, and Allegro vivace) plainly trace a course from the Liebestod-like anguish of the convoluted first movement to the heady, forceful finale. The Lento is marked by a hyper-chromatic Romantic mood characteristic of many works written around the turn of the century. Sadness and despair are the prevailing sentiments in this work, with wistful nostalgia expressed in passing episodes of Impressionistic delicacy that are quickly subsumed by the darker mood. After the first theme is explored, (the counterpoint is reminiscent of Beethoven's late string quartets), a funereal element is introduced with forceful, bell-like fifths on the cello, over which sounds a sobbing second theme, on viola and second violin harmonized in thirds, while the first violin muses detachedly in the upper register. The mood and style are reminiscent of the first violin concerto's opening movement. A hesitant bridge passage accelerates gradually to the next movement, which presents a delicate and witty theme, a stepwise motif that is subjected to a series of explorations in various settings suggestive of variation technique. The mood is ambiguous, despite light-hearted interplay among the instruments; when a distinct mood finally manifests itself toward the end of the movement, it is one of anger, driven by an insistent pulsing ostinato on a single note that begins as an ominous pizzicato on the cello and grows to fist-shaking open fifths arco. The mood is not resolved by movement's end. Another bridge passage leads to the finale, an accelerating Allegro vivace that is the longest of the three movements. In the first movement, there was only a brief suggestion of Hungarian folk music in the cello's soulful melody during the Impressionistic episode; here the character of folk music is more pronounced. Its use here, though not as organic as in later works, nevertheless seems central to the young composer's "return to life" after a period of despair. The main theme, which has a "scolding" quality (and is intervallically related to the descending sixths of the first movement), is developed through a series of episodes, one of which parodies European café music, after which it is treated, fugato-style, in a grotesque, scherzando section. The coda is fast and propulsive, the final, emphatic chords of open fifths barely able to block its momentum.
-- Mark Satola
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