Work: Quartet for Strings no 2 in A minor, Op. 17
About This Work
Bartók was living in seclusion outside Budapest during the years of the First World War, and some of this isolation may have made its way into his String Quartet No. 2, which was composed between 1915 and 1917. Nevertheless, unlike its
predecessor, this quartet is possessed of a classical detachment and Apollonian poise that sets it apart from the intense emotionality of Bartók's pre-war compositions.
The second quartet is in three movements, an Allegro molto capriccioso framed by two slow movements, marked Moderato and Lento, a disposition that seems to anticipate the arch forms that would later fascinate the composer. The first movement opens with soft murmuring from second violin and viola on the close interval of the minor second; major and minor seconds will play an important role throughout in the harmonic profile of the work. The main theme is pensive, a rising fillip on an augmented fourth setting the unsettled tone. As in other works from the era, especially the yet-to-come violin sonatas, Bartók here approaches a type of atonality, a "pseudo-atonality" that is partly a function of his radical, harmonically advanced polyphony, wherein melodies that have clear and easily comprehended shapes intertwine with each other in ways that produce great intervallic and harmonic tensions; yet these same processes also yield gem-like moments of diatonic triads, all the more beautiful for their rarity. A moment of exquisite and limpid beauty occurs midway through when a folk-like theme emerges from the polyphony, accompanied with music of Ravelian refinement; after a more serious development section, this theme returns, its triple time gently counterbalanced by double-time pizzicato chords that suggest the strumming of a guitar.
By contrast, the second movement is wild and driving. Its main theme, a relentless ostinato emphasizing the minor third, is evocative of the primitive Arabian tunes Bartók had heard and collected in North Africa a few years previously (Biskra, 1913). The accompaniment is even more primitive, a one-note ostinato punctuated by pizzicato notes, giving the effect of Arabian drumming. Although the near-claustrophobic quality of the music's limited scale gives it a grim sound, the treatment is clearly playful. Midway there is a slower section, a sort of diffident serenade that quickly gives way to a return of the driving main theme, which is subjected to increasing expansion and variation within a rondo-like structure. The coda is fast and light, swirling through briefly and then disappearing.
Where the opening moderato is perhaps the most sonically ravishing music Bartók ever wrote, the concluding Lento is the strangest and most desolate. The instruments do not so much play themes or motives as muse on fragments of themes, more intervallic phrases than melodies, like unrelenting sighs uttered in a landscape of despairing major and minor seconds. The material slowly coalesces into longer shapes as the movement proceeds, but cannot sustain any lengthy argument; after a brief but intense chordal climax, the music sinks back into the Slough of Despond from which it emerged: there are a few more sighs, then two quiet pizzicato notes from the cello draw the curtain.
-- Mark Satola, All Music Guide
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