Work: Quartet for Strings no 6, Sz 114
About This Work
Bartók's last completed quartet exemplifies the composer's continuing search for new forms, even as he sought to distill and clarify his mode of expression. The form he devised for the String Quartet No. 6 is ingenious: each movement is
preceded by an introductory section marked "Mesto" ("sadly"), with increasing complexity at each appearance. The "mesto" theme functions both as a motto and as the source of much of the quartet's thematic substance. In the fourth movement, rather than giving way to a lively finale (the original plan as indicated by Bartók's sketches), the motto continues on to become the conclusion itself.
The sad introductory theme is played first by solo viola, whose last notes are the germ for a unison statement by all four instruments in peremptory three-note phrases that will return later, as a sort of subsidiary motto. The first theme is in quick triplets that are chromatically sinuous. The second theme is a folk-like melody, with a prominent "Scotch snap" rhythm. The first theme dominates the development, which is fairly strenuous and darker in mood. After a brief appearance of the second theme, the movement ends simply with a reprise of the first theme, now detached and musing.
The "mesto" introduction to the second movement is in two-part counterpoint, the cello stating the melody accompanied by upper strings in a tremolando counter-melody. The subsequent Marcia is bitter and ironic, and the "Scotch snap" rhythm is prominent. The appearance of the second theme is ingenious: the march rhythm continues as an accompaniment to the rising glissandi of the new tune. The middle section suspends the propulsive march as the cello rhapsodizes, cadenza-like, on a variation of the second theme. This is accompanied by high trills from the violins and harsh, guitar-like strumming on the viola. The return of the march is bizarre, with extremely high octave doubling from the first violin and a filling out of the implied triadic harmonies which create an ironic, hallucinatory effect.
For its third appearance, the "mesto" ritornello is in three-part harmony; it leads to a rude "Burlesca," with vulgar stamping rhythms and a melody reminiscent of the "teasing songs" prevalent in Eastern European folk music. The second theme moves within a narrow intervallic range, evoking the Arabic melodies Bartók collected in North Africa. In the central part, the "Scotch snap" theme from the first movement is mused upon before the burlesque returns, this time entirely in pizzicato. At the conclusion, an attempt to sound the "Scotch snap" theme is shouted down by angry chords.
In the slow finale, the "mesto" melody, now in four parts, continues on to become the entire movement, and the second theme recalls the unison motto of the first movement. The triplet theme is also recalled, now in a setting of profound desolation, and the "Scotch snap" tune makes a wistful appearance. Ghostly tremolandi accompany the return of the "mesto" theme; there is a moment of half-hearted protest that dwindles to resignation. The cello ends it all with a question mark, plucked chords based on the "mesto" motto.
-- Mark Satola, All Music Guide
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