String Quartet No. 6 Sz114

Composer: Béla Bartók (b. 1881 - d. 1945)
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Composer: Béla Bartók (b. 1881 - d. 1945)

Performance date: 29/06/2022

Venue: Bantry House

Composition Year: 1939

Duration: 00:33:24

Recording Engineer: Eduardo Prado, Ergodos

Instrumentation: 2vn, va, vc

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington, Ying Xue [violins], Hélène Clément [viola], John Myerscough [cello] - [quartet]

Béla Bartók [1881-1945]

String Quartet No 6. Sz.114 [1939]

1. Mesto – Più mosso, pesante

2. Mesto – Marcia 

3. Mesto – Burletta 

4. Mesto

Bartók’s Sixth Quartet was commissioned by Zoltán Székely for his famous Hungarian Quartet. It was the last work Bartók wrote in Europe before he fled to New York. Since the advent of a right-wing and dictatorial government in 1932 his home city and country had become enemy territory. He declined the offer of prestigious national prizes, he refused to perform in Germany, his works were no longer premiered in Hungary and after Anschluss he changed from his Austrian publisher, Universal Edition, to Boosey and Hawkes in London and withdrew from membership of the Austrian performing rights society. He also began to send all his manuscripts out of the country for safe-keeping in Switzerland. Only two things kept him in Hungary, his aged mother and his ethnomusicological work at the Academy of Sciences. One cannot help but compare Bartók’s principled opposition to the obscene political developments in central Europe with Richard Strauss’ self-serving cooperation with the Nazis, a comparison that can clearly be heard in their music.

The Quartet reflects both the composer’s sense of personal loss as he prepares to leave his homeland and his horror and despair at the advent of war. His normal dispassionate approach is swept aside in the emotional upheaval of the time. Each of the first three movements is preceded by a motto theme marked mesto (sad), which also provides the material for the slow Finale. This lament is then punctuated by scenes from real life making up the individual movements, the whole unfolding with the relentlessness of a Greek tragedy. This work is also exceptional in that Bartók found himself unable to write his planned rustic dance finale. The optimistic last movement was almost an article of faith with him, no conventional heroics but the joy of the dance.

Before the first movement the lament is sung by the unaccompanied viola. The first life scene is from the cultured order of classical composition; the movement is announced by a series of firm chords before the sonata form exposition is presented. The two themes are spiky and controlled in Bartok’s intellectual manner. The introductory chords lead into the development and there is a recapitulation and coda as expected. The lament next appears on the cello, accompanied by the other three instruments in unison. The main section of the three-part movement mocks the inane militaristic ambitions of Europe’s dictators, while the Trio takes up Bartok’s beloved folk music that he had spent half a lifetime collecting. The third movement lament is in three voices with the melody in the first violin, accompanied by the second violin and cello; after 9 bars the viola doubles the melody at the octave. The Burlesque movement itself is a wild and sardonic dance with a heavy-footed, martial rhythm, which is interrupted by a gentle Andantino, a memory of a distant world. The Burletta rudely interrupts and the coda sees more hopeless attempts by the Andantino to return.

The Mesto theme now expands into all four voices and overwhelms the last movement. Within it is a central molto tranquillo made up of the two first movement themes. The rest is unappeased grief and irretrievable loss.

Francis Humphrys