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Bartók composed his third quartet in 1927, during a period in which he found both inspiration and validation from the international musical community that had been so disrupted during World War I. This piece won a prize from the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia and was soon thereafter premiered by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet in the Wigmore Hall in London, followed just two days later by the Vienna Quartet in Frankfurt in an International Society of Contemporary Music concert.

Shortest of the composer’s six string quartets, the work is divided unconventionally: Two sections, designated “prima parte” and “seconda parte,” are followed by a “Ricapitulazione [recapitulation] della prima parte” and a coda that in effect is a recapitulation of the second part. This form, the result of several years’ experimentation, allowed both contrast and elaboration as well as a framework within which Bartók could wring a great deal of music out of a small amount of melodic material. As Theodor Adorno wrote in 1929: “What is decisive is the formative power of the work; the iron concentration, the wholly original tectonics.” The string writing features a wide range of coloristic effects: glissando, pizzicato, mutes, tapping the strings with the bow, bowing near the fingerboard or the bridge, and strumming.

The lyrical prima parte begins with a solo violin passage over moody accompaniment introducing the raw material of the movement – not so much a true theme as what musicologist János S. Kárpáti calls a “primordial figure.” Less contrapuntal than much of Bartók’s previous quartet writing, the movement features tight two-part or chordal textures as it elaborates the material. The moderato leads without break into the seconda parte, a folkdance-inspired allegro. Here Bartók’s unconventional techniques infuse the music with a savage quality. The combination of the furious tempo and the intense concentration of the material has the odd effect of a simultaneous acceleration and slowing-down – a musical analogy, perhaps, to Einstein’s theory of relativity, in which mass increases with speed to the point where further acceleration is impossible. The recapitulations of both parts exaggerate their contrasting atmospheres.  — Susan Key