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By the end of the 1920s, Bartók was an international name, recognized as a “cutting edge” contemporary master. Like Poulenc, Bartók first learned piano from his mother and like Beethoven he was known as a great pianist; he performed 630 concerts during his adult life. He was accepted at the Vienna Conservatory but chose to stay in Hungary to attend the Budapest Academy. In 1907 he became a teacher there, and taught piano for 25 years, before emigrating to New York in 1940.

Bartok’s preference for Budapest over Vienna indicates the national consciousness of the composer. Along with his friend and fellow Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, Bartók developed a passion for folk music at a young age. His travels led him to regions as disparate as Transylvania, Turkey, and North Africa to collect the local sounds. He was also impressed by the music of Impressionist Claude Debussy. This influence, combined with his ethnomusicological interest, brought about changes in his harmonic language; through the 1920s and ’30s, his music became increasingly concentrated, dissonant, and chromatic. As such, Bartók created a Classical sense of harmony using entirely new and non-classical means. His harmonies can sound harsh at first hearing, but listen several times; they are so cogent and compelling that they become deep-seated in the mind.

The String Quartet No. 4, one of Bartók’s greatest masterpieces, is imbued with elements from Hungarian, Romanian, and Bulgarian music. It was written a year after String Quartet No. 3, and the two quartets can be viewed as a pair. Both works are in Bartók’s most abstract style, and display a highly coloristic approach to string sonority. However, the Fourth Quartet departs from the Third in its structure, which is an “arch” form: A-B-C-B-A. The first and final movements are linked, as are the second and fourth movements. The fourth movement was a later addition to the Quartet; Bartók did not originally conceive of the work in the symmetrical five movements. The third movement, the only slow one of the Quartet, stands alone. Bartok called it the “kernel” of the work, around which the other movements are arranged.

The Quartet demands great technical ability from the players. It is the first time we hear the famous “Bartók” pizzicato – where the player plucks the string hard enough to make it “snap” against the instrument. The Quartet also asks for a plethora of other extended techniques, along with rhythmic szforzandos, particularly in the outer movements. In the second movement, all four instruments play with mutes on the strings, and the matching fourth movement is entirely pizzicato.

The Fourth Quartet was dedicated to the Pro Arte Quartet and first performed by the Waldbauer Quartet in Budapest in 1929.

- Jessie Rothwell