Interesting year, 1909, in which the Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss’ Elektra, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, Schoenberg’s Op. 11 Klavierstücke and Erwartung, and the first string quartets of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály were written and/or premiered. Among the conclusions that might be drawn from this brief catalog are that 1909 was a year of stylistic beginnings, with Schoenberg’s atonality and the folk-based innovations of the Hungarians, and of era-ending (Mahler, and in a sense beginning, too, but let’s not get hung up on niceties), mixed in with a strong dose of tradition being honored, via Rachmaninoff. The Strauss opera, in a chronological reversal, proved to be the climax and conclusion of his modernist phase.
The Bartók of 1909 is recalled by his first wife, née Marta Ziegler, to whom he was then newly married: “He composed mostly at night. During the day he was busy transcribing and putting in order his folksong collections recorded on wax cylinders... for publication.” Also from then we have this from Hugo Leichentritt, later an internationally respected musical scholar, of meeting in Berlin “Bartók, a young composer and pianist from Budapest” who played for him the Bagatelles (1908): “a set of piano pieces with the oddest harmonies that had ever come to my notice. It was not extravagant Wagnerian chromaticism – the last word in advanced harmony at the time – nor was it akin to the clair-obscur impressionistic harmony of Debussy, still little-known in Germany. It gave the impression not of a polished refinement but of a primitive, rustic, strong, instinctive feeling for colorful sound... This first, brief acquaintance with Bartók’s music revealed his basic national trait, stemming from his native Hungarian soil. Everyone in those days had a definite notion of Hungarian music, derived from Liszt’s Rhapsodies and Brahms’ Dances. Yet Bartók’s Hungarian music was so different from those well-known models.”
Different because Bartók had dug far deeper than pop Hungarianism and Gypsy music (the two tended to be the same) for the native element. As early as 1904 he and his friend and fellow composer, Kodály, had become convinced that “real” Hungarian music wasn’t to be found in the cafes or concert halls of Budapest but in the countryside which they often visited during the following years, collecting, recording, cataloging, and ultimately publishing the sounds of the people. Bartók’s early folk-based Hungarian style is exemplified in the Bagatelles and in the First Quartet. Bartók scholar and biographer Halsey Stevens notes “the contrapuntal freedom characteristic of Bartók’s treatment of the string quartet, the extreme plasticity with which the individual lines turn, shift, combine, and oppose” are already noticeable in this First Quartet. Furthermore, “each player is considered as an individual, with his own strand of the fabric; this autonomy brings about a textural richness comparable to the last quartets of Beethoven....”
Thus, in the first movement, Bartók pays homage to the fugal opening of Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, even going so far as to develop separate notions, as Beethoven does, from the fugue’s four parts. Extreme rhythmic tension, and the most free tonality, hallmarks of Bartók’s later quartets, are also procedural elements here, even while the composer partakes of a chromaticism in the first two movements that suggests “the shackles of Wagnerism,” which would be thrown off, along with the use of major and minor keys, as early as in the finale of this very work.
Bartók’s finale has several recurring motifs, the most important being an eighth-note ostinato, heralding a similar episode in the celebrated Allegro barbaro for piano solo (1911) and which in some form recurs in each of the composer’s subsequent quartets, and – climactically – a quotation of the Hungarian folksong “Fly, Peacock, Fly” (the subject also of Kodály’s later “Peacock” Variations). The song’s theme is the liberation of the spirit: a program which, it may not be fanciful to suggest, applies as well to this entire, liberating work. The premiere of the First Quartet was given in the debut concert of the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet In Budapest on March 19, 1910, a program that also introduced the First Quartet of Kodály.
Notes by Herbert Glass