Béla Bartók: String Quartet No.4 in C major BB 95

Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) was a Hungarian composer, using folk music in new and expansive ways. He is considered an important 20th century composer and with Liszt, one of the best Hungarian composers. Not only a composer, having studied folk music in great depth, Bartók was a key founder in ethnomusicology.



String Quartet No. 4 in C major was composed in 1928, influenced by Berg’s Lyric Suite, which Bartók had heard in 1927. Overall the suite has an arc-like structure in terms of both melodic motifs and length of each movement, with the first and fifth movements relating, and the second and fourth movements related, and the third movement stand-alone.

The first movement (Allegro) introduces us to the dissonant motifs that will reappear in the last movement, with various glissandi and lots of agitated interweaving layers and cluster chords.

This is followed by an even quicker, hurrying second movement (Prestissimo, con sordino), with scurrying chromatic scales and pizzicato flying between instruments. This scalic movement is reiterated in the fourth movement (Allegretto, pizzicato), which is entirely pizzicato, demonstrating ‘Bartók pizzicati’ (when the strings are plucked with enough power for them to audibly snap on the fingerboard).

The third movement (Non troppo lento) is an example of Bartók’s ‘Night music’ (another example being Out of Doors if you’re interested), whereby a spacious and open sense of night-time is portrayed by eery clashing chords support often melancholic or nocturnal melodies. Here in the third movement, the dissonant cluster chords set the sombre mood, and the tremelo cello imitates a nocturnal creature, perhaps the gentle coo of an owl? A bit later on the agitated cries of the violin are performed against a backdrop of stabbing chords and sul pont scrubbing. Despite the cluster chords, this is probably the most harmonically diatonic movement.

In contrast is the energetic and tense fifth movement (Allegro molto), starting with strong clashing chords. With lots of double stopping and parallel fifths, there is chaos and agitation with the cello on the offbeats, followed by quavers with syncopated accents form the engine of the piece, with the melody doubled in 8ves in the violins. This motif from the first movement undergoes inversion and retrograde. A brief respite is granted around 2:00 (into the fifth movement), giving way to as each part cautiously comes back in, a quieter section but gradually building the tension. Each part has their own line: pizzicato against accented chords and sliding notes. By the time you reach 4:40 (approx) there is a frenzied tapping of the bows against the strings – con legno – as well as bits of homophony and guttural playing at the heel of the bow, the section ended by a descending glissando in the cello. A short fugato section ensues, followed by a strong homophonic final three notes, finishing this movement in C minor.

Though not quite as diatonic as the folk tunes that often inspired Bartók, the variety and Bartók’s use of the instruments, pushing them to their boundaries, is enough to hold your attention. Out of the 5 movements, the fifth would be my personal favourite, as the most energetic and exciting, from it’s nail-biting harmonics to the constant double-stopping.

More about Béla Bartók: http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/bela-bartok-322.php


IMSLP score: http://imslp.eu/files/imglnks/euimg/d/d5/IMSLP18950-PMLP12559-Bart__k_-_String_Quartet_No._4__score_.pdf

Here’s the whole string quartet: you can see both the concentration but also their enjoyment

Quatuor Ebène :
Pierre Colombet, violin I
Gabriel Le magadure, violin II
Mathieu Herzog, viola
Raphaël Merlin,cello



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