One of the programme items is Bartok's String Quartet No. 5. Committee member Howard Cheesman has authored a Listener's Guide to approaching this work.
Bartok Fifth String Quartet – Listener's Guide.
Even though Bartok’s six string quartets are held in high regard and he is acknowledged as a major C20th composer, audiences rarely get the chance to experience and become familiar with his music other than in recordings. On the 16th January we have the opportunity to hear the 5th String Quartet. These notes are intended to act, not as programme notes, but as a short listeners guide to approaching the work.
This work came after a compositional silence in which only folk music-based pieces occupied him. It launches his final creative outpouring and was clearly a significant undertaking. As it was written within only a month, it must have been gestating in his musical imagination for some time. In nature it is mostly innovative while the 6th and final Quartet is more reflective and consolidates his musical style.
Here are some fingerprints that may prove helpful in approaching the work:
Folk Music; Bartok was an avid collector and chronicler not only of Eastern European folk music but of Algerian and Turkish indigenous music as well. However, you will fail to hear obvious folk style melodies in this work. His approach was to assimilate their character within the musical style he forged. There is no hint of rural nostalgia about his relationship to folk music but rather a desire to incorporate its elements into his dynamic and forward-looking musical language. What you may hear are melodies formed from unusual scales, a focus on certain (augmented) intervals, rhythmic vitality often based on asymmetrical groupings ( 4+2+3 in Movement 3), drones, motifs that revolve around a anchoring note, just to list some of the most noticable aural features.
String writing: Bartok’s music sounds unique and very individual. As it has little to do with any other C20th ‘movements’ or styles, this can pose a problem for the listener unfamiliar with his work. One aspect of this difference was his ceaseless search for new and expressive sounds on traditional instruments. The 5th Quartet contains the maximum number of innovative string techniques that he was ever to use within one composition: too many to list here! These are not aural gimmicks but part of his sensitivity to the sound world he was trying to create for expressive purposes. The 2nd and 4th Movements are a case in point. As a lover of nature in general, it could well be that he was responding to the sonic world around him. Are the flutterings, chirping, rasping, clicking sounds that appear in the musical fragments of these two movements an invocation of natural sounds? What some commentators refer to as his “night-music” (Nachmusik).
Structure & Symmetry: This aspect was very important to Bartok but is not overtly heard as much as it is sensed, possibly unconsciously, by the listener. Elaborate structural proportions lie beneath the surface of most of his extended compositions. This is not an intellectual approach as to how to organise musical material in time but a use of those ratios and numerical proportions that lie behind the natural world e.g. the Golden Section, Fibonacci series, and the other principals that are found in the structure of veins on a leaf, the spiral of a shell, the construction of a pinecone, etc.
In the 5th Quartet the use of 5 Movements allows him to create an ‘arch-like’ structure; the 3rd movement being the pivot around which 2 & 4 and then 1 & 5 group themselves. This can be heard in many ways; the musical material of 1 & 5 is related, 2 & 4 share materials and styles (in fact 4 is a rhapsodic variation of 2).
The 3rd pivotal movement has unique musical material and is a type of Scherzo and Trio but also contains its own ‘mini-arch’ of A – B – A with the outer sections in an asymmetrical time signature but the central section is based on a symmetrical rhythmic grouping. And we are only just scratching the surface here but that’s probably enough to go on with! Happy Listening!