Certain paradoxes appeared during the
years separating Bartók's Fourth String Quartet composed in 1928 and his Fifth
from 1934. One of these was the increasing resolve exhibited in his music, in
contrast with the despair he felt for the times in which he lived. This
political scene was distressing both at home - the authoritarian, right-wing
regime of Miklós Horthy - and more widely in Europe
with the rise of Fascism. Bartók protested in 1931 when Toscanini was
physically assaulted by Italian fascists for refusing to conduct their marching
anthem, the Giovinezza. In the same
year, Bartók became a cultural diplomat to the ill-fated and ineffectual League of Nations where the urgent humanitarian nature of
his contributions replaced his former, nationalist concerns. From 1933, after
giving the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto in Frankfurt, Bartók refused
to perform in Germany
and never returned there in his lifetime.
But his pessimism over the future of Europe was not manifest in any further inward constriction
of his compositional style - in fact, the opposite. The major works of this
period - such as the Cantata Profana
(1930) and the Second Piano Concerto - display an outgoing transparency and
mature assurance which evolved from the unflinching experimentation of the
Similarly, there was a paradox between
his virtual withdrawal from public life in Budapest and an increased openness in his
music. The Horthy regime's antipathy meant that little of Bartók's music was
performed in Budapest.
He became alienated within his own country where he now felt reluctant to play
his own music. After the Fourth String Quartet in 1928, none of his works was
premiered in Hungary.
Likewise, from that time, the only commissions he received were from outside Hungary, the
Fifth Quartet being commissioned by the American patroness of contemporary
music, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The increasing openness in his music is
exemplified in the Fifth String Quartet, the wider intervals of whose long,
diatonic melodic lines are in sharp contrast with the terse, semi-tone-stepped
motivic material which so intensified the first two movements of the Fourth.
Bartók's satisfaction with the
Fourth's symmetrical, four-movement arch structure led him to use the same form
in the Second Piano Concerto (slightly disguised) and again in the Fifth
Quartet. But where the Fourth's cornerstone was a slow movement, in the Fifth
it is the third movement Scherzo - itself in symmetrical ABA form but based on asymmetrical Bulgarian
rhythms - flanked on both sides by slow movements which in turn are flanked by
interrelated outer movements.
Of the two slow movements, the
melancholy Adagio molto works three
ideas: exchanges of gentle trill figures; a chorale figure accompanied by a
melodic line in the violin; and sighing, two-note motifs. Then, on the far side
of the central Scherzo, these same three ideas are each presented as variations
in the Andante which also introduces
one further idea into the mix.
The lively outer movements reveal
Bartók renewing his interest in classical forms with the opening Allegro in sonata form and the Finale a
rondo. Here there is much contrapuntal activity, including an intricate
preoccupation with mirror forms and correspondences are strengthened when the
Finale eventually reprises material from the first movement, and additionally -
non-symmetrically - recalls other movements: an example, surely, of genius
retaining sovereignty over its creation.