microcosmos notes

Giancinto Scelsi:


Giancinto Scelsi - Quartet No. 1:


Erich Korngold - Quartet No. 3:



Shostakovich String Quartet no. 7:

Quartets seven, eight and nine form a subset because of their dedications. Numbers seven and nine are dedicated to his first wife Nina, and his third wife Irina. Number eight's dedication is to 'The Victims of Fascism and War', but analysis shows it more concerned with humanities victims in general and even with Shostakovich himself.

The String Quartet no. 7 in F sharp minor, opus 108, completed in March 1960, is the shortest of all Shostakovich's quartets lasting only about 13 minutes. It has three linked movements marked:

     1.     Allegretto, attacca

     2.     Lento, attacca

     3.     Allegro – Allegretto

The Quartet, the original manuscript of which is lost, was dedicated by Shostakovich "In Memoriam" to his wife Nina. She had studied at the prestigious Leningrad School of Physics. Amongst her co-students had been Lev Landau and Georgi Gamov. Shortly after leaving and working in a laboratory they had married. Their relationship had not been easy but her sudden death in December 1954, after an emergency operation for a previously undetected cancer of the colon, affected Shostakovich deeply. This is mirrored in his choice of key for the work, F sharp minor, traditionally associated with pain and suffering. Bach, for example, uses it in the St. John Passion when the penitent Peter cries out his remorse . This is also the key of Mahler's tortured and unfinished tenth symphony. His total desolation following the collapse of his marriage with Alma is witnessed in his scribbled words on the score "für dich leben! für dich sterben!" (to live for you! to die for you!) and in the poignant dissonance and screams of the music.

There can be no doubt that Shostakovich deliberately matched the choice of key to the quartet's dedication. As is explained in the article 'The tonal structure if the cycle of quartets' Shostakovich had based the key for a quartet on the submediant of the scale of the preceding quartet and whilst he had given preference to the major scale he had kept rigorously to this scheme in all of his previous quartets. But in the seventh he suddenly breaks this pattern. Had he maintained his scheme the key of the this quartet would have been E flat major. (The key chosen, F sharp minor, was only due in the twentieth quartet.) He would return to his scheme by using the key of E flat major for his Ninth Quartet and remain with it for almost forty years up until his death in 1975. Only this quartet, dedicated to his first wife but written five years after her death, would be an exception to this general rule.

Certainly the key of F sharp minor is more appropriate for bereavement than E flat major. The latter key is more associated with godliness and human heroism. Beethoven famously chose it for the Eroica Symphony and for the Emperor Concerto whilst Richard Strauss tellingly employed it in 'Ein Heldenleben'. F sharp minor is more morose. The German composer and musical theorist Johann Mattheson once wrote "F sharp minor, although it leads to great distress, nevertheless is more languid and love-sick than lethal. Moreover, it has something abandoned, singular, and misanthropic about it". It seems that for Shostakovich this choice of key for his Seventh Quartet was more important than maintaining the tonal development of his cycle of string quartets which he had begun in 1938.

It was premièred at the Leningrad Glinka Concert Hall by the Beethoven Quartet (Dmitri Tsyganov, Vasili Shirinsky, Vadim Borisovsky and Sergei Shirinsky), on May 15th, 1960. May was a month which Shostakovich associated with his first wife and their life together: he had announced his engagement to Nina Varzarin in May 1929; had married her on May 13th 1932; their first child, their daughter Galya, was born on May 30th 1936, and their only other child, their son Maxim, had been born on May 10th 1938. His quartet to her is compact and, presumably like their marriage, full of contradictory moods: the first movement being perky, agitated, but full of impish humour; the second dream-like; whilst the third, although at first violent, finally relapses into mellow contemplation.

The music in the first movement, sometimes harsh and biting, simmers with nervous energy. It opens with the first violin playing a short perky little motif starting on F sharp and ending with the same note, being played three times, first by the violin an octave lower, and then by the cello two octaves lower still. Triple notes are in abundance as the music jogs agitatedly forward. With the cello introducing a change of key to E flat major and the viola and second violin begin a series of nervous rapid pulses, which though hardly heard, gnaw at the consciousness. The sense of agitation increases when the first violin, returning to F sharp minor, begins to play pizzicato and places emphasis on some of the weaker beats. But before all this nervousness becomes oppressive the movement fades away into the restful mood of the next movement.

The three and a half minute second movement opens with a rising, then falling, four-note motif played on the muted second violin. With it we enter into a new, minimalist world which, twenty years later, Philip Glass and his factory would commercially inhabit. This world seduces through hypnosis; through the slow metamorphosis of repeated, lyrical phrases. On the fifth bar the first violin enters, and soaring an octave higher than its partner, adds a further soothing and soporific balm to the sleepiness already induced by the second violin's seductive repetitions. With a glissando on the viola from F to D flat we slip from the material world and into sleep. The first violin becomes silent and the hypnotic minimalist motif is heard again distinctly on the second violin, followed by the deeper-voiced viola recalling the soothing tune of the first violin and then the cello. Heavy and deep in sleep we can now only hear our heart beats on the doublets of the second violin and experience our deepest, subconscious thoughts, disturbing, sinister, full of remorse and nostalgic, being played out on  the viola  and the cello an octave below it. Then with the return of the first violin we gradually float back into consciousness; the heartbeats disappearing and to the minimalist motif on the viola we gradually wake. Rested but tender after this slumber we are poorly-prepared for the shock which now awaits us.

Suddenly with the commencement of the third movement we are confronted with the fortissimo yapping of an attacking dog. Then an accusatory, vitriolic canon begins waves of ferocious assaults; first from the viola, then the second violin , followed again by the viola and finally from the first violin. But these on closer inspection are just the transformations of a dream world; the barking is just the notes which started the first movement, its "perky little motif", reversed. Even the first subject of the canon bears a close resemblance to music played on the viola as we regained consciousness at the end second movement. But before the mounting intensity becomes unbearable it is abruptly terminated by the same innocent motif, subtly changed though still full of its impish humour, with which the first movement had commenced. Suddenly, miraculously, the aggravation disperses and disappears. The pace slows down by a third,  from allegro to allegretto, and we are back  to F sharp minor. The first part of the canon reappears, but with the change of pace and tonality undergoes a metamorphosis into the dream world of the previous movement, and now rendered as a waltz, intermingles with other motifs before, after a brief echo of the first movement's pizzicato, the music loses force, collapses and dies away, morendo.


Janacek - Intimate Letters:


A short video introduction to Dutilleux 'Ainsi la Nuit', which explains its structure beautifully, and might add to your enjoyment of the performance.


Bartok Sixth Quartet

Interesting article by Robert Greenberg:


Bartok Fifth Quartet

Performance by the Hungarian String Quartet (1961) along with score to read:


Janacek: biography


Janáček: Quartet No. 1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’:


Interesting lecture/performances about Benjamin Britten quartets, from Gresham College (UK):

Quartet No.2:


Quartet No.3:


Henry Purcell, arr. Benjamin Britten

Chacony in G minor for String Quartet (c. 1678, arr. 1947–8, rev. 1963)

English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695) wrote vocal and instrumental music for court, church, and theatre. While the exact year of composition of the Chacony in G minor is unknown, scholars speculate that it belongs in the repertory for the Twenty-Four Violins. As a young man, Henry Purcell obtained the post of composer for this court ensemble of strings and basso continuo. The unusual term “Chacony” identifies the composition as a chaconne involving a repeated eight-measure harmonic progression containing variations primarily in the upper three voices.

Benjamin Britten’s fascination with Purcell is evident in the extensive publications of his arrangements, editions, and realizations of the Baroque composer’s output. Although most of these collections are vocal works with piano or orchestral accompaniment, the Chacony in G minor was one of two instrumental arrangements Britten completed based on Purcell’s work. Unlike the continuo realizations in many of his vocal arrangements, the Chacony leaves no harmonic stamp of Britten’s 20th-century style. Instead, this version for string orchestra or quartet (with or without harpsichord) contains an expressive dynamic structure and modified dotted rhythms.

A link to an excellent article by Robert Greenberg, about Benjamin Britten and his Second Quartet.:


Béla Bartok - String Quartet No. 4





Prestissimo con sordino


Non troppo lento


Allegretto pizzicato


Allegro molto

In a manner often compared to Beethoven, the string quartet was absolutely central to the creative lifeblood of Béla Bartók. After an early quartet written at the age of seventeen, Bartók produced a monumental cycle of six mature quartets over a span of thirty years. Plans for a seventh quartet remained unfulfilled by his death in 1945. Uniquely among 20th century works, Bartók’s quartets have become essential to the repertoire defining an important chapter in the history of this indefatigable genre of musical thought and expression. Of the six quartets, each a distinctly individual milestone in Bartók’s evolutionary journey, the fourth is the most celebrated. The Bartók scholar Halsey Stevens wrote, “The fourth quartet comes close to being, if it does not actually represent, Bartók’s greatest and most profound achievement.”

Written between July and September of 1928, Bartók’s fourth quartet is a tour de force of sound, expression, technical innovation and formal construction. Despite the fact that Bartók was not a string player (or, perhaps, because of this), the string quartet is deployed with a battery of fresh sonic effects. It simply sounds completely different that any string quartet before it. The music prominently features sliding notes (glissando), glassy tones by bowing close to the bridge (ponticello), mutes (con sordino) plucking, strumming and slapping (pizzicato), and even striking the strings with the wood of the bow (col legno). These coloristic effects are equally matched by the novel musical content, the actual notes being played. Bartók’s musical lines undulate chromatically in a narrow compass exhaustively exploring the nuances of tiny intervals. The music is dominated by motives rather than melodies and a dense contrapuntal style of imitation and linear writing pursues these motives with obsessive, multi-threaded textures. In the outer movements in particular, Bartók celebrates harsh dissonance unabashedly. Combined with an equally powerful and disruptive rhythmic thrust, the music, definitive and occasionally violent, has a nearly overwhelming impact. This is the sonic surface of music. Beneath lies a meticulous and equally novel formal design.

Bartók’s fourth quartet is constructed using a perfectly symmetrical “arch” or “bridge” form. Its five movements comprise two sets of matching movements with the central slow movement serving as the keystone, itself a three-part form containing the dead center of the quartet. Unusually, Bartók described his own music:

“The work is in five movements; their character corresponds to Classical sonata form. The slow movement is the kernel of the work; the other movements are, as it were, arranged in layers around it. Movement IV is a free variation of II, and I and V have the same thematic material; that is, around the kernel (Movement III), metaphorically speaking, I and V are the outer, II and IV the inner layers.”

The outer movements describe a kind of bristling husk around the kernel, both movements dominated by strong dynamics, muscular rhythms and an omnipresent six-note motive subjected to numerous “classical” transformations. Curiously, the motive itself is an arch with three notes rising and three notes falling. The next layer of pairs (movements II and IV) comprises two brilliant scherzi, animated but somehow softer than the outer husk. The second movement is like muted, quicksilver Mendelssohn, if he were from outer space. The fourth movement is famously obsessed with pizzicato as if evoking a rough but meticulously coordinated band of folk guitarists. The central third movement, the kernel, is, by contrast, serene, lyrical and lonely, a nocturne suspended in an impressionistic haze punctuated by rustling and chirping, the distinctive sounds of Bartók’s “night music.”

Repeated hearings of the fourth quartet promise the listener a similar layered experience, the powerful, colorful surface yielding to inner layers of contrapuntal logic, symmetry and formal elegance. Despite its undeniable 20th century modernism, Bartók’s music eventually reveals an exquisite classicism.

Béla Bartok - String Quartet No. 3


Bartók's String Quartet No. 3 shared first prize with a quartet by Alfredo Casella at the 1927 Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia Competition. Its striking qualities could not have escaped the judges' notice. Of Bartok's six quartets, the third is the most concentrated in thematic material and structure. In this quartet, Bartók subjected folk-style themes and motifs to a technique he called "expansion in range," wherein melodic shape and intervallic relations were stretched to produce themes that develop freely without compromising musical unity. Bartók scholar Elliott Antokoletz suggests that this new approach was partly due to the Treaty of Trianon, signed in 1920 by the Allied forces and Hungary. The Treaty's punitive partition of Hungary effectively moved much of Bartók's folk-music hunting grounds outside the borders of Hungary (which in fact lost two-thirds of its land and population under the Trianon terms). With his primary source cut off, Bartók integrated folk material into a more cosmopolitan style, such as he had encountered during his tours of post-war Europe.

The String Quartet No. 3 is in a single movement, lasting a little more than a quarter of an hour. It is divided into two main parts, marked respectively Moderato and Allegro, plus a recapitulation of the first part and a short coda that reprises material from the second part. While the structural integration is inherited from Liszt's Piano Sonata in B minor, the contrapuntal technique is a legacy from the late string quartets of Beethoven. The "Prima parte" begins with a short-breathed parlando-style theme on violin over a tightly-spaced, dissonant chord centered around C sharp. The mood is desolate, though the folk-like themes are clear and immediately comprehensible. Subsequent development extends the short motives in length and explores tightly integrated counterpoint in increasingly arduous rhetoric. A technical feature that will grow into an important dramatic device first appears here; glissandi that function as stylized portamenti add an inquisitive quality to the proceedings.

A return of the initial parlando motif, now on the cello, launches the "Seconda parte" where the folk-like material drives the proceedings into a wild episodic dance. Here Bartók employs unusual techniques that would subsequently become regular features of his string writing, including sul ponticello (playing close to the bridge), jeté (bouncing the bow off the strings), col legno (playing with the wood of the bow), and the so-called "Bartók pizzicato," in which the string snaps back audibly on the fingerboard. Bartók uses these devices for more than color; they underscore the expression of the movement's high spirits and punctuate the proceedings in a percussive way. Toward the end of the second part there is a nervous fugato that is brought to a full stop by a series of glissando chords, followed by a vigorous stretto of double and triple-stopped chords. The recapitulation of the first part is, if anything, even more desolate than the original, with a Pierrot-like sadness created by the glissandi, which recur like question marks. A tender lament from the violin leads to an anguished outcry of dissonant chords before the coda swirls in, ghostly and fugitive at first, then with full force and vigor. Some precipitous, downward swooping glissandi in the lower strings lead to a fierce stretto on the first violin in primitive open fifths. Brutal chords end the work brusquely.

© All Music Guide

Debussy String Quartet

Debussy began work on the composition of his only string quartet in 1892. Little documentary evidence, save for one or two passing oblique references in letters to friends remains to indicate his rate of progress. The final movement, however, caused him no little trouble, and only in August 1893 did Debussy feel able to write to his colleague André Poniatowski that "I think I can finally show you the last movement of the quartet, which has made me really miserable!"

Cast in the traditional four movements, Debussy's Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 has as its most distinctive feature its overarching preoccupation with timbre and sonority. The work as a whole offers a compendium of string-playing techniques, yet it also displays a concision of thought rare, perhaps, in a composition often regarded (along with the quarte by Ravel) as one of the seminal impressionist works in the string quartet genre.

Its fascinating and readily palpable thematic concentration seems all the more remarkable when one realizes that the very first theme of the opening movement (Animé et très décidé) comes to furnish almost all of the diverse thematic components for the entire work. Another ingenious feature (possibly less immediately apparent to the listener at first hearing) is that the quartet is less dominated by melodic or harmonic considerations than by a rhythmic flexibility which carries the potential for seemingly endless variety. In this respect, Debussy's string quartet seems to strongly prefigure those by Bartók. Yet it remains unmistakably a work dominated by the sensuality and longueurs of French late nineteenth century Romanticism, a strong feature of the slow third movement (Andantino doucement expressif).

The work is also strongly predictive of the disjunctive and highly polarized new musical language that would assert itself in the two decades following its completion. The Scherzo (Assez vif et bien rythmé), for example, makes use of the disruptive sonic confrontations that can occur when rapidly alternating pizzicato and bowed passages produce what one commentator has described as "a confusion that forces the listener to concentrate on the textures, rather than the linear form of the music." These apparently disparate elements are then welded together in a finale of striking economy of means, and only at the close does it become really clear that the opening gestures of the work have actually altered themselves and coalesced to produce an organic unity of some 25 minutes' duration.

The work was to be dedicated to Ernest Chausson, whose personal reservations eventually diverted the composer's original intentions. Debussy sold his score for a mere 250 francs to the publishers Durand & Cie, who, as he later recalled, "were cynical enough about it to freely admit that what they were paying me didn't cover all the labor this 'work' has entailed." Not surprisingly, the quartet was widely misunderstood at its premiere, given by the Ysayë Quartet on December 29, 1893. At the time, the composer Guy Ropartz was the lone voice in a wilderness of critical lack of interest; he described the quartet as a work "dominated by the influence of young Russia (interestingly, Debussy's patroness in the early 1880s had been Nadezhda von Meck, better known for her support of Tchaikovsky); there are poetic themes, rare sonorities, the first two movements being particularly remarkable."

© All Music Guide

Béla Bartok - String Quartet No. 2


Bartók was living in seclusion outside Budapest during the years of the First World War, and some of this isolation may have made its way into his String Quartet No. 2, which was composed between 1915 and 1917. Nevertheless, unlike its predecessor, this quartet is possessed of a classical detachment and Apollonian poise that sets it apart from the intense emotionality of Bartók's pre-war compositions.

The second quartet is in three movements, an Allegro molto capriccioso framed by two slow movements, marked Moderato and Lento, a disposition that seems to anticipate the arch forms that would later fascinate the composer. The first movement opens with soft murmuring from second violin and viola on the close interval of the minor second; major and minor seconds will play an important role throughout in the harmonic profile of the work. The main theme is pensive, a rising fillip on an augmented fourth setting the unsettled tone. As in other works from the era, especially the yet-to-come violin sonatas, Bartók here approaches a type of atonality, a "pseudo-atonality" that is partly a function of his radical, harmonically advanced polyphony, wherein melodies that have clear and easily comprehended shapes intertwine with each other in ways that produce great intervallic and harmonic tensions; yet these same processes also yield gem-like moments of diatonic triads, all the more beautiful for their rarity. A moment of exquisite and limpid beauty occurs midway through when a folk-like theme emerges from the polyphony, accompanied with music of Ravelian refinement; after a more serious development section, this theme returns, its triple time gently counterbalanced by double-time pizzicato chords that suggest the strumming of a guitar.

By contrast, the second movement is wild and driving. Its main theme, a relentless ostinato emphasizing the minor third, is evocative of the primitive Arabian tunes Bartók had heard and collected in North Africa a few years previously (Biskra, 1913). The accompaniment is even more primitive, a one-note ostinato punctuated by pizzicato notes, giving the effect of Arabian drumming. Although the near-claustrophobic quality of the music's limited scale gives it a grim sound, the treatment is clearly playful. Midway there is a slower section, a sort of diffident serenade that quickly gives way to a return of the driving main theme, which is subjected to increasing expansion and variation within a rondo-like structure. The coda is fast and light, swirling through briefly and then disappearing.

Where the opening moderato is perhaps the most sonically ravishing music Bartók ever wrote, the concluding Lento is the strangest and most desolate. The instruments do not so much play themes or motives as muse on fragments of themes, more intervallic phrases than melodies, like unrelenting sighs uttered in a landscape of despairing major and minor seconds. The material slowly coalesces into longer shapes as the movement proceeds, but cannot sustain any lengthy argument; after a brief but intense chordal climax, the music sinks back into the Slough of Despond from which it emerged: there are a few more sighs, then two quiet pizzicato notes from the cello draw the curtain.

© All Music Guide



György Ligeti - String Quartet No. 1, “Métamorphoses Nocturnes”


About the Composer

Jewish-born Ligeti survived the Second World War through sheer luck. He grew up in what was, at the time, Romanian Transylvania; however, his birthplace, Dicsőszentmárton, and his subsequent home of Kolozsvár both became part of Hungary when the Nazis began to close their merciless grip on Central and Eastern Europe. Although Hungarian Jews lived in relative safety for the majority of the war, the SS was brought in to radicalize the natives after the Nazis discovered rumors of an allegiance with the Allies. Thousands of Hungarian Jews were deported to their deaths, including Ligeti’s father and brother. Although he was working in a Jewish labor battalion, Ligeti had been billeted out of harm’s way. After the war, he returned to Kolozsvár to find his parents’ home occupied by strangers. Ultimately rejecting the brutality of the Communist forces, Ligeti left for the West. Rather than embrace the austerity of postwar musical serialism, Ligeti remained a beguiling paradox. He rejoiced in the diversity of his music, and his curiosity for new sound and textures survived through the various chapters of his life.

About the Work

Ligeti’s first composition sketchbook, begun when he was 16, opens with an Adagio, ostensibly written for string quartet. Turning the page, however, we discover that Ligeti’s ambitions had gotten the better of him, and the work blooms into a bold orchestral piece. It wasn’t until 1953 that Ligeti turned to the string quartet proper. Having settled in Budapest, he explored the culture that the Nazis had banned or discarded. He read Thomas Mann and Theodor Adorno, and listened to Schoenberg’s music. Ligeti was awestruck, but his admiration undermined several attempts to start new work. He began composing in earnest in October 1953 on his First String Quartet. He later called the work “Métamorphoses Nocturnes” when he submitted it for the Queen Elizabeth International Music Competition of Belgium.

A Closer Listen

The work that Ligeti completed in 1954 has none of the hesitancy indicated in his stuttering manuscripts. Ligeti develops the music from a very basic four-note pattern. Like Beethoven’s own expansion of small motifs, Ligeti builds his one-movement work from this initial idea. Using the string quartet’s full breadth of textures and effects—and taking his lead from Bartók’s vibrant idiom—Ligeti demonstrates immediate proficiency with the form. Much like Berg’s Lyric Suite, which influenced Ligeti, the material is developed through various contrasting tempos. Transparent and almost evasive, these nocturnal variations echo the private nature of the genre, but also the string quartet’s formal exactitude, as fashioned by Beethoven and his peers.

—Gavin Plumley © 2010 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Bela Bartok - String Quartet No.1, Op.7

On the 17th March 1910, the young Hungarian pianist Bela Bartok performed with the Waldbauer-Kerpely String Quartet at an all-Kodaly concert in Budapest. Two days later, Bartok's own First Quartet received its premiere. These two concerts have been called "the double birthday of Hungarian Music", and perhaps no one work exemplifies why this should be so more clearly than this First Quartet of Bela Bartok. Bartok and Kodaly were by no means Hungary's first, or even most prominent, internationally recognised composers, and Hungary was by no stretch of the imagination a musical backwater. Budapest was the second capital of a flourishing empire; its opera house had enjoyed such directors as Mahler and Nikisch, and the composer-pianist Erno Dohnanyi was internationally recognised as the successor to the most celebrated of all Hungarian musicians, Franz Liszt. But this premiere in 1910 has a special significance. It marked the public emergence of Kodaly and Bartok as a new kind of Hungarian composer, collectors of authentic national folk-music and educators informed by its spirit. It began Bartok's lifelong exploration of the musical form in which he was to become the most original, expressive master since Beethoven - the string quartet. And for Bartok himself, it marked an arrival at artistic and emotional maturity. In 1908, shortly before he commenced writing the First Quartet, he had broken off a profound relationship with the violinist Stefi Geyer. He called the lamenting first movement of the Quartet his "funeral dirge" for their love.

Bartok's First Quartet, then, was a work of both personal and artistic significance. It does not represent Bartok's mature quartet style in all its intensity, classicism and dazzling colour, but it does give us a moving portrasit of a young genius striving towards, and joyfully finding, his own creative voice - and a shy, serious man candidly expressing deep emotion. The Quartet's unusual form reflects this - three progressively faster movements, played without a break. The first movement is a searching, tortuously chromatic Lento, expressive after the manner of Wagner, or the Schoenberg of Verklarte Nacht. This was the received musical language of turn-of-the-century Central Europe, and Bartok had already shown himself its master in such works as the symphonic poem Kossuth (1903). The movement opens in the form of a canon; a more declamatory central section over a grinding 'cello drone-bass is the first taste of the visceral, earthy expressiveness so characteristic of the later Bartok quartets. The opening canon returns in a higher register and the movement dies away into the central Allegretto. This opens in the style of a highly chromatic, rather Brahmsian waltz, but develops in sonata form rather than the expected scherzo & trio layout. Rather than relaxing, then, the quartet continues to develop and evolve, and is final destination becomes apparent as the Allegretto ends. A tiny semitone quaver figure becomes more and more prominent, and eventually emerges as the "cell" from which the entire finale has been built. Linking the Allegretto and the final Allegro vivace is an instrumental recitative, a question-and-answer exchange between tempo giusto violins and rubato parlando 'cello which evokes Beethoven's famous instrumental dialogue in the Ninth Symphony. Bartok's final answer to the question is very different from Beethoven's, but no less personally significant. The Allegro vivace proper is an explosively rhythmic, high-speed Hungarian folk-dance finale, its dissonant ostinato-figures, and fantastic, dancing central fugato the first fully-integrated examples of the techniques and styles at the heart of Bartok's later quartet writing. The effect is of energy finally released, an artistic arrival.

Kodaly, Bartok's lifelong friend, described the First Quartet as "an intimate drama, a kind of 'return to life' of one who has reached the brink of the abyss". We can hear in it not only a programmatic depiction of an emotional journey from sorrow to joyful energy, but also an artistic voyage from Central European mainstream to vigorous assertion of originality and stylistic freedom. This profoundly optimistic programme, of a journey from despair to joyous life-assertion, from severity to freedom, would remain central to Bartok's music until the very end of his life. But as Kodaly wrote of this quartet, Bartok's music "does not need a programme, so clearly does it express itself". 

R.G.Bratby 1998

Explore the six string quartets of Bela Bartók through the vision of the Emerson String Quartet in this amalgamation of video footage, written commentary, and animated score. This site is intended for performers who are preparing these pieces as well as listeners and concertgoers who wish to learn more about the Bartók quartets and about the many musical decisions that must be made in order to perform these demanding works.


Shostakovich String Quartet No. 1:


R. Murray Schafer - String Quartet No. 1

Note by Schafer:

My first string quartet was commissioned by the Purcell Quartet of Vancouver in 1970. I really didn’t want to write a quartet at that time, considering the medium passé. I recall leaving the composition until the very last moment, when I shut myself in my brother’s apartment in Toronto while he was on vacation, and wrote furiously, completing the work in about a week. The quartet is in one movement though there are well-defined sections. It is based on a series, though not a twelve-note

series, rather a chromatic scale which gradually opens to introduce other intervals. The chromatic chord of the opening defines the first section. It is as if the players are locked together, trying frantically to break free. Finally freedom is achieved by the second violin, introducing the second section, a quiet and open-interval melody played by the first violin with

slowly shifting chords played by the other three instruments. A phase-shifting pizzicato section leads to a long arching refrain in unison and octaves played by all the instruments. It begins very slowly and quietly, then gradually increases in tempo and intensity until it reaches a fury that explodes into the opening chromatic cluster again. The final section is a recapitulation of all the preceding material, now in fragments, signalled by irregular snaps on the cello. At the end, the cello snaps are

followed by periods of silence, as if the “camera” goes on clicking even though the “film” has run out.