Posted in Project 1: Sonata Form

Research point 5.1, Part B: Sonata form in Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 (1928)

Continuing on from the previous post, where I outlined Bartok’s biography, this post will focus on his personal interpretation of the sonata form in the first movement of his String Quartet No. 4 (1928). I also listened to Bartok’s other quartets, which are included in my listening log here.

As I have outlined in Part A, Bartok’s music is known for its unique absorption of a broad range of seemingly disparate musical paradigms, including traditional Hungarian folk music, as well as the more objective procedures of modernism. His series of six string quartets, which constitute one of his most significant achievements in the eyes of critics and scholars, reflect Bartok’s eclectic compositional interests, stretching from some being more Romantic and folk-influenced to others that are more modernist in their use of ‘palindromes’ and ‘polymodal chromaticism’, which I wrote about in Part A. His String Quartet No. 4 belongs to the latter category structured like a mirror or arch in which the stand-alone third movement is surrounded by the thematically-related second/third and outer first/fifth movements – altogether forming the palindrome pattern. Furthermore, this quartet contains intensive use of dissonance, which was influenced by Berg’s Lyric Suite (1926), but rather than fully abandon tonality as the composers of the second Viennese School, the chromaticism is re-structured in relation to Stravinsky’s ‘poles of attraction’ resulting in Bartok’s unique polymodal chromaticism.

Centering my discussion now on the first movement of the composition, it represents a modernist re-working of the Classical sonata form. To this end, while the main divisions follow the traditional exposition-development-recapitulation structure, the harmonic and motivic features are distinctly modernist in an almost aggressive, dissonant polyphonic weaving of phrases with coloristic effects that are often extended techniques for the string quartet. It is interesting that the shapes of notation themselves seem very conventional, however, the tonic functions are not literal, but analogical – so that the tonic-dominant polarity of the Classical sonata is reframed into Stravinsky-like poles of C-F# and Eb-A. Similarly while horizontally, the first movement is characterized by chromatic/octatonic motifs, the vertical, harmonic structures, defined by superimposed major 2nd/9th, result in the whole tone scale. As such, the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the piece function separately.

The exposition (bars 1-49) begins with the declamatory primary section in forte (bars 1-13), which I will defer from calling a theme, because the music is rather motivic than truly thematic. It can be divided into four smaller phrases. The first (bars 1-2) opens with a free, three-part counterpoint, which introduces the vertical whole-tone space through major 9ths, as well as the “tonic” axis of C-F# grounded in the opening C of the cello, with ambiguity stemming from the appearances of both major and minor triad of E and Eb (Fig. 1). The overall shape is one of contrary motion, in contraction.

Fig. 1. First contracting phrase of the primary section (bars 1-2)

The second phrase (bars 3-4) seems to “answer” the first, similar to a conventional period of antecedent and consequent, through an opposition that implies the “dominant” function. The tonal axis is of Eb-A, while the overall shape contrasts the first phrase through expansion (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Second expanding phrase of the primary section (bars 3-4)

The third phrase (bars 5-7) revolves around C-F# axis and instigates an imitative texture within narrow intervallic scopes, with voices entering in a canon-like succession, which results in harsh and dense chromatic clusters (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Imitative chromatic clusters (bars 5-6)

The longer fourth phrase (bars 8-13), maintaining the C-F# pole and the imitative texture of the third phrase, represents a rhythmic retrograde of the latter with the addition of irregular accents – it also seems to “answer” the previous phrase, forming another period. The conclusion of the final phrase with stretto-like texture is analogous to me to a perfect cadence in the clarity with which it signals the end of the section.

The transition (bars 14-29) can be divided into two phrases. The first (bars 14-26) is based around the soft, pianissimo “tonic” pedal ostinatos of the C-F# axis, which make the section sound much calmer and more static with an extension of contrapuntal and imitative textures. This part also contains the octatonic scale, rather than complete chromaticism, providing a nice contrast to the primary section in the Eastern sounding, quasi-Hungarian phrases that are much more melodic than the former. I also found the appearance of harmonics very interesting (Fig. 4), with their timbral qualities providing a real refreshment to the traditional string quartet. The polyphonic weaving of unpredictable phrase lengths also maintained my interest here.

Fig. 4. Harmonics in the first phrase of the transition (bars 14-15)

Thereon, after a sudden crescendo, the second part of the transition starts in forte (bars 27-29) and recalls the forceful and chromatic cadential segment of the fourth phrase in the primary section (bars 11-13), leading the tonality into the “dominant” pole of Eb-A through rapidly ascending, intense marcato notes.

The second section (bars 30-49), analogous to the classical sonata, is set in the “dominant” Eb-A axis, leaving the “tonic” C-F# harmonic region of the first section. Though still somewhat forceful in the forte dynamics, it is markedly different from the mainly motivic and declamatory character of the primary section. Instead, I found it more thematic with whole-tone scale used melodically, in other words not purely vertically, but also horizontally for the first time. The texture remains polyphonic, often at the distance of major 9th introduced since the beginning, now with the addition of inversions (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Inversions in the second section (bars 30-31)

I believe the section can be divided into two phrases that form a period (bars 30-32 and 33-43), while I would classify the rest as the closing section (bars 44-50), especially since bars 47-48 reminds me of the long trill that the classical sonatas usually contain in their closing groups (Fig. 6). Though I would mention that it was hard to find a precise division of this section, because of the motivic and not clearly thematic nature of the musical material, plus the phrases themselves often seem to run-off into one another.

Fig. 6. Trill-like segment of the closing section (bars 47-48)

Finally, I really enjoyed the saturated sonority of the double and triple stopping in all string parts (Fig. 7), another technique I haven’t encountered in traditional quartets.

Fig. 7. Triple-stopping in the second section (bars 37-38)

Since the traditional tonality has been jettisoned in the piece, the development section (bars 50-92) mainly relies on exploring the textural possibilities of the previous material. These include the glissandos in contrary motion, both in contraction and expansion (Fig. 8) that were introduced in primary section, evolved in some parts to even happen simultaneously, then the pianissimo 32nd notes (Fig. 9) that create a unique, echo-like backdrop for the octatonic phrases of the transition and second section, as well as the dense clusters (Fig. 10) being pushed to their limits with unpredictable rhythms that reminded me of Sacrificial dance in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In a peculiar way, I consider the latter to be analogous to the pedal point in the traditional retransition before a closing “dominant chord” (bars 92-93), preparing the listener for recapitulation. I found this reinterpretation of the classical pedal point very innovative and effective.

Fig. 8. Glissandos in contrary motion in the development section (bar 51)

Fig. 9. Echo-like backdrop of pianissimo 32nd notes in the development section (bar 60)

Fig. 10. Dense clusters with Stravinsky-like rhythms (bar 83)

Finally, the recapitulation (bars 93) is very traditional in the way it re-introduces the material from the exposition in order, though the sections are modified to maintain interest. Moreover, analogous to the classical sonata form, the second section remains in the “tonic” C-F# axis after the transition. The closing group of the section is also developed into a full coda (bars 127-161) that concludes the first movement in a very emphatic manner, as if turning the movement’s harsh intensity of dissonances and rhythmic thrust into a final bristling celebration.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed exploring the way Bartok reconfigured the traditional sonata form in this quartet. What I found particularly poignant is the way the conventional order of sections, as well as the overall shapes, for instance the tonic/dominant relationship, cadential segments or the pedal point, are still nested into the composer’s own modernist tonal language and his writing of dense, violent dissonances, multi-threaded polyphonic textures and innovative coloristic effects. As such, in my opinion, despite removing the classical sonorities of tonality, the first movement of Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4 demonstrates how the formal design of the classical sonata form is flexible enough to still offer space for modern composers to challenge the conventional sonic structures. Finally, certain ideas such as the polymodal chromaticism, asymmetrical rhythms, extended string techniques, exhaustive exploration of tiny intervals, dense dissonances used contrapuntally, and the way the horizontal and vertical structures function independently, are all devices from this piece that I would like to carry over into my own compositions.

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