String Quartet No. 4 (Bartók)

String Quartet No. 4 (Bartók)

The "String Quartet No. 4" by Béla Bartók was written from July to September, 1927 in Budapest.

The work is in five movements:

#"Prestissimo, con sordino"
#"Non troppo lento"
#"Allegretto pizzicato"
#"Allegro molto"

This work, like the "String Quartet No. 5", and several other pieces by Bartók, is in a so-called "arch" structure - the first movement is thematically related to the last, and the second to the fourth with the third movement standing alone. Also, the outer four movements feature rhythmic sforzandos that cyclically tie them together in terms of climatic areas. The playing time for the movements are [generally] 5, 2, 5, 2, 5 minutes respectively, a display of the mathematical logic behind this quartet.

The quartet employs a similar harmonic language to that of the "String Quartet No. 3", and as with that work, it has been suggested that Bartók was influenced in his writing by Alban Berg's "Lyric Suite" (1926) which he had heard in 1927.

The quartet employs a number of extended instrumental techniques; for the whole of the second movement all four instruments are played with mutes, while the entire fourth movement is played pizzicato. In the third movement, Bartók sometimes indicates held notes to be played without vibrato, and in various places he asks for glissandi (sliding from one note to another) and so-called "Bartók pizzicati" (a pizzicato where the string rebounds against the instrument's fingerboard).

The work is dedicated to the Pro Arte Quartet but the first public performance of the work was given by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet in Budapest on March 20, 1929. It was first published in the same year by Universal Edition.


Bartók can be analyzed a number of different ways; the two most popular would be analysis through traditional western music or analysis through Bartók’s research into folk music. Bartók’s music, particularly the String Quartets, departs from traditional use of major and minor keys, instead focusing more on the chromatic scale and attempting to utilize each note equally, similar to the twelve-tone scale. Regardless, Bartók doesn’t follow any set theory – there is some degree of method to his composition as much as there is a random element.

Bartók was always fascinated with mathematics and how it pertained to music. He extensively used whole-tone, pentatonic, and heptatonia seconda scales; the use of these scales was heavily by his interest and exploration in folk music. He extensively researched folk music by exploring the Hungarian countryside and Eastern and Central Europe and incorporated his research into his music. Bartók also experimented with incorporating the golden section and the Fibonacci sequence into his writing; this isn’t immediately present in String Quartet No. 4. He did incorporate symmetrical structures into this piece, however; Movements I & V and Movements II & IV are similar. Movement III is at center, in contrast to the other movements.

Movements I and V have similar motifs; the second theme in the first movement is prominent in the fifth movement. Movements II and IV share similar ideas as well, but the ideas present within these two movements can be considered variations on themes presented earlier, expanding and building on ideas presented in the first and fifth movements. Movement III differs from the other four movements in that it’s textured and quiet.

The symmetry of the movements isn’t only limited to the themes present in the music; the lengths of the movements show symmetry between movements. The first, third and fifth movements are 6 minutes long, where as the second and fourth are shorter, at about 3 minutes long.

Movement I: "Allegro"

Movement I utilizes whole-tone elements. It isn’t necessarily tonal, though it is centered around ‘C’. The movement gradually progresses from cluster-like elements to full chords. This, in part, helps with building tension through the movement’s six minutes.

Movement II: "Prestissimo, con sordino"

The piece’s second movement moves quicker than the first, giving off a hurried feeling. The chromatic scale is widely utilized, starting off in the lower registers and being answered in higher registers. Fast scales, trills, vibrato are all utilized in order to add color and texture to the piece. The pentatonic scale is present and apparent throughout the piece. Additionally, the strings are used to produce horn-like and percussive sounds.

Movement III: "Non troppo lento"

The third movement includes a great example of Bartók's night music style. It completely departs from the first two movements in that it is more harmonious. The piece widely uses diatonic elements and contains many folk-like elements. Usage of the pentatonic scale is more apparent throughout the piece. The piece is more drawn out, a stark contrast to the first two movements.

Movement IV: "Allegretto pizzicato"

The fourth movement is similar to the second movement: it is faster that the previous movement (Mov. II is faster that Mov I; this movement is faster than Mov. III) and instills the same hurried feeling. The entire piece is played pizzicato – that is, single notes, double stops, etc. The piece doesn’t necessarily stick by the chromatic scale; it stays diatonic, possibly in order to incorporate folk elements into the piece – diatonics are used more frequently. Staying symmetrical, the piece references and builds on ideas in Movement II. Bartók also utilizes “his” pizzicato throughout the movement; the “Bartók” pizzicato requires plucking the stringed instrument aggressively which results in the string rebounding off the fingerboard and creating a slapping, “twangy” sound.

Movement V: "Allegro molto"

The piece’s final movement mirrors the first. The second theme in the first movement is widely used. The randomly accentuated quarter notes are reminiscent of Stravinsky, sounding percussive and horn-like more than strings. Inversions and retrogrades of the theme are heard throughout this piece, utilized in different octaves. Overall, the fifth movement is more liberal in using variations of themes present in the first movement.

External links

* [ An Analysis of the first movement of the Fourth String Quartet (1928)] by Andrew Kuster
*IMSLP2|id=String_Quartet_No.4%2C_Sz.91_%28Bart%C3%B3k%2C_B%C3%A9la%29|cname=String Quartet No. 4

Further reading

*Leo Treitler, "Harmonic procedure in the Fourth Quartet of Bartók" in the "Journal of Music Theory" (November 1959)

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