"Six String Quartets"
1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die
In the chronological scheme of things, Béla Bartók technically came after the end of the Romantic Period in classical music. His music conjures up romantic (as in, fairy tales and lore, not romance) thoughts at an even keel with Tchaikovsky and other members of the era. Bartók is so romantic that musicologists came up with the term "post-Romantic" to describe him, just so that they wouldn't have to alter the neat time frames in which classical eras are stored. Bartók is a world away from "The Nutcracker," however during his six string quartets, written between 1908 and 1939. The Hungarian composer evokes the Brothers Grimm; not the shiny versions popular of Western culture but the original, and frequently terrifying model. The reasons are plenty.
First of all is the obvious minor keys used throughout. Picky critics will argue that Bartók dabbles in between keys through his use of the diatonic scale, but the argument is largely moot. If you listen to these quartets, you will not feel uplifted. The composer himself gave testament to the nature of the works. He wrote that the final movement of String Quartet No. 6 was originally to be a grand finale, but changed his mind after the death of his mother. He also described the "Lento" movement from No. 1 as a "funeral dirge" to his crush, violinist Stefi Geyer. So the mood is dark. Now to add the romantic elements.
Bartók is renowned as an early proponent of ethnomusicology, or incorporating traditional and cultural music into modern fare. He turned to the folk music of Bulgaria and Transylvania for inspiration and, as anyone familiar with vampire mythology is aware, Bulgaria and Transylvania probably does not have very upbeat folk music and/or tales. The inspiration is evident in No. 5, when he uses a 9/8 time signature, one popular in Bulgarian music, for movements 2-4. The pattern, unusual compared to standard signatures, creates an uncomfortable feeling of dissonance.
The quartets also play out like the soundtrack to a horror film. For quartet No. 4, the best of the lot, the rapid changes in pace between movements seem to follow a plot all of their own. In the middle, the "Non Trappo Lento" movement is an example of the "night music" style that Bartók is known for: a singular melody in minor key, reminiscent of a lone walker in a dark forest. The closing movement, "Allegro Molto," is the most intense moment on the disc, with looming violins and counterpoint opening a drastic change in pace that would serve as a perfect chase scene song.
Perhaps my favorite part about Bartók is his use of non-traditional techniques on the violin, which can also add a unnatural feel to the music. There's the classic glissandi (essentially like a guitar slide, but on a violin) for a "descending spider" effect, and also pizzicato, a method that some even name after the composer. Pizzicato is the action of plucking a violin string so aggressively that the string slaps the neck and creates a "hand-clap" percussive sound.
I apologize to all of those who feel that I've relegated Bartók to the role of a good film-score composer. But there can be little doubt that his work influenced classic horror-film composers like James Bernard. His influence is still felt in modern film as well; I would advise checking out the score from "There Will Be Blood" by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood for a reference point. Bartók is one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, and he'll always have a place in the hearts of those living in a minor key.
INTERESTING FACT: Bartók wasn't messing around when he looked to traditional folk music as an inspiration. He strapped a gramophone to a donkey in order to properly record music in the villages of mountainous Bulgaria.