The wind, the wind, the heaven-born wind – you probably recognize that. It’s Hänsel and Gretel’s answer to the witch’s question: “Nibble, nibble, gnaw, who’s nibbling at my little house?” This string quartet is like the wind, or rather it is a whisper murmured into the wind, not meant to stay, meant to be blown away. Is it a lamentation? A silent prayer? A half-audible thought? A drawn-out sob about a sad reminiscence?
Square or flowing?
In 1908/09 the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok wrote his String Quartet No. 1 (BB 52, op. 7). It was not his first string quartet: two quartets composed in 1896 are considered lost, Bartok wrote another one without any number in 1898. It marks a transition from one style to another. It has elements of the late Romanticist era and phrases borrowed from Hungarian peasant’s music. When I first listened to String Quartet No. 1, recorded by the Emerson String Quartet, and thought about presenting it on this blog, jotted down a few keywords: square, harmony, bulky, a challenge.
How different I feel about it now! A challenge, yes, to a certain degree. Its architecture defies the traditional structure of a quartet, its harmonies are unusual, but if your ears are accustomed to Franz Schubert’s and Dmitry Shostakovich’s chamber music, Bartok’s piece is no longer a mystery. The first movement is slow, the second faster, the last even faster. An unusual arrangement, but none if the movements sounds square or bulky, the piece is surprisingly coherent, it flows like a veil in a stiffening breeze.
Tap the body of that cello!
The beginning of the first movement expresses an enchanting fragility, an intimate vulnerability exposed to the public. Halfway through the movement you will experience a dark moment, the cello takes a threatening stance, but darkness quickly dissipates. The second movements starts on a neutral mood, a friendly chat, it evolves into a first heated exchange, then peace returns. A percussion-like sound takes up that previous punctured-note theme of the cello. Tapping on the body of the cello – can you do that? Yes, you can, if it expresses what you want to express: the hint of something violent. The beginning of the third movement is loaded with energy, the violins set the mood, confirmed by the cello, fast paced, disturbing, insisting. The momentum is maintained up to the end. What started as a whisper ends as a cry.
A very special piece of music. It will be blown away by the wind, but you will not forget the emotion it triggered.
© Charles Thibo